Pasta alla Carbonara is an Italian pasta dish made with egg, cured pork, and hard cheese. Traditionally, that hard cheese is Pecorino Romano, a salty and grainy cheese made from sheep’s milk in the surroundings of Rome.
Tradition is tradition and, when you can, I recommend that you respect it. It’s how you can get the most authentic taste of Italy with your home-cooked meals. Yet, sometimes, you simply can’t or don’t want to get a hold of all the ingredients.
If that’s the case for you, what are some good substitutes for Pecorino Romano?
The best substitutes for Pecorino Romano cheese in Pasta alla Carbonara are Parmigiano-Reggiano, Grana Padano, and aged Asiago cheese.
And, as you read through the rest of this article, you’re going to see why.
Pecorino Romano is a hard Italian cheese. It’s aged 8-12 months and made from 100% sheep’s milk. It’s white to pale yellow in color and has a salty taste, intense aroma, and crumbly texture.
The name “Pecorino Romano” means sheep’s [cheese] from Rome and speaks clearly about this cheese’s origin. Pecorino Romano originated in ancient Rome and its surrounding villages in what is now known as the Lazio region of Italy.
Romans even have a tradition to eat Pecorino Romano cheese with fresh fava beans (broad beans) on the first day of May during the daily excursion in the Lazio countryside.
Traditionally, Pecorino Romano is the cheese that most Romans use to make sauce for Pasta alla Carbonara.
The cheese is finely grated and mixed with eggs and egg yolks, then tossed in the residual heat of a frying pan with just-cooked Guanciale bits. It’s plated and served with a generous seasoning of freshly cracked black peppercorn.
Here’s the thing: like most sheep’s milk cheeses, Pecorino Romano is peculiar. And it can sometimes be hard to find if you live outside of Italy.
Some home cooks dislike it because of its tangy and aggressive aroma. Some talk about it as stinky and, in extreme cases, barfy.
Others can’t find Pecorino Romano cheese in grocery stores and aren’t that keen on buying cheese online.
Top Three Substitutes for Pecorino Romano
If you’re making Pasta alla Carbonara and, for one reason or another, can’t or don’t want to use Pecorino Romano cheese, here’s my list of the best substitutes.
As you read the list, you will see that each of the three substitutes has something that’s called a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) from the European Union.
Products that have a PDO are made only in specific geographic areas in Europe and following an original recipe that guarantees high quality and specific product characteristics.
When you buy Italian cheese and it has a PDO stamp on it, that’s how you know it’s original.
No. 1: Parmigiano-Reggiano
Parmigiano-Reggiano (also known as parmesan) is a hard and gritty Italian cheese. It’s typically aged for two years and made from 100% cow’s milk.
Like Pecorino Romano, Parmigiano-Reggiano is traditionally grated over pasta, risotto, and used in soups. It’s also eaten on cheese plates or on its own as a quick snack.
Unlike Pecorino Romano, Parmigiano-Reggiano has a milder aroma and sweeter, nuttier taste. If you’re looking to substitute Pecorino for another cheese because you dislike its smell or flavor, parmesan should be on top of your list.
Some Italian chefs make carbonara sauce with a 50/50% mix of Pecorino Romano and Parmigiano-Reggiano. But you can also use these two cheeses interchangeably.
Parmigiano-Reggiano has a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) from the European Union. For a cheese to be labeled and sold as “Parmigiano-Reggiano,” it needs to be produced in the region of Emilia-Romagna Lombardy following the original recipe.
If you live in the U.S., you should know that “parmesan” or “Parmigiano” cheese may not be the same as “Parmigiano-Reggiano.” This is because only the latter term is regulated by U.S. law.
Cheeses labeled as “parmesan” or “Parmigiano” can still taste pretty good, don’t get me wrong, but they’re definitely not the same thing as the original.
No. 2: Grana Padano
Grana Padano is a hard and crumbly Italian cheese. It’s made from 100% cow’s milk and aged between 9 and months.
The recipe for Grana Padano dates back to Italian monks in the 12th century—and that’s how this cheese continues to be made to this day.
Grana Padano has a salty and nutty taste that’s similar to Parmigiano-Reggiano. However, the requirements for its production are less strict, which leads to a more affordable price for consumers. This is why Grana Padano is an excellent substitute for Pecorino Romano for the price-conscious home cook.
Grana Padano has a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) from the European Union. For a cheese to be labeled and sold as “Grana Padano,” it needs to be produced in Northern Italy following the original recipe.
No. 3: Asiago
Asiago is an Italian cheese. It’s made from 100% cow’s milk and aged from 1 month to 2 years.
Fresh asiago is salted and pressed, dried for two days, soaked in brine for two days, and aged for a month. Aged Asiago cheese is put in molds, rubbed with salt, and left to mature from several months to as much as 2 years.
Based on how long it’s been aged for, Asiago cheese has different characteristics. Aged Asiago cheese is the better substitute for Pecorino Romano because it has that hard and crumbly texture that you’re looking for.
Asiago cheese has a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) from the European Union. For a cheese to be labeled and sold as “Asiago,” it needs to be produced around the alpine area of the Asiago Plateau following the original recipe.
Avoid Pre-Shredded Cheese
One more piece of advice from my side before I conclude this article.
Don’t substitute Pecorino Romano cheese for the pre-shredded cheeses that they sell in grocery stores. Pre-shredded cheese seems like a convenience until you find out just how many additives they put in it.
The next time you’re shopping for food, compare the ingredients lists of a package of pre-shredded Italian cheese to a vacuum-sealed block of Italian cheese, ideally from the same company. In addition to cellulose, you’ll almost always find additives like potato starch, natamycin, and other natural or artificial preservatives.
Buy your cheeses freshly cut from a cheese wheel or vacuum-sealed and refrigerated. You can then slice, shred, or grind them as you prefer at home (knowing that you bought the highest-quality product).
The best substitutes for Pecorino Romano cheese are, in order of quality and characteristics, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Grana Padano, and aged Asiago.
Look for them in the refrigerated section in the grocery store or, ideally, the Italian market or deli in town. Or do check out of my picks above to shop for them online.
Each of these three substitutes for Pecorino Romano carries a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) from the European Union, which guarantees that you get an authentic and traditional product made in Italy.