Parmesan is one of the most popular cheeses when it comes to cooking. But if you’ve ever needed to substitute it for a recipe, you might’ve caught the name Pecorino Romano as a viable substitute along with a few other options.
In reality, certain dishes that call for Parmigiano Reggiano were initially cooked with Pecorino Romano (and still are today). And while the comparisons between the two are nigh-inescapable, both Pecorino Romano and Parmigiano Reggiano deserve a bit more respect than that, considering they’re still distinctly their own things, regardless of what the similarities between them are.
Have you used Pecorino Romano in the kitchen before? If not, you might want to rectify that immediately. Let’s break down why.
What is Pecorino Romano?
Pecorino Romano is an ancient traditional Italian hard cheese. According to various historical accounts, it was created in Roman Campagna over 2,000 years ago (mentions of sheep’s milk cheese can be found in works of old Latin authors, such as Varro). But wait, you may say, how do we know that sheep milk cheese was Pecorino Romano? Well, Pecorino literally means “of sheep” in Italian, so Pecorino Romano is simply “Roman sheep’s cheese.”
Pecorino Romano has been granted the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status by the EU, which means it can only be manufactured in strictly designated areas, using strictly controlled ingredients, and following strictly controlled instructions. Ensuring the PDO is safeguarded during the manufacturing process is up to Consorzio per la Tutela del Formaggio Pecorino Romano (The Consortium for the Protection of Pecorino Romano Cheese) which was first established in 1979 to oversee the production and trade processes of the cheese.
The designated areas for Pecorino Romano production are Lazio, where it first originated, Sardinia, where most of the production has moved nowadays, and the province of Grosseto in Tuscany. While the sheep breed isn’t strictly regulated, the way they’re bred and fed is. The sheep must be bred in the wild and fed a natural grass and hay diet for the milk to be considered suitable for Pecorino production.
Pecorino Romano varies in color from bright white to pale yellow, getting darker as it matures. It’s aged for no less than 5 months, and during that time, it develops a smooth and thin natural rind, as well as the signature hard and crumbly texture. Pecorino Romano is considered one of Grana cheeses, a granular cheese that’s most often used grated or shredded.
That said, compared to most other Grana cheeses, the Pecorino Romano texture remains very rich and somewhat buttery due to the base ingredient: sheep milk. As sheep’s milk contains a very high amount of butterfat, the cheeses made with it tend to maintain a fatty texture even as they age and lose moisture.
What Does Pecorino Romano Cheese Taste Like?
Pecorino Romano has a vibrant and multilayered flavor. The first thing you notice when you bite into it is a sharp saltiness that overwhelms all else in the first few seconds. But once you give your palate a few moments to adjust, you’ll notice that saltiness grows into complex savoriness with strong nutty notes.
As is characteristic of all cheese made from sheep’s milk, it has a layer of grassiness and earthy undertones, which become more pronounced the further the cheese is aged.
Altogether, the Pecorino Romano flavor is very robust and distinct, hard to overpower with other ingredients. For this reason, it’s often used either as a primary flavoring element or as a topping in complex dishes with multiple components.
Pecorino Romano vs. Parmigiano Reggiano: Why Does Everyone Compare Them and Are They Really Similar?
There are, without doubt, certain similarities between Pecorino Romano cheese and Parmigiano Reggiano. Both are traditional Italian hard cheese; both are classified as Grana cheese; both are lauded for their sharp and robust flavor, and both are commonly shredded and generously used as a flavoring ingredient in traditional Italian recipes.
Frankly speaking, that last part might have played a rather large role in the two becoming strongly associated as a substitute for one another. If you’re into Italian Cuisine, you might’ve noticed that most recipes allow a bit of leeway with their choice of cheese. Parmesan is often the default option when the dish requires hard cheese, but the author usually allows for it to be substituted for Grana Padano or Pecorino Romano as if they’re interchangeable.
And they are, to a certain extent. But make no mistake, substituting Parmigiano Reggiano for Pecorino Romano and vice versa will influence the flavor of your dish and give it a distinct spin. Yes, these cheeses can be used instead of one another, but they each boast several specific characteristics that set them apart.
- The Ingredients
The first glaring difference is, of course, the milk each of them is made with. Parmigiano Reggiano is made with cow’s milk, while Pecorino Romano is made with 100% sheep’s milk. As both have PDO status and separate Consortiums control the production process for each, the base cannot be altered.
While both are Grana cheeses and have hard, granular, and crumbly textures, there are still specific differences between the two. Pecorino Romano is slightly softer, and it’s more buttery, resulting from being made with sheep’s milk that’s higher in butterfat. In contrast, Parmigiano Reggiano's texture is supposed to be rock solid and fully dry, with a slight crunchiness from cheese crystals.
Pecorino Romano tends to be paler than Parmigiano Reggiano, even though there might be some overlap at certain stages of maturation. The more mature Pecorino Romano, aged up to 8 months, may have a somewhat similar appearance to a younger Parmigiano Reggiano. Overall, the color range of Pecorino Romano ranges from creamy white to pale yellow, while Parmigiano Reggiano starts at pale straw yellow and gets a darker golden hue the more it’s aged.
