I'm going to say something that might bother you, if not cause you to immediately dismiss this entire article: Parmesan can be boring. Let me explain. On the one hand there's nothing boring about the King of Cheeses per se; I love a good Parmigiano-Reggiano, with its intense nutty, funky flavor and the little crunchy crystals of savory crystallized tyrosine speckled throughout. It's undeniably one of the most delicious things ever conceived by man, real or fantastical. But it's also become ubiquitous to a fault. It's what I reach for to top my pizza. I grate it over my pasta. I sprinkle it on my garlic bread. I stir it into my soup. I rub it on my roast. I'm not quite at the point of mixing it into my coffee, but I've definitely sprinkled it on my toast. It's everywhere.
Wouldn't it be nice if we had some more options from time to time? Sure, we've got other cheeses like Pecorino Romano or a good aged ricotta salata, but they're really just variations on a theme. What I want is something that can be used just like grated Parmesan, but brings a new set of flavors to the table. It's something of particular interest to me during the month of February, when I maintain an entirely vegan diet (and I can tell you, cheese is the one thing I miss most). But I was after something that wouldn't just carry me through February: I wanted something that I'd keep in my pantry all through the year and I'm afraid the common solution of cashews ground with nutritional yeast just ain't gonna cut it.
Here are my criteria, all things that make Parm so great. If my condiment is going to be useful come March, it should be able to do the same:
- It must have a long shelf-life. It's something that can be stored in the fridge or pantry for at least a month at a time so that I can reach for it and use it at will.
- It must offer intense flavor. And I'm not talking one-note flavor: This condiment needs to combine everything from savory to salty to funky to sharp to bright.
- It must have textural interest.
- It must have a home on the table. That is, it should be something that can be added in the kitchen, but can also be placed directly on the table for diners to add at will as they eat, whether with a spoon, a shaker, or just their fingers.
We all on the same page? Good! Let's get going.
The Base: Dried Olives
I started by going through a pretty thorough testing of the various Parm substitutes that exist in the vegan blogosphere. It's not hard: Nearly all of them are in the "add nuts, nutritional yeast, salt, and some spices to the food processor and pulse" category. These combos make for a mildly satisfying, sprinkle-able topping that has some of that crunchy-soft texture you'll find in Parmesan, but in terms of flavor, it doesn't come close to the intensity of real Parm.
Why does Parm have such intense flavor? Two reasons: Dehydration and fermentation. Bacteria in the aging cheese create flavorful aromatic compounds, and as the cheese slowly loses moisture over its months-long aging process, these compounds get concentrated. There are dozens and dozens of aromatic compounds in Parmesan, among them aldehydes (such as hexanal, responsible for bright, grassy flavors), carboxylic acids (they provide some tartness and affect mouthfeel), various alcohols, and sulfites (think: funky, fermented aromas). Amino acids like glutamic acid, proline, valine, leucine, and lysine are also present in high concentration and distinguish Parmesan from most other hard cheeses.*
* See: Improving the Flavour of Cheese, edited by B. C. Weimer, University of California, Davis
Wouldn't it be nice if there were another, readily available food source that offers many of these same qualities? Good news! There is. Olives are a long-fermented food that are inexpensive and packed with complex flavor. (Check out our guide to olives for more information on production and varieties.)
Just like in Parmesan, glutamic acid, leucine, and valine are present in high concentration in all three olive varieties sampled in this study, while lysine and proline are also present in varying amounts. Olives are also packed with aldehydes, carboxylic acid, alcohols, and sulfite. When you compare 'em to Parm, the proportions and exact makeups are different, but the important part is that because of their similar chemical composition, they can play a similar role on our plates.
In order to further concentrate the olives' flavor, I decided to dehydrate them by roughly chopping them in a food processor (I went with widely available pitted Manzanilla olives), spreading them out on a silicone baking sheet liner (parchment will work, though I highly recommend investing in the silicone, as it is completely non-stick and reusable), then setting them in a 225°F oven until completely dried. This took about five hours.
Once they were done, I let them cool in the oven with the door slightly ajar in order to prevent them from picking up any moisture from the cooler air in my apartment. Finally, I ground them into a rough powder in the food processor and tasted them.
Pretty good. The texture was spot on: slightly crunchy, but tender as you eat, softening and almost melting on the tongue. But they didn't have quite the depth of umami flavor nor the tanginess that I was looking for. To address the former, I decided to add a big dab of miso paste to the mix, while for the latter I added some grated lemon zest along with some fresh rosemary sprigs.
I put all the ingredients into the food processor and repeated the dehydration process.
The house smelled fantastic as the stuff slowly cooked down. Savory, nutty, and aromatic. I hoped that the fact that I was smelling so much good stuff in the air didn't mean that I'd be left with no flavor in the finished product.
I didn't have to worry. This stuff is fantastic. Like, so good that I couldn't stop myself taking big pinches of it and just dropping it in my mouth. There are a few pantry staples I make at home—furikake, fried garlic, fried shallots—that I have to make while my wife is away and hide them on shelves that are too tall for her to reach because if she could get at them, they'd be gone in a day. This is one of those preparations.
Since making it I've mixed it into my pasta sauce (and topped my pasta with it), sprinkled it over my avocados, tossed it with my popcorn, added it to sandwiches, and used it to garnish soups and salads. It's so darn good I might even consider jarring and selling the stuff if I had the wherewithal.
Is it gonna replace Parmesan in your pantry? Nope. While the craving for a Parmesan alternative was its inception, it has a different flavor profile altogether. It's a Parmesan alternative, not a replacement. But trust me when I say this: if you're a vegan, the day you make this stuff will be the day that you swear off cashew-nutritional yeast "cheese" altogether.
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