Supermarket Parmesan Cheese
The buttery, nutty, slightly fruity taste and crystalline crunch of genuine Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is a one-of-a-kind experience. Produced using traditional methods for the past 800 years in one government-designated area of northern Italy, this hard cow's-milk cheese has a distinctive flavor that is touted as coming as much from the production process as from the region's geography. But is all of this regional emphasis for real, or can really good Parmesan be made anywhere?
Recently, many more brands of shrink-wrapped, wedge-style, American-made Parmesan have been appearing in supermarkets. They're sold at a fraction of the price of authentic stuff, which can cost up to $33 a pound.
To see how they stacked up, we bought eight nationally distributed brands at the supermarket: six domestic Parmesans and two imported Parmigiano-Reggianos. We also purchased Parmigiano-Reggiano from four gourmet mail-order companies, (see our related review of Mail-Order Parmigiano). We paid from $13.99 to $33.60 per pound—plus shipping—for the high-end mail-order cheeses; the supermarket wedges ranged from $8.49 to $17.17 per pound.
The Making of Parmesan
In Italy, the making of Parmigiano-Reggiano is highly codified. Here's how the process works, in brief. Raw, partly skimmed milk from cows that graze in a small area of Emilia-Romagna in northern Italy is warmed and combined with a starter culture (think sourdough) to begin the curdling process. Rennet from calves' stomachs, which contains the coagulating enzyme rennin, is added to facilitate the formation of curds. The curds are stirred, which allows moisture and whey to escape. Eventually, the curds are formed into wheels that weigh about 80 pounds and have the words "Parmigiano-Reggiano" stenciled onto the exterior. The cheese is submerged in brine (salt water) for several days. This makes the rind a little salty, but most of the cheese is not exposed to the brine.
Finally, the cheese is aged. With aging, moisture levels decline and the cheese's characteristic crystals form. Aging also allows enzymes to break down the protein structure of the cheese, creating its signature crumbly, craggy texture. By law, Parmigiano-Reggiano must be aged for at least 12 months before it can be sold, and it is usually aged for 24 months.
The process is laborious and time-consuming, which explains the high price tag for this cheese. There are also plenty of places to cut corners, which is one reason domestic Parmesans are less expensive. But that's not the whole story.
An American Tale
What the cows eat will affect the flavor of their milk and the resulting cheese. In Italy, the cows designated for Parmigiano-Reggiano graze outdoors; in the United States, most cows are not pastured but generally eat a concentrated feed.
In addition to the cows' diet, there are different and unique microflora and yeasts in the milk. The American practice of heating the milk for pasteurization kills these microorganisms. However, since Italians use raw milk to make Parmesan, these microorganisms add unique flavor components to the cheese that can give you extreme highs and lows of flavor. Pasteurized milk gives you a more consistent product, and it saves money for the manufacturer.
It's not just the milk that's different in the United States. American cheese makers often use nonanimal rennet to curdle the milk. And the starter cultures differ, with Italians using the whey left from the cheese-making of the day before, while Americans generally purchase starters from enzyme manufacturers. Finally, each cheese-making company, and each plant of each company, will have slightly different microorganisms in its environment, which alters the flavor of the cheese being produced.
Differences You Can Taste
Given all the differences in the manufacturing process on each side of the Atlantic, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that our tasters easily picked out the imports in our lineup of eight supermarket. The two genuine Parmigiano-Reggianos were the panel's clear favorites. The domestic cheeses, all made in Wisconsin, presented a wide range of flavors and textures from quite good to rubbery, salty, and bland.
So what made the imported cheeses stand out? Though our test kitchen tasters usually like salty foods, the imports had the lowest salt content. Lab tests showed some cheeses to have nearly twice as much salt as others. That's because many American companies produce wheels of cheese that weigh just 20 to 24 pounds, not the 80-pound standard used in Italy. As a result, more of the cheese is exposed to salt during brining.
Texture was a big factor. The Italian imports had a drier, crumblier texture and a crystalline crunch. Nearly all of the American cheeses were noticeably moister, some even to the point of bounciness, with few or no crystals. The laboratory tests bore out our tasters' perceptions, with imported cheeses showing lower moisture levels in general.
Why is this so? First, even before the cheese is formed into wheels, the size of the curds influences its texture. In Italy, cheese makers use a giant whisk to break curds into pieces described as "the size of wheat grains," allowing moisture and whey to escape. American curds are broken up by machine and usually left larger, which causes them to retain more moisture.
Second, as Parmesan ages, it loses moisture and begins to form its characteristic crystals. At the same time, enzymes break down the protein structure, creating an increasingly crumbly, craggy texture. While Italian Parmigiano-Reggianos are all aged at least 12 and usually 24 months, for domestic Parmesan the federal standard is 10 months, though a few manufacturers petitioned (and got temporary permission) to shorten the aging standard to six months, claiming that it does not affect the quality of the cheese. Our tasters disagreed.
While our tasters clearly preferred Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano, they also praised the top two domestic cheeses, aged for 10 months and 20 months, for their pleasant nutty flavor.