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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?
Last Updated Feb. 24, 2023. Appears in Cook's Illustrated September/October 2007, Cook's Country TV Season 15: Seafood Two Ways
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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
This “robust” Parmigiano-Reggiano was the most aged in our lineup. It earned raves from tasters, who pronounced it “intensely flavorful,” “strong,” and “nutty.” “Piquant,” with notes of fruit and umami, it was “very dry” with a delightfully crystalline texture. In a word: “Delicious!”
Tasters found this Parmigiano-Reggiano to be “more assertive” than its domestic counterparts, with an “authentic tang and nuttiness.” It was “robust” and “pungent,” with “a little funk” that spoke of both “tropical fruits” and “savory mushrooms.” It was “dry and crumbly,” with a “nice crystal structure.”
This was the best domestic Parmesan we sampled, likely because it’s aged twice as long as the four other American cheeses in our lineup. Tasters called it “nutty” and “pleasant,” with a “sweet start” and hints of “caramel” and “butterscotch.” The structure was “crumbly,” though “slightly waxy,” with “a little crystal crunch.”
Recommended with reservations
Tasters picked up on savory, umami notes in this cheese, “like chicken stock.” But it was muted, and in polenta it provided no “clear central cheesy note.” Others compared it to gouda, cheddar, or Swiss cheese. Its “creamy,” “gummy” texture was “too soft.”
This cheese was “slightly nutty,” “briny,” “milky,” and “meaty” but “overall bland.” In polenta, where it melted readily, it didn’t foster any complaints about texture, but tasters noted that it was “soft” and “waxy” when eaten plain. “No crystalline crunch! Disappointing!”
This little wedge had a hint of Gruyère-like nuttiness but was otherwise “quite mild,” so much so that tasters “hardly knew there was cheese” in the polenta made with 2 cups of it. It was inoffensive but more cheddar-like, “moist” and “creamy,” without the “crystalline snap.”
“Impostor!” declared one taster sampling this younger cheese. It didn’t taste bad, but it was denser and softer than a Parmesan should be. Tasters compared it to gouda, cheddar, and mozzarella. It was “mild” “with no real tang.”
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The mission of America’s Test Kitchen Reviews is to find the best equipment and ingredients for the home cook through rigorous, hands-on testing.
Hannah is an executive editor for ATK Reviews and cohost of Gear Heads on YouTube.