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Chris Amirault

Parmigiano Reggiano & Pecorino Romano: When to use which (or both)

24 posts in this topic

I got some of Barbara Lynch's bucatini at Sportello in Boston this weekend, and I'm going to make Amatriciana sauce tonight for dinner. Reading through the ingredient lists of my cookbooks (thanks, EatYourBooks.com!), I realized I was in a familiar pickle.

Some of my books, notably Cooking By Hand by Paul Bertolli, use both pecorino Romano and Parmigiano Reggiano.

Others, such as Lynne Rossetto Kasper's Italian Country Table, use just pecorino Romano.

I don't want to get into a big debate about which recipes is more authentic, whatever that means. Instead, I'd like some guidance on how to use these two Italian cheeses in relationship to one another. Which do you use when? Why use them at the same time, and to what effect?


Chris Amirault

camirault@eGstaff.org

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Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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I rarely use them together. -Except possibly in separate layers of a casserole type dish like a pizza rustica.

I tend to think of romano as salty and parmesean as sweet/umami, even though I know that both are actually salty cheeses. So, I tend to choose between them by thinking about the dish and what would best enhance it; does it need the bite of a salty topping or a slightly sweet umami velvety-ness.

Also, many times a dish that does well with romano will also do well with a salty feta instead, although I am well aware that this is a bit of unorthodox cross-culturalism.

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I do sometimes use them together. Romano is sharper and saltier, so I sometimes add it when I want a saltier flavor, and always on pizza. It doesn't, to me at least, have the buttery quality of Parmigiano.


"What's more, I believe it's a cook's moral obligation to add more butter given the chance."

Michael Ruhlman,
Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind Everyday Cooking

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To me parmigiano-reggiano is more sweet, pecorino romano is more animal-y or gamy. Both are salty & good for seasoning. Really, the best thing to do is to taste them side by side and let your imagination decide which cheese is most compatible for a particular dish.

I typically would not use both cheeses in the same recipe. It's almost too much of a good thing. I only use a combo of the two cheeses in a basil pesto that I make. Because the ingredients are few (basil, pine nuts, olive oil & the cheeses), the flavors of both cheeses still come through and add to the complexity of the mix.

Once the manager of a local cheese store had me try a cheese called Podda Classico. It's worth a taste if you find it around your way. The manager said that it was like a cross between parmigiano-reggiano and pecorino romano. I thought that was true, although the podda classico lacks the big depth of either parmigiano-reggiano or pecorino romano. Still, after numerous nibbles, the manager and I agreed that it's a good cheese, and should be appreciated for itself, without always comparing it to the Big Two.

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...

I don't want to get into a big debate about which recipes is more authentic, whatever that means. Instead, I'd like some guidance on how to use these two Italian cheeses in relationship to one another. Which do you use when? Why use them at the same time, and to what effect?

They are different tasting cheeses, even though somewhat similar in texture (and thus in methods of application).

Parmesan is made from cow's milk, whereas Pecorino is a sheep-milk cheese (or cheeses since there are regional variations).

So go with what you like or have available!

After that, you start getting into the dreaded 'authenticity' questions.

Parmesan comes from around Parma, up in the North, so would be the prime choice for the specialities of its region.

Pecorino from more rugged and hotter (sheep-rearing) areas, further South... (though I believe much more Pecorino is made in Sardinia than around Rome).


"If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch ... you must first invent the universe." - Carl Sagan

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I believe that certain dishes DO actually call for one cheese over another. Authentic or not. Like Amatriciana. Alot of people use Parmigiano in places of Pecorino because Pecorino is too strong. And I personally, and this is only my opinion, believe that therein lies your answer. If you like a stronger, sharper, sheep's milk flavour, you go with Pecorino. If you like a buttery, nutty, cow's milk cheese, go with Parmigiano. People mix to try to mellow out the pecorino, but not to lose it completely.

Why don't you just do a taste test and see what your taste buds prefer. Make the same dish with each of the cheeses and see what you like better. I hate pecorino. (And hate Amatriciana, by the way, heehee.) However, it has it's place in my cooking. Like meatballs and Seppie Ripiene.

