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Parmigiano vs. Pecorino Romano: what’s the difference?

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Parmigiano Reggiano vs. Pecorino Romano: lots of people are still confusing them. For many, these Italian names are too similar and it’s easy to make mistakes. It is also very easy to find products that are passed off as parmesan or pecorino. So, I thought I’d write this article on the difference between parmesan and pecorino to help you understand what they are, how they are made, what their names mean and where they are produced.

Parmesan: what is it and how is it made?

You probably already know what parmesan cheese is, but since many people call every kind of dry cheese by that name, it’s better to start from the basis. Parmesan cheese, or Parmigiano, is an Italian extra hard cheese made from cow’s milk. It’s a dry cheese with a granular, crumbly structure, which is why it’s also known as grana. It has a fresh, fruity taste with a slightly nutty flavor. Its origins date back to the 12th century.

How does parmesan become Parmigiano Reggiano?

In order to be labeled as “Parmigiano Reggiano”, the cheese must meet specific protected designation of origin (PDO) requirements. The real Parmigiano Reggiano can only be produced in the Italian provinces of Bologna, Mantua, Padua and, of course, Parma and Reggio Emilia (to which it owes its name). The PDO requirements are very strict and include: shape, fat and crust percentage, weight, cows’ feeding, milkingprocess, storage and aging. The real Parmigiano Reggiano must age for at least 12 months, but in many cases the aging process lasts up to 24 months. Many cheesemakers in the U.S. produce similar cheeses and call them “parmesan”. These cheeses are produced in accordance with FDA rules, but they don’t meet all the DOP requirements and are usually aged only 10 months. As a result, they usually taste a little more bitter than Parmigiano Reggiano. Is it legitimate to call them “parmesan”? Well, yes: they’re produced by imitating the original process and some of them are really good. But they can’t be called “Parmigiano Reggiano”.  How much different are they? Well, the best way to know is to try both! Now, let’s take a look at how Parmigiano Reggiano is different from Pecorino Romano.
Parmigiano Reggiano's DOP Label
Parmigiano Reggiano with PDO label

Pecorino Romano: how is it different from parmesan?

The main difference between parmesan and pecorino is the milk with which they’re produced. While parmesan is made from cow’s unpasteurized milk, pecorino comes from sheep’s milk. Its name is actually a hint: pecora is the Italian word for “sheep”. Pecorino Romano is way more ancient than parmesan: its origins date back to the Roman Age. As the name suggest, Pecorino Romano was originally made in the Ager Romanus, but a lot of things changed since then, and now it’s mostly produced in Sardinia. Of course, it has its own PDO requirements. Much like Parmigiano Reggiano, the PDO rules for Pecorino Romano are very strict and cover every aspect of its production, taste and shape.  Pecorino Romano can be produced in Sardinia, Lazio and in the province of Grosseto, using whole fresh milk from local sheep.
Pecorino cheese from Sardinia
Pecorino cheese produced in Sardinia
The sheep’s milk makes pecorino taste very different from parmesan: while the latter is fruity and nutty, pecorino has a spicier, stronger flavor. The people from its regions of production are very fond of it and use it in many traditional recipes – in which parmesan is, of course, banned. This leads us to another question.

Pecorino Romano vs. Parmigiano: in which foods are they better?

Both cheeses are perfect as a stand-alone food. They can be enjoyed alone, with a bit of honey or with slices of red meat. Thanks to their crumbly structure, they can also be grated on a wide range of foods. However, due to their their difference in flavor, they each mix better with some specific plates. Pecorino Romano has a stronger flavor than parmesan and should be used in traditional foods like: pasta all’amatriciana, carbonara and spaghetti cacio e pepe. Parmigiano Reggiano is sweeter than pecorino and should be used to prepare foods like Fettuccine Alfredo, pasta with tomato sauce, risotto and pasta with ricotta. It can also be used to create a wonderful Parmesan Cream that you can enjoy with all the above-mentioned foods. If you want to eat it in slices, Parmesan tastes very good with dark chocolate. If you like truffles, try eating parmesan with truffle honey. It’s to die for! There are also recipes that combine the two cheeses. For example, the traditional Genoa pesto sauce is made with both Parmigiano Reggiano and Pecorino Romano. Now that you know the difference between Parmigiano Reggiano and Pecorino Romano and where to use both of them, there’s only one thing left: eat everything. Enjoy!
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