Here, a guide to some of the most popular pecorinos, and what to be wary of, too. With a better grasp of the differences among all the types, you can stop wondering about which kind to grab when you're cooking or snacking.
The word "pecorino" comes from "pecora," meaning sheep, in Italian. Accordingly, a pecorino cheese is one that's made in Italy from sheep milk. Hm. Go figure.
Aside from that, the term means virtually nothing. Pecorinos can be aged or young, dry, salty, and sharp, or mild, sweet, and soft. All pecorinos have a PDO (Protected Designation of Origin), and most fall under larger groupings based on the regions in which they're produced: Pecorino Romano, Pecorino Sardo, Pecorino Toscano, and Pecorino Siciliano.
One thing to consider: because all pecorinos are made with sheep milk, they're fattier. Sheep milk has almost twice the fat as goat milk and some breeds of cow, which results in a richer-tasting cheese, with more heft to each bite. Sheep milk cheese can taste (surprisingly) pleasingly... sheepy. Like lanolin. There's often a filmy residue that appears when a wedge is left at room temperature, which is just the butterfat warming up and oozing out. Don't be scared, it's good fat. Sometimes, you'll be left with a long finish on the palate even minutes after you've swallowed.
The best way to understand a pecorino is in terms of its age. Aged pecorinos (which would be considered so when aged 6 or more months) tend to be drier, dense, and firm, with increasingly assertive flavors and more crumbly texture developing over time. At best, these are the cheeses that become crystalline, nutty, and satisfyingly toothsome, with flavors ranging from gamey to smokey to sweet. At worst, they turn sandy, salty, and unbalanced.
In terms of cooking, these are the best cheeses for finishing dishes, as you would use Parmigiano Reggiano. They're denser, easily grateable, and salty, so when they're good, they add a nuanced salty-fatty thing to your dishes. These aged cheeses make some of the most successful pairing partners to red wines, because their fat content can stand up to the intesity that comes with richer wines.
TRY: Pecorino Ginepro, Fiore Sardo, Pecorino Foglie di Noce, Pecorino Romano, aged Pecorino Toscano
Younger pecorinos are typically aged anywhere from 1-3 months. They're softer, with a yielding, gummy texture and a pleasantly mild sheepiness. Young pecorinos taste milky and almost sweet. In that sweet-cheesey kind of way. They're great for eating, and some great values can be found when they're younger, as well. If they're not too young, they can be nicely sliced for salads or crostini.
TRY: Pecorino Toscano Fresco, Pecorino Tartufello (with black truffles), Pecorino Pepato (with black peppercorns), ricotta salata (which is technically a sheep milk cheese since it's made with sheep milk!)
Nora Singley is an avid lover of cheese, and for some time she was a Cheesemonger and the Director of Education at Murray's Cheese Shop in New York City, where she continues to teach cheese classes for the public. She is currently an assistant chef on The Martha Stewart Show.