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I made bucatini all'Amatriciana last night, loosely following Paul Bertolli's recipe, and I tried a bit of both Pecorino and Parmigiano before I served it to the family. To me, using Parmigiano on that uber-rich pasta was a big mistake: instead of accenting the homemade pancetta, it muddled it. (I suppose if the tomatoes had been more acidic, Parmigiano might have worked, but it's hard to fathom.) The Pecorino was a perfect, sharp accent. So I chose not to follow the last step of Bertolli's recipe and passed only grated Pecorino at the table, and not Parmigiano as well.

That experience and the responses here make me even more confused as to why people would treat these as if they are somehow interchangeable.


Chris Amirault

camirault@eGstaff.org

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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Interesting topic, Chris. I had a craving for all'Amatriciana recently and followed Hazan (Essentials). As I recall, she also calls for a mix of the two cheeses. That surprised me because I've always associated pecorino with sauces from middle and southern Italy (e.g., gricia, carbonara, all'Amatriciana).


 

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A friend explained this to me just about a week ago and I agreed. Locatelli (pecorino romano) is the "chronic", and I wouldn't hesitate to use it in my Italian dishes, but Parmesan-Reggiano works for when I'm going for something more mellow in flavor. When I'm making a dish with white sauce and/or chicken, shredded or shaved parmesan-reggiano works better because it's not as salty. For meatballs, red meats, or something with bold flavors, bring on the Locatelli!

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I think one reason people may mix them is that the pecorino romano that you get outside Italy (at least, the stuff we get in London ...) tends to be rather thuggish. My impression is the pecorino one gets in Rome is often rather milder -- still with the acidity, but with more buttery notes and a bit less saltiness -- somewhat closer to Tuscan or Sardinian pecorino. Perhaps the mixture is an attempt to house train the stuff that we can get outside Rome.

I use pecorino over parmesan when I want its bite. I don't think it has the same "flavour enhancing" properties of parm. But I tend (more and more) to go easy on the cheese. Too much cheese (of any kind) can easily overwhelm.

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I am going to hypothesize, based solely on my own opinions, that the reason many recipes call for a combo of the two is not just the American tradition of the green canned stuff, but also because Pecorino Romano, unless sold in a high-turnover store, is often much more dried out than it would be in, say Rome. Very little Pecorino Romano, saran-wrapped, and left to dry in the US is soft enough to use for Cacio e Pepe, and comes off as super-salty, with little melting ability, and a strong sheep taste. Luckily if the Pecorino Romano at my local store is all dried up I can get other varieties of pecorino that are slightly younger, and can add some melting ability, while retaining the sheepsmilk flavor. I have no personal experience with pecorino from Amatrice, which would be traditional in this dish, but this website says it is somewhat milder than Pecorino Romano.

AMATRICE PECORINO CHEESE

The producers of Amatrice and of Leonessa, areas in the extreme north of Lazio, use a light brine which, in turn, makes for a cheese which is less spicy and sour. The ageing of Amatrice pecorino can last from three to six months. The forms are, with regard to Roman pecorino, smaller and rarely weigh more than two kilograms (four and a half pounds).

So, as always, Italian recipes are super-regional. (And in general cows/butter north, sheep/olive oil south)

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Thanks, everyone. I'm learning a lot.

I'm wondering if it'd be worth visiting my friendly local cheesemonger (Matt Jennings of Farmstead) and seeing if I can grab some high quality pecorino. I have a chunk of supermarket stuff at home now for comparison.

One question: are we to understand that Pecorino as a style lacks the famous umami of Parmigiano?


Chris Amirault

camirault@eGstaff.org

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Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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Personally I think the notion of 'authenticity' is exaggerated by authors and journalists but that's a different story. Parmigiano Reggiano has that distinctive sharpness which is wonderful, but can be overpowering, so we tend to use pecorino on pasta instead. I think it's a matter of personal taste, I don't expect the pasta police to come knocking and tell us that not having parmigiano on our bolognese is a crime. I generally buy Grana Padano instead of Parmigiano too, because it's so much cheaper and more subtle- it won't dominate a simple sauce. If I'm making a spinach and ricotta mix- usually for cannelloni - then I'll always add some grated parmigiano to give some substance. But I think the choice of cheese is more of a personal preference rather than a kitchen rule.

