Cheese, grated finely on top, mixed into the sauce, or used as a filling, can take your home-cooked pasta to chef-level. Knowing which cheese to buy at the grocery store and how to cook it with your pasta can make or break a good recipe.
In this post, I’ll tell you all about the six best (and most traditional) cheeses for adding to your pasta dishes. I’ll also give you my best techniques for adding cheese to pasta, so that you can excel at every recipe.
Okay, let’s cut straight to the chase: What are the best cheeses for adding to pasta?
Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino Romano, Grana Padano, and Aged Asiago are the best cheeses for making cheese-based sauce or grating on top of plated pasta. Use ricotta for fillings and add fresh mozzarella to baked pasta.
Each of these cheeses has a long history and a set of unique characteristics, which is why Italians and Italian-Americans pair them with pasta. If you want to know why, keep on reading.
Parmigiano-Reggiano is a hard Italian cheese made from raw cow’s milk and aged for a minimum of 12 months. It has a complex briny, subtly sweet, and noticeably nutty flavor.
According to Dr. Catherine Donnelly, author of “The Oxford Companion to Cheese,” Parmigiano-Reggiano has some of the highest levels of free glutamates (1,200 milligrams per 100 grams), the amino-acids responsible for the savory taste of food.
Thanks to its tender texture and balanced flavor, this is the best cheese to grate on top of plated pasta with canned tomato or pesto sauce.
Parmigiano-Reggiano is produced in wheels at least 66 pounds in weight, 14-18 inches in diameter, 8-10 inches high, and just under ¼ inch thick. Typically, it’s cut into 4.4, 5.2, or 7 oz vacuum-sealed wedges, or pre-grated and sealed in plastic packaging.
The production of this cheese has been regulated by Italy’s Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium since 1934, and its name carries a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) seal from the European Union since 1996.
In other words, if you buy cheese that’s labeled Parmigiano-Reggiano PDO, you can be sure that you’re getting an authentic taste of Italy with a high-quality product made following a long-standing tradition of cheesemaking.
The milk for making Parmigiano-Reggiano comes from cows raised in Italy’s Modena, Parma, and Reggio Emilia provinces, as well as the section of the province of Bologna northwest of the Reno River and that of Mantova south of the Po River.
Pecorino Romano is a hard Italian cheese made from sheep’s milk and aged for a minimum of 5-8 months. It’s white in color, has a distinct tangy aroma with hints of lanolin (wool wax), and an intensely salty flavor.
This is my go-to cheese for making white pasta sauce (keep on reading and I’ll tell you more about the best technique for this type of sauce) and for grating over risotto.
But I’ve found that my wife—and quite a few friends who we’ve had over—find it difficult to eat raw because of the distinctiveness of the aroma and the intensity of the flavor.
Pecorino Romano is produced in wheels 49-71 pounds heavy, 12-13 inches high, and 11-12 inches wide. It’s typically sold grated or in wedges, and is carried by most grocery stores.
Its production is regulated by the Pecorino Romano Consortium and the name, which translates as “[cheese] from the sheeps of Rome,” has a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) seal from the European Union.
Grana Padano is a hard Italian cheese made from raw cow’s milk and aged for a minimum of 9 months. It has a crumbly texture and a nutty flavor.
Compared to Parmigiano-Reggiano, Grana Padano is a softer cheese with a milder flavor. Compared to Pecorino Romano, Grana Padano has a nuttier and less salty taste, which makes it the better choice for including on cheese and charcuterie boards.
Grana Padano is typically 15-20% less expensive compared to Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino Romano. It’s an authentic Italian cheese at a reasonable price that’s great for grating over pasta or mixing into sauces.
The recipe for Grana Padano goes back to the 12th century, when the Cistercian monk of Chiaravalle abbey developed a way to make raw milk into a hard cheese that can be aged (and, in doing so, preversved) for years.
Since 1954, its production is regulated by the Grana Padano Consortium, and its name carries a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) seal from the European Union.
This means that when you eat a wedge of Grana Padano, you’re tasting a piece of one of the 4.5 million cheese wheels made in one of the 150 factories in Italy’s Po River Valley every year.
Aged Asiago (Asiago d’Allevo)
Aged Asiago, also known as “Asiago d’Allevo” and “Asiago Pressato,” is an Italian hard cheese made from cow’s milk. It has a dry, crumbly texture, a smell of bread, almonds, and hazelnuts, and a savory and decided flavor.
This cheese comes in three varieties depending on the seasoning: “Mezzano” for medium-seasoned cheese aged 4-6 months, “Vecchio” for mature cheese aged 10-15 months, and “Straveccio” for extra mature cheese aged for well over 15 months.
Asiago is one of the oldest Italian cheeses. Roman texts dating back to the 5th century BC mention its daily production in today’s region of Veneto, Italy.
The production of Asiago cheese is regulated by the Asiago Consortium and the name “Asiago” carries a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) seal from the European Union. It can only be made in the Vicenza and Trento provinces, and parts of Padua and Treviso.
To get the highest-quality Aged Asiago for your pasta dishes, buy cheese that’s imported from Italy and look for the red PDO seal on the front of the packaging.
Fresh mozzarella is made from water buffalo’s or cow’s milk using the pasta filata (“spun paste”) cheesemaking method.
The juiciness and neutral taste of fresh mozzarella turn it into the perfect cheese for adding to baked pasta. Its role is not so much in adding flavor, but bringing moisture and a deliciously-melty texture to Italian-American pasta.
Mozzarella’s name comes from the word mozzare in Italian, which means “to separate.” It describes the stretching, pulling, and cutting technique that’s used for this cheese’s production.
Buffalo’s and cow’s milk mozzarella are typically sold in plastic packaging soaked in cloudy water, which is actually the whey produced as a byproduct from making the cheese. Keeping the white mozzarella balls in water helps to keep their moisture and shape.
Buffalo’s milk mozzarella is generally wetter, creamier, and tastier than cow’s milk mozzarella. But it’s also the harder to find at the grocery store and the more expensive of the two.
Ricotta is a soft Italian whey cheese made from the sheep, cow, goat, or water buffalo milk whey leftover from the production of other cheeses. It’s soft, creamy, and grainy to the texture; and sweet to the taste.
Ricotta’s name comes from the Italian word “recocta,” which translates as “cooked twice.” It describes the technique used for producing it by coagulating albumin and globulin, the proteins that remain after the casein has been used to make the other cheese.
Traditionally, ricotta is added to baked manicotti and baked ziti in Italian-American cuisine, and used as a filling for ravioli, cappelletti, and lasagna in Italian cuisine.
When Should You Add Cheese to Pasta?
The right type of cheese to add to pasta—along with the best time and correct technique for doing it—will ultimately depend on the cuisine and recipe that you’re following.
For example, Italians tend to add small amounts of grated hard cheese using a variety of techniques, whereas Italian-Americans add generous amounts of mozzarella to baked pasta. Some modern ways of preparing pasta stand somewhere in-between the two cuisines.
Grate Cheese on the Pasta Before Serving It
Traditionally, Italians grate a small piece of cheese on top of plated pasta dishes.
Classic Italian tomato pasta, also known as “pasta pomodoro,” is typically prepared with spaghetti, olive oil, tomatoes, garlic, basil, and sea salt. The pasta is cooked, plated, and served with hard Italian cheese, like Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano, grated on top. Crumbly and briny, the cheese adds to the texture and taste of the pasta.
Grate hard Italian cheese on top of plated pasta with tomato sauce (fresh or canned) and pesto sauce (green and red). Use a single cheese or mix two-three cheeses from cow’s and sheep’s milk for a more intense aroma and a deeper, richer flavor.
Make a Pasta Sauce From the Cheese
Some recipes from Rome and its surroundings in Italy’s Lazio region, like cacio e pepe and pasta alla carbonara, involve making a sauce with grated cheese and pasta water.
To make cacio e pepe, bring a pot of heavily-salted pasta water to a rolling boil and cook enough pasta for the number of persons you’re about to serve.
In the meantime, bring a frying pan up to medium-high heat, crack black peppercorn in it, letting the hotness of the pan bring out the aroma and flavor of the freshly-cracked pepper for 20-30 seconds. Scoop out ½ a ladle of pasta water and pour it inside the pan, stirring occasionally.
Grate Pecorino Romano, a hard and salty cheese made with sheep’s milk, finely in a bowl. Scoop out ½ a ladle of pasta water again, and this time pour it over the grated cheese in the bowl. Whisk them together in a somewhat homogenous, but slightly clumpy sauce.
When the pasta is almost cooked (2-3 minutes before the recommended time on the package), transfer it to the pan, add some more pasta water, and continue cooking it, tossing and stirring often, until al dente.
Take the pasta off the heat, give it 15-20 seconds to cool down, mix the noodles with the cheese in the residual heat of the pan, and serve.
Pasta alla carbonara is made with the same technique. However, the pan sauce consists of browned guanciale, pancetta, or bacon cubes and the cheese sauce is mixed with eggs (before the noodles are finished off with the guanciale and some pasta water in the pan, then mixed with the eggs over residual heat).
Bake the Pasta With Cheese
Baked ziti, the successor of pasta al forno and a staple of Italian-American cuisine, is a pasta casserole made with ziti, crushed can tomatoes, Italian sausage, garlic, onions, olive oil, Italian seasoning, and salt.
Preheat your oven to 350ºF (177ºC).
Cook a hearty pasta sauce with, in sequential order, the olive oil, onions, garlic, Italian sausage, crushed can tomatoes, Italian seasoning to the taste, and a pinch of salt. Simmer down the sauce over medium heat, stirring often.
Bring a pot of generously-salted water to a rolling boil. Add the ziti, cooking them for 2-3 minutes less than the recommended cooking time on the package. Drain from the water and transfer to your saucepan, stirring and tossing the ziti with the sauce.
Pour the pasta dish in a casserole, and top it with a good amount of fresh mozzarella. Cover with slightly-tended aluminum foil and bake for 20 minutes. Take it out of the oven, allow it to cool down for 5-10 minutes, and serve.
What to Read Next
Get inspired before you get cooking with my recipes for penne with tomato sauce and cacio e pepe. Or check out my thoughts on the science of cooking pasta to make the perfect pasta dishes every single time.