"Just take a bite," I barked at my hesitant wife. "Now!" I could see the grated cheese on her two servings of pasta beginning to melt. She couldn't because she was blindfolded. She stabbed at a plate and shoveled some pasta into her mouth. "OW! It's f-ing hot!" she yelled. "Look, there's no time," I shot back. "I need to know what you think before it's too late."
One plate was topped with featherlight shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano I'd grated with a Microplane, that razor-toothed gizmo that can effortlessly turn nutmeg, chocolate, hard cheeses, and lemon zest into wispy little curls. The other was dusted with a fine Parmesan powder, which I'd made using the tiny star-shaped teeth of a traditional box grater. I wanted to know if she could tell the difference, and if so, which one she preferred.
But the heat of the pasta was turning both grated toppings into increasingly similar molten caps, and I was worried their differences were fading. Kate eventually muttered some response to placate me, but it was noncommittal and tinged with resentment and I can't remember what she said anyway. Maybe it was, "They're both gross because you put too much cheese on them."
It was an inauspicious start to my grated-cheese investigations, and I have coronavirus to thank for it. In normal times, I would have conducted these tests in the test kitchen, under more controlled conditions, with multiple willing participants—willing, if for no other reason, than because it's part of the job.
Instead, I was attempting the tests at home, during dinner, as a hungry toddler waited for his pasta, which was currently tied up as Sample B. Granted, these cheese-testing travails are small potatoes in the scheme of things, but let me just say now, never could I have imagined that the primary cause of our marital strife would be a pandemic-prompted clash over a grated cheese garnish.
Meanwhile, I needed to figure out a better testing plan.
But First, Why Am I Even Doing This?
Once upon a time, people who wanted grated cheese at home did it on the fine raspy teeth of a box grater, or some similar contraption.* Tensed up, they struggled and fumbled with the cheese, and their knuckles bled, and, in the end, all they had to show for it was not enough damned grated cheese because half of it is still stuck around the teeth of the grater. Next, they'd grab a butter knife and try to scrape some of that impacted cheese from the grid of skin-shredding stars, running the blade between each diagonal row to pry out some of that precious cheese and—c'mon, you know how this story goes—they'd barely gain a few measly motes.
* Okay, a lot of them bought pre-grated stuff or