Eliminate any cheese aisle confusion with this handy explainer.
If there’s one thing we can probably all agree on, it’s this: Cheese has the power to make any dish better. But that’s not to say we don’t play favorites.
Some of us prefer sharper, saltier cheeses that pack a punch, while others gravitate towards more mild, soft cheeses that have a melt-in-your-mouth kind of quality. And while it may be easy to quickly spot the difference between say, a cheddar or a Swiss, others can go a bit incognito.
Take Asiago, Romano, and Parmesan, for example—while all three cheeses hail from Italy, they’re each made differently and have very distinct flavors. And yet some of us find ourselves mixing them up.
Here’s how to spot the differences the next time you find yourself around a cheese board.
According to Chef Marc Bauer, Master Chef at the International Culinary Center®, Asiago comes from the Vicenza and Trento regions of Italy. It’s made with cow’s milk—either unpasteurized or commercial pasteurized, depending on the brand—which is what gives it that mild flavor.
But if you’re struggling to picture just what Asiago looks like, that may be because it often turns up in different forms, ranging from hard to semi-soft, depending on how it’s made and how long it’s been aged. Compared to Parmesan or Pecorino Romano, which are much dryer, Asiago is a pretty moist. Melt it on top of crusty bread or use it to doctor up some some veggies—either way, it’ll create the perfect layer of cheesy goodness.
Pecorino Romano Cheese
Pecorino Romano comes from the Lazio, Sardinia, and Tuscany (pecorino Toscano) regions of Italy, according to Bauer. But aside from just location, Romano is set apart from other cheeses for one other main reason: It’s made with unpasteurized sheep’s milk (sheep is Pecora in Italian), which gives it a sharper flavor than those made with cow’s milk.
Pecorino Romano is hard, dry, and salty, often found grated over pasta, or blended into meatballs rather than eaten all by itself. To mellow its salty bite, pecorino Romano is often blended with a more mild cheese, like Parmesan.
“Pecorino Romano is cooked pressed,” explains Bauer, “meaning it is heated when inoculated with bacteria and therefore tends to precipitate the curd.” This process is also what creates other hard cheeses like Parmesan, Swiss, Comte, and Manchego.
But its stronger, saltier flavor, also has a lot to do with how long it’s been aged. And according to Bauer, Pecorino Romano cheeses are typically aged for 8-12 months, and the longer it’s aged, the stronger its flavor.
Parmigiano Reggiano (aka Parmesan)
Travel a little further north in Italy, and you’ll find the regions of Emilia-Romagna and Lombardy, where the ever-popular Parmigiano Reggiano was first created. Just like Pecorino Romano, Parmesan is also cooked pressed, resulting in a hard cheese and an even harder rind surrounding it.
And while it may look similar to Romano when it’s grated over pasta, Parmesan has a milder taste. That’s largely due to the fact that it’s made with unpasteurized cow’s milk rather than more assertive tasting sheep’s milk.
It also has a slightly higher fat content—32 percent, versus Pecorino Romano’s 29 percent—adds Bauer, and is typically aged for a longer period of time, ranging from 12-24 months. In fact, you can even find Pecorino Romano aged for as long as 4 years (look for “Stravecchione” on the label). “Overall, the flavor is mild but has exquisite tones that improve or enhance the food it is served with,” says Bauer.