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The Best Supermarket Parmesan
For a cheese with all the nutty, savory flavor and crumbly, crystalline texture of the original, do the cows really have to eat Italian grass?
What You Need To Know
There’s a heated debate raging in the cheese world. On one side, Parmigiano-Reggiano, the so-called king of cheese. Complex, with fruity, nutty, savory notes; a dry, crumbly texture; and a crystalline crunch, this cheese has been made in precisely the same way in northern Italy for the past 800 years. Its adversary? Imitators like Parmesan, Parmezan, Regginito—takes on the classic made under varying regulations in the United States and around the world. (We’ll refer to this group of cheeses simply as “Parmesan” from here on out.) Parmigiano-Reggiano producers want clearer labeling to call out these imitators. The European Union and the United States are currently debating how to label cheese as part of a massive trade agreement.
But nomenclature aside, how’s the cheese? Do the imitators actually rival the real thing, or are their knockoff names where the similarity ends? To find out, we chose the top seven nationally available supermarket products—five domestic Parmesans and two certified Parmigiano-Reggianos from Italy—priced from $5.38 to $19.99 per pound. We asked 21 tasters to evaluate them plain at room temperature and cooked in polenta. We sent samples of each cheese to an independent laboratory for evaluation.
Comparing Parmesan and Parmigiano-Reggiano
Even before tasters took a bite, differences among the cheeses were noticeable. On the whole, domestic products were smoother, almost waxy in appearance; the two Parmigiano-Reggianos appeared drier and had visible white flecks of crystallization. In the plain tasting, tasters in general panned the domestics, criticizing them for being rubbery and bland. The two Parmigiano-Reggianos, on the other hand, earned praise for being dry and crumbly, with flavor that was “robust,” “nutty,” and “clear and bright.” While the textural differences didn’t come out as clearly in the polenta tasting, the preference for the imports held up. But when we took a closer look at the results, we noticed that one domestic cheese fared impressively well, earning praise for both its flavor and texture. It even had those crystalline flecks.
So what are these producers doing differently? For an explanation, we looked into how the cheeses are made, starting with the cows and what they eat.
Cheese Starts with the Cow
In the highly sanctioned world of Parmigiano-Reggiano, cows graze in pastures; their diet must consist of at least 75 percent local grass. Here in the United States, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t mandate diet, and cows typically aren’t pastured; manufacturers reported using various feeds, including hay, corn, soybeans, and grains.
According to Dean Sommer, cheese and ...
Everything We Tested
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