Cheeses made from sheep’s milk often are called pecorino cheeses. They can be hard in texture and sharp and salty in flavor, or medium soft to creamy and mild in taste. Pecorino cheese can be aged for many months, or it can be served as a younger cheese with less pungent flavor development. Grating pecorino onto finished dishes or into sauces is a common use, though some cheeses in this group are sliced thin and served with opening appetizers or cheese plates.
Sheep’s milk cheeses originated in Italy and are still made in regions such as Sardinia and Tuscany. Varieties of pecorino cheese are popular in Western countries and can be found in supermarkets and specialty food shops. Preparation method and length of aging determine the type of pecorino, and one region may produce an entirely different kind of pecorino cheese than another. Most of these cheeses are similar in color, ranging from milky white to pale or golden yellow.
Of the available kinds of pecorino cheese, Pecorino Romano may be particularly well known as a sharper alternative to Parmesan cheeses. Often it is aged in blocks and cut into wedges for sale by weight. Because it is a hard and dry cheese, Pecorino Romano may often be used finely grated over pasta dishes or shaved thinly for topping breads and baked casseroles. It is generally used sparingly because of its saltiness. Recipes may list this cheese interchangeably with Parmesan, though the flavors can be distinctly different.
Younger, less aged pecorino cheeses can have a mild flavor suitable for slicing and adding to sandwiches or serving with crostini or crackers. Smooth creaminess can be achieved in making fresh sheep’s milk cheeses, and they can be eaten in ways similar to ricotta or mozzarella. These pecorino varieties lack the sharpness and saltiness of the older kinds and may be described as fresher or sweeter. They also can be used for mixing with herbs and thin meats such as prosciutto and using as spreads.
Regional distinctions and preferences often determine the type of pecorino cheese. Just as Italy, for example, has different styles of cooking from north to south, cheese makers have different styles of aging and seasoning sheep’s milk cheese. If a taste of Pecorino Romano does not appeal or rings too sharp or salty on the tongue, there will be more mild versions available from other regions and producers.