Last but certainly not least, both Pecorino Romano and Parmigiano Reggiano boast very distinct flavors that are hard to mistake for one another once your palate gets used to them. Pecorino Romano is saltier, sharper, and has a distinct grassiness and earthiness to it, characteristic of all cheeses made with sheep milk (though in Pecorino, these notes are more strongly pronounced than in other sheep cheeses). In contrast, Parmigiano Reggiano, while savory, isn’t as salty and has a more well-pronounced nuttiness. Its flavor also veers towards more fruitiness and sweetness. Though the sweetness gradually recedes, the more the cheese is aged and is replaced with a slightly bitter undertone.
- Is Pecorino Romano a Good Substitute for Parmigiano Reggiano and Vice Versa?
Yes. Despite all the differences, these cheeses can efficiently act as substitutes for one another; the recipe authors aren’t lying about that. You just need to be ready that the result will taste a little differently than you may expect. It’s not a 1-in-1 swap.
5 Classic Dishes of La Cucina Romana Tradizionale that Use Pecorino Romano
Just to prove the point about substituting Parmesan with Pecorino Romano is common even in their native country, we’d like to discuss five dishes from traditional Roman Cuisine that initially use Pecorino Romano in the recipe.
Note: in Italy, Parmesan is a term reserved to refer to Parmigiano Reggiano. In this case, we’re using the name interchangeably and talking about the authentic Italian PDO cheese, not the generic Parmesan.
The kick is that substituting it for Parmesan has become so habitual that most people not only don’t know about Pecorino Romano being the original ingredient but would likely consider swapping Parmesan for it unusual.
Like Parmigiano Reggiano, Pecorino Romano has long been used shaved or shredded to top off bruschettas, salads, pizza alla pala, etc. But it’s most famously used as the main ingredient in certain pasta (and not only) sauces:
Pasta Cacio e Pepe
This simple cheese and pepper pasta dish is one of the four seminal kinds of Roman pasta made with Pecorino Cheese. Traditionally made with Tonnarelli, a pasta type similar to Maccheroni alla Chitarra from Lazio, nowadays it’s most commonly made with classic spaghetti. The recipe calls for a hefty amount of grated Pecorino Romano cheese and black pepper. Once the pasta is boiled to al dente consistency, it’s tossed with the cheese and pepper blend, along with a bit of starchy pasta water to emulsify the mixture. Cacio e Pepe might sound like a straightforward dish, but in reality, it requires quite a bit of refined technique on the Chef’s part since emulsifying the sauce without it breaking up, and clumping can be a challenge.
Pasta alla Gricia
Native to the town of Griscia from Lazio, this dish is likely where the classic pairing of guanciale and Pecorino Romano started their partnership. There’s a bit of debate whether alla Griscia or alla Gricia is the correct term, with the supporters of the first variant pointing at the town's name, while the latter's supporters think it comes from the Roman word Gricio (a seller of simple foods).
The sauce for Pasta all Gricia is similar to that of Cacio e Pepe, as it’s made with a blend of grated Pecorino Romano cheese and a generous amount of black pepper. The main difference between the two is that Gricia sauce adds guanciale, Italian cured pork jowl.
Bucatini (or Spaghetti) alla Amatriciana
Sometimes Pasta alla Gricia is called Amatriciana blanco, i.e., the “white Amatriciana sauce”. The non-white Amatriciana sauce is called Sugo alla Amatriciana and is the sauce of one of the most famous Italian tomato-based pasta dishes.
The sauce originates in the town of Amatrice, and it became popular in Rome in the early 19th century. It’s a thick, chunky, spicy red sauce made with a tomato base and further flavored with pepper, sauteed guanciale, a bit of olive oil, and finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese. The use of other flavoring ingredients like onion, garlic, or basil is sometimes looked down upon, particularly onions (they’re considered to change the flavor too much), but certain establishments still add it. It can be quite a point of contention, I’m told.
Pasta alla Carbonara
The most famous cheese pasta sauce of Italy was, indeed, originally made with Pecorino Romano. If you look closely, it’s basically the same sauce as Pasta alla Gricia, but with the addition of an egg. Unlike with Cacio e Pepe or alla Gricia, before the pasta is transferred to the mixture of cheese and black pepper, it’s first combined with eggs and sauteed guanciale. The resulting thick, creamy paste-like substance is then combined with the pasta. Emulsifying carbonara sauce is a bit easier than the dry cheese-and-pepper mix, but the trick is to do it away from direct heat to avoid the eggs curdling.
Trippa alla Romana
Roman-style tripe is a traditional Saturday lunch, with many trattorias serving Sabato Trippa to this day. It’s a thick tomato-based stew flavored with onions, garlic, chili, Roman mint, and either Pecorino Romano (the original) or Parmigiano Reggiano (a popular modern substitute, similar to pasta alla carbonara).