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Pecorino vs. Parmesan: The Differences

Andrey Cherkasov /123RF

Craving a cheesy Italian dish? Not sure which cheese to go for? Look no further than our no-B.S. guide to pecorino and parmesan.

When it comes to Italian cheeses, few are as iconic as pecorino and parmesan.

Both of these cheeses are aged for a significant amount of time and have a rich, sophisticated flavor, but that’s where the similarities end.

Pecorino hails from the island of Sardinia and is made from the milk of Sardinian sheep, whereas parmesan comes from the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy and is made from cow’s milk.

Pecorino and parmesan are both crumbly, and they get crumblier with age, but their flavor profiles couldn’t be any more different.

Pecorino is white in color and tastes tangy, salty, and sharp — very pungent. It’s the cheese to use when making Bucatini all’Amatriciana or Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe.

Parmesan, with a golden color, tastes nuttier, sweeter, and milder. It’s savory and sophisticated, and unlike pecorino, never too salty. Grate it over pastas or slice it in Caesar salad.

When it comes to cooking, parmesan is the more versatile cheese of the two. Its nuttiness and sweetness make it a great addition to a variety of dishes.

Pecorino’s saltiness can sometimes be overwhelming. It’s perfect for when you need a cheese with a strong character. Its sharpness also makes it a great snack on a cheese platter.

How to Buy Parmesan

Parmesan cheese. The king of all grated cheeses, the crown jewel of any Italian dish.

But, let me tell you, not all parmesan is created equal. If you want the real deal, the cream of the crop, the Rolls Royce of parmesan, then go to an Italian deli or cheesemonger and look for Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese with the red and yellow P.D.O. seal on the label.

That P.D.O. label stands for Protected Designation of Origin, and it’s a quality seal that indicates the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is made in traditional ways by one of the few hundred dairies in Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Mantua to the right of the river Po, and Bologna to the left of river Reno in Italy.

This is the real deal — the parmesan cheese that’s been aged for at least 12 months and has a nutty, slightly salty flavor that’s like no other cheese on earth.

But here’s the thing, that real parmesan can be expensive.

So if you’re looking for parmesan cheese for your chicken parm or baked ziti, you might as well reach for any cheese labeled parmesan, as long as it’s aged longer and it doesn’t contain anything else than cow’s milk, salt, bacteria cultures, and animal rennet.

Just know that you’re not getting Parmigiano-Reggiano, and vice versa.

How to Buy Pecorino

If you want the authentic and traditional pecorino cheese, you should look for Pecorino Romano P.D.O. or Pecorino Sardo P.D.O. Pecorino Romano is made in Italy’s Emilia Romagna region, known for its rich culinary heritage, while Pecorino Sardo is produced in the beautiful island of Sardinia, known for its sheep farming. Both are made with sheep’s milk and have a distinct flavor profile.

The difference?

Pecorino Romano is saltier and sharper, with a gamey, tangy taste that makes it perfect for grating over Roman pasta dishes. It’s been aged for at least 8 months, giving it a nice texture and a nutty flavor that compliments any dish.

Pecorino Sardo is richer and milder, with a crumbly texture and a nutty, buttery flavor that’s perfect for grating over salads or pizza. It’s also been aged for at least a few months, giving it a nice texture and a nutty flavor that compliments any dish.

Or, if you don’t insist on the authenticity and the origin, get any cheese labeled as pecorino that’s aged longer and contains nothing else but sheep’s milk, salt, animal rennet, and bacterial cultures. Just know that you’re not getting the real deal — it’s like eating Chicago deep-dish pizza in New York.

Questions & Answers

How similar are pecorino and parmesan?

Pecorino and parmesan cheese are both hard Italian cheeses, but they’re not similar at all. Pecorino is a salty and pungent cheese made from sheep’s milk, and parmesan is a nutty, savory, but also sweet cheese made from cow’s milk. Both cheeses taste richer and get crumblier the longer they age.

Can I substitute pecorino for parmesan?

Yes, you can substitute pecorino for parmesan. But pecorino is saltier and sharper, and America’s Test Kitchen recommends that you use only a third of what the recipe calls for so that the pecorino doesn’t overpower the rest of the ingredients in the dish.

Which cheese is a better substitute for parmesan than pecorino?

Grana padano is the closest substitute for parmesan. Like parmesan, it’s a hard Italian cheese made from cow’s milk. Its production is similar, but not identical, and it’s made in a different region of Italy.

Can I use parmesan instead of pecorino?

Yes, you can use parmesan instead of pecorino. Since parmesan cheese isn’t as savory as pecorino, you may want to add some salt, capers, anchovy mince to the dish to add umaminess and balance out the sweetness of the parmesan.

Which cheese is a better substitute for pecorino than parmesan?

Spanish manchego cheese is the closest substitute to pecorino on the Mediterranean. It’s an aged cheese with a zesty rind and a sharp, pungent flavor made from the milk of Manchega sheep.


Dim is a food writer, cookbook author, and the editor of Home Cook World. His first book, Cooking Methods & Techniques, was published in 2022. He is a certified food handler with Level 1 and Level 2 Certificates in Food Hygiene and Safety for Catering, and a trained chef with a Level 3 Professional Chef Diploma.

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