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Is Pecorino Romano from Italy worth seeking out, or can domestic options do the job?
Pecorino Romano is like the seasoned character actor who improves dozens of movies but never quite gets recognition. It’s one of the oldest cheeses in the world, named for its origins in ancient Rome, and its firm, slightly oily, crystalline texture and salty, funky flavor deserve fresh consideration out of the shadow of its more famous cousin, Parmigiano‑Reggiano. In the test kitchen, we use it in a number of salads, vegetable dishes, soups, and frittatas, not to mention classic Italian pasta dishes such as cacio e pepe, pasta all’amatriciana, and lasagna, where its rich, complex flavor is a quiet powerhouse.
But does it matter which cheese you bring home? We chose seven nationally available versions priced from $0.67 to $1.33 per ounce. In supermarkets, you’ll find cheese labeled Pecorino Romano and Romano sold side by side, so we included both. In blind tastings, we asked panels to evaluate the cheeses both plain and cooked in our recipe for Spaghetti with Pecorino and Black Pepper (Cacio e Pepe). To help us understand our preferences, we sent samples to an independent laboratory to measure their pH and compared the nutrition content provided on product labels.
With Denominazione di Origine Protetta (DOP) status in the European Union, the cheese called Pecorino Romano can be made only in Lazio (the province that includes Rome), in Grosseto in Tuscany, and on the island of Sardinia, where most of it is produced today. It’s made with sheep’s milk (pecora means “sheep” in Italian) from local flocks that is heated and curdled with rennet from local lambs. Then the cheese is pressed, rubbed repeatedly with salt, stamped with identifying marks, and aged, all according to the standards of a consortium that oversees its production. This results in a unique cheese that is important in central and southern Italian and Italian American cooking. As early as 1911, Italian immigrants were ordering it shipped to America. Today, Italy produces 25,000 tons of the cheese per year; 60 percent of that is exported, and the top buyer is the United States. Perhaps surprisingly, Pecorino Romano accounts for a third of all Italian cheese exported to America. American cheesemakers, however, lacking access to sheep’s milk on an industrial scale, make Romano cheese with cow’s milk. (See “Why Sheep?”)
In both blind tastings, plain and in pasta, our tasters preferred imported Pecorino Romanos over domestic Romanos. While we didn’t dislike the domestic cheeses, our consensus was that they were simply not the same: milder, softer, less aromatic, and more like Swiss cheese than sharper, funkier, more crumbly, crystalline Pecorino Romano. Soft texture and mild flavor were understandable, since cheese becomes firmer and its flavor more complex the longer it is aged; our domestic Romanos were aged for as little as five months, compared with more than eight months for the imports. And the two lowest-ranked domestic cheeses had the lowest pH in the lineup, which indicates younger cheese; this higher acidity can lead to a slightly sour flavor and a pebbly texture that our tasters noticed when we sampled the cheeses plain. The imports contained more sodium, providing a deeply savory taste—and our winner had the most sodium of all. (It’s meant to be salty: Italian cooks often reduce salt in dishes where Pecorino Romano is prominent.) Finally, the basic flavor profiles of the domestic and imported cheeses didn’t match up.
Simply put, cow’s milk and sheep’s milk make different cheeses. Sheep’s milk has many short-chain and medium-chain fatty acids, while cow’s milk contains long-chain fatty acids, so they break down into different aroma compounds, explained Sarah Hoffmann, founder of Green Dirt Farm in Weston, Missouri, which produces small-batch sheep’s-milk cheeses. Certain fatty acids that create the gamy, funky taste of goat cheese appear in very small concentrations in sheep’s milk, too, but they’re absent from cow’s milk, she said.
Domestic Romano cheesemakers try to re‑create some of the pungency of Pecorino Romano by adding lipase to the cow’s milk, explained Dean Sommer, senior food technologist for the Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. This enzyme digests and breaks down dairy fat into fatty acids and glycerol, and in the process, it lends flavor and aroma to the cheese. In Sommer’s opinion, while this does create “strong” flavors, it doesn’t quite succeed in making cow’s‑milk Romano taste like Pecorino Romano. Instead, he said, the result is “very similar to aged provolone cheese.” Anna Thomas Bates, co-owner of sheep’s-milk cheese producer Landmark Creamery in Albany, Wisconsin, agreed: “You just can’t duplicate the chemical makeup of sheep’s milk.”
Sheep’s milk is renowned for its excellent composition for cheese making, with nearly twice the protein, fat, calcium, and solids of cow’s milk and an ability to develop complex, rich, fruity, toasted‑nut, caramel, toffee, and even browned butter–like flavors as the cheese ages. So why don’t domestic cheese manufacturers make an effort to produce more sheep’s milk and age it more to make firmer, more flavorful Romano?
There are a few reasons. First, a sheep produces about one-tenth the volume of milk that a cow does, Hoffmann explained, so it’s much more expensive. Basic “commodity” cow’s milk costs about $0.15 per pound in the United States, while organic, grass-fed versions sell for $0.35 per pound, said Bates. Compare that with sheep’s milk, at $0.80 to $1.20 per pound, respectively. Second, American sheep breeds produce even less milk than those in Europe. (Federal bans on importing higher-yield breeds were lifted in 2017, so this is beginning to change.) Third, “aging is an expensive undertaking for producers, as it ties up inventory for long stretches of time—often months or years,” said Nora Weiser, executive director of the American Cheese Society (ACS). “So while I feel we’ll see more sheep’s‑milk cheeses from smaller and specialty producers, it may not be something that big U.S. companies gravitate toward.” Still, sheep’s‑milk cheeses are trending: More American consumers are seeking them out, and more domestic artisan cheesemakers are making them, Weiser said, noting that an ACS study showed a 40-percent increase in domestic sheep’s‑milk cheese production between 2010 and 2016. ACS added a sheep’s‑milk cheese category to its competition in 2017 for the first time, reflecting the growing number of entrants.
As for our lineup, we recommend all of the imported Italian Pecorino Romano cheeses, but our top choice was the “pungent, salty, and sharp” Boar’s Head Pecorino Romano ($1.00 per ounce), which is widely available and moderately priced. (Note: This cheese is made in Italy following DOP guidelines, but because the wheels are cut and repackaged in the United States, the wedges are considered non-DOP, a Boar’s Head spokesperson confirmed.) In a pinch, a domestic Romano will do, but if you are like our tasters, you may regret not having the extra richness and complexity that Pecorino Romano brings to the table.
Twenty-one editors and cooks at America’s Test Kitchen sampled seven cheeses labeled Pecorino Romano or Romano plain (at room temperature) and in our recipe for Spaghetti with Pecorino and Black Pepper (Cacio e Pepe). Scores were averaged, with the cooked application’s scores weighted more heavily since this cheese is more frequently used for cooking than as a table cheese. Products are listed below in order of preference. Nutrition data is from product labels, standardized for comparison, using a serving size of 1 ounce (28 grams). An independent laboratory analyzed pH. Prices were paid in Boston‑area supermarkets and online, before shipping.
“Delicious! Rich, complex, deeply savory, with a long finish” and a “crystalline” crunch, this imported sheep's-milk Pecorino Romano sold under the Boar's Head banner was “dense, nicely dry, salty in a fruity, fatty kind of way” and was our tasters' overall favorite. It also had by far the highest sodium level in our lineup, adding to its savory appeal. In pasta, it was “smooth,” “pungent, salty, and sharp,” with “the perfect taste and creamy texture I've been looking for! Silky, tangy, cheesy, creamy, assertive.”
“Full-flavored, complex, crystalline, crumbly, pungent, salty; just right,” this imported sheep's-milk Pecorino Romano had a “lovely sheepy, briny flavor” that was “Robust! Salty! Addictive!” and “deeply savory, almost meaty, with a fatty richness” and a “slightly crumbly texture.” Tasters found it “funky, but in a good way.” In spaghetti, it was “silky,” “velvety,” “creamy and buttery” —the “strong, lovely cheese flavor makes this dish sing.”
With “lots of crystals,” this “salty, rich, funky” cheese was “almost crunchy” and “pleasingly pungent” when nibbled plain, coming across as “creamy and milky and salty without being overbearing.” Its “coarse texture” was described as “perfect for grating.” “It's like the other great Pecorinos but a touch more subdued instead of knock-you-out salty/funky.” In spaghetti, the cheese's flavor was “a little mild” compared with those of other samples, but it helped achieve a “good balance of salt and cheese and pepper, all working in harmony.”
With “a little kick!” and “some funk on the finish,” this imported Pecorino Romano won fans. “Oh, this is just lovely,” wrote one taster. “Firm and crumbly yet also creamy. It's grassy and fruity, with sweet winey notes and some crystalline crunch.” On spaghetti, the fruity notes came through in a “velvety,” “nutty” sauce.
With “pleasant,” “mild,” “sweet,” “nutty” flavor, this domestic cow's-milk Romano was “very soft” and “not as pungent as it should be,” “very buttery and Parmesan-like,” like “unhole-y Swiss.” “This isn't a bad cheese,” wrote a taster. “It's mild, creamy, and toothsome, with good milkiness.” But others noted that it “could stand to be saltier.” In pasta, it had “nice saucy-ness” and was “smooth, creamy,” making for “kid-friendly noodles, for sure,” but was “really overwhelmed by the pepper.”
This cheese was a bit too “mild overall,” reminiscent of “gouda,” “Gruyère,” or “cheddar.” It was “buttery, creamy, but missing the funk and crumbliness” tasters sought. “I miss the salty bite!” wrote one. “Lacks the intensity I expect, but I don't dislike the sweet, nutty, caramel-y flavor.” A few complained about the texture, noting that it “breaks into pellets.” In pasta, it was “perfectly creamy” and “light,” but its flavor was “muted.”
“Mildly salty,” “fruity,” “soft and slightly creamy,” with a “pebbly” texture when broken and a slightly “sour” flavor with “some tanginess to the finish,” this domestic cow's-milk Romano “eats like cheddar,” “provolone,” or “Swiss cheese.” “This is missing that gritty saltiness I crave,” one taster noted. Others summed it up: “Inoffensive but not beguiling.” In spaghetti, it had “no bite or much saltiness” and “could be more flavorful.”