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No one is making the authenticity case, I think. However, the question of whether recipes created to feature a particular style of pecorino will be less successful if we're using a different, subpar product seem relevant to me. And, yes, "successful" is a matter of taste, but if someone told me that your version of "successful" included monterey jack, I'd wonder what the heck that person was talking about. :wink:


Chris Amirault

camirault@eGstaff.org

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Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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Pecorino cheese runs the gamut from soft young cheeses to mild semisoft table cheeses to salty, aged grating cheeses. It is not at all common to get soft, young pecorino cheeses in the States, but I eat it on a regular basis when in central Italy. We get excellent quality Pecorino Romano here in NYC, so I can't comment as to whether examples elsewhere around the country are in poor condition.

What I can say is that, unlike aged Parmigiano-Romano, even the best quality aged Pecorino Romano is likely to be too salty to be eaten by itself in chunks. It's not meant to be used that way.

What I see as a fundamental difference between the two is that Pecorino Romano adds sharpness and salt, which can either point up the sharpness of the dish or cut through the richness of a dish, whereas Parmigiano-Reggiano adds umami and richness. Whether and to what extent one would like to add one or both of these characteristics depends on personal preference and the needs of the dish. For example, if I were making a sharp, spicy sauce with garlic, olive oil, chilies and tomatoes to be served with bucatini, I would be likely to use Pecorino Romano to accentuate those characteristics. If, on the other hand, I were making a mellow, sweet sauce with onion, butter and tomatoes to be served with gnocchi, I'd be more likely to reach for Parmigiano-Reggiano. Also, for me, certain ingredients call for one cheese or the other. For example, olives say "Pecorino" to me, as does spicy as a general rule of thumb. Meats tend to get Parmigiano, except for lamb which I like with some Pecorino as well.


Edited by slkinsey (log)

Samuel Lloyd Kinsey

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One question: are we to understand that Pecorino as a style lacks the famous umami of Parmigiano?

It is my understanding that the taste of umami means the savory edge in certain foods: mushrooms or soy sauce, for example. I think all aged cheeses have that savory taste, some fresh cheeses too. So by that definition pecorino romano would have umami, as well as parmigiano-reggiano.

That experience and the responses here make me even more confused as to why people would treat these as if they are somehow interchangeable.

That's a good question. The two cheeses have markedly different flavors when you're tasting the imported, high-end products. I'm guessing that if the recipe author assumes people are using the less expensive domestic versions of these cheeses, the differences are less noticeable. In fact, the flavor for these cheeses, depending on the quality of what one is buying, may just be salty--good for seasoning, whichever cheese someone is using.

Sheep's milk cheeses have a zinginess to them that cow's milk cheeses do not. A cheese maniac I know describes it like a spike while you're tasting a sheep's milk cheese. Chris, if you do visit your local friendly cheesemonger, try tasting some sheep & cow's milk cheeses side by side. As for the quality of what you have now, I buy my (inported) pecorino romano at Whole Foods. I've always assumed it was good; it does taste good. But after reading this thread, I think I'll go to some cheese shops and taste around for pecorino. Ask some questions, too.

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I'm partial to Pecorino stagionato for grating (and eating straight, too.) It has that sheepy taste, but is a little creamier and less salty than romano. I haven't been able to figure out the exact difference between the pecorino marked renero, stagionato or maturo, but I like them all. Usually only one is available at any given store or any given time, so I never get a chance to compare them.

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Pecorino is simply the generic Italian word signifying "sheep's milk cheese" (pecora = "sheep"). So, Pecorino Toscano, for example, means not much more than "sheep's milk cheese made in Tuscany" (it is a D.O. cheese, not a D.O.C. like Pecorino Romano).

Stagionato means "seasoned" (as in "matured or aged" not as in "salted and peppered"). It can also mean "seasoned/aged" with something else, as in: Pecorino Stagionato al Peperoncino ("sheep's cheese aged with dried red pepper"). Maturo means "mature." Neither of these has a particularly specific meaning. Similarly, there are plenty of young, soft, fresh pecorino cheeses called Pecorino Fresco or some variation thereof, which may have a variety of ages.

"ReNero" should actually be Re Nero, meaning "Black King." It is a brand name of a cheese made by the Cooperativa Agricola "Il Forteto" in Tuscany. It is a cheese made in a small form, so it actually gets less age.


Edited by slkinsey (log)

Samuel Lloyd Kinsey

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I grabbed a bit of pecorino romano fulvi on Federal Hill last night (good description here from Zabar's). The best way to distinguish that from the supermarket stuff is that it is, as Katie said, sheepy: you can distinctly taste the sheep's milk, a bit of grass, some barnyard, that complexity that is mainly replaced by tang and salt in the generic stuff. Also: it's significantly less salty.


Chris Amirault

camirault@eGstaff.org

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Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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Bucatini all'amatriciana and the other Gang of Four pastas (gricia, carbonara, and cacio e pepe) came to Rome from the Apennines of northeast Lazio and Abruzzo. That is sheep country, and the cheeses are sheep cheeses. I would not expect to find anything but a sheep cheese on any of the area's traditional pastas, though a mix of pecorino romano and parmigiano is often used today on carbonara because it's delicious.

Authenticity sounds so inflexible (yet I don't consider it a dirty word); it's better to speak of tradition. And tradition (often inflexible itself) does not suggest but dictates pecorino romano on "la matriciana" and "la gricia." You can use parmigiano instead of pecorino to make a fancy cacio e pepe, but where parmigiano actually comes from you would be dressing tagliatelle with butter and parmigiano, very different from tonnarelli or spaghetti with just cheese and pepper. Parmigiano as a national cheese is a relatively new phenomenon, and if you investigate traditional recipes from regions and areas distant from Emilia-Romagna, the region that contains the parmigiano-reggiano DOP area, you'll find that where parmigiano is called for today there used to be a local cheese. And even in the North parmigiano-reggiano isn't universally used -- north of the Po grana padano is often preferred.

The pecorino romano (as opposed to all the bazillion other kinds of pecorino) production zone includes parts of Sardinia as well as Lazio. The cheese can be eaten quite young (primo sale) and is grated at about 10-12 months. At about 8 months it's essentially a hard cheese but pleasantly soapy and is delicious to nibble in spring with fresh fava beans. Parmigiano-reggiano is aged for a minimum of 24 months.

At least here in pecorino romano country, the two cheeses are keep quite separate with very few exceptions (like pesto alla genovese, which there is no hope of making authentically here anyway if you believe the Ligurians about our basil, but I digress). When I tell my tomato man in the market that I'm going to make a fresh tomato sauce, he grills me as to whether I'm going to use onion and parmigiano or garlic, peperoncino, and pecorino. If the former, he gives me sweeter tomatoes, if the latter, more "saporiti" (meaning flavorful without being sweet, savory).


Maureen B. Fant
www.maureenbfant.com

www.elifanttours.com

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Great post, Maureen.

... When I tell my tomato man in the market that I'm going to make a fresh tomato sauce, he grills me as to whether I'm going to use onion and parmigiano or garlic, peperoncino, and pecorino. If the former, he gives me sweeter tomatoes, if the latter, more "saporiti" (meaning flavorful without being sweet, savory).

- funny, I'd have thought there'd be as much value in balancing sweet, rich onion/parm with sharp tomatoes, and sharp pecorino with sweet.


QUIET!  People are trying to pontificate.

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Really interesting post, Maureen, thanks.

My introduction to this particular balancing act was in Marcella Hazan's introduction to her pesto recipe in The Classic Italian Cookbook, now out of print but included in The Essentials of Italian Cooking. She advises for American cooks:

"In Genoa, they use equal quantities of Parmesan cheese and of a special, mildly tangy Sardinian cheese made of sheep's milk. The Romano pecorino cheese available here is considerably sharper than Sardo pecorino. You must therefore increase the proportion of Parmesan to pecorino...the proportion I suggest is 4 parts Parmesan to 1 part Romano...a well-rounded pesto is never made with all Parmesan or all pecorino."

I have played around with her recommendations and have long since concluded that Marcella is right, as usual. For pesto, using both cheeses makes all the difference.



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Sini Fulvi and Locatelli are two good "Pecorino Romano"-style pecorinos (i.e., longer aged and more for grating). They're not as salty and harsh as the generic Pecorino Romano you get at the grocery store.

Otherwise, as other posters have said, I generally look at what part of Italy the recipe is from for an idea of what kind of cheese to use. Starting from Tuscany on southwards, it's more likely than not to be some form of pecorino. When authors suggest combining the two it's generally I think to soften the harsher pecorino that was most available until recently. You do use both pecorino and parmigiano traditionally in pesto but it is the younger fiore sardo type.

I really like pecorino to grate over vegetable-based sauces that have been simmered only in olive oil. For some reason it takes very well when combined with fresh mint as a garnish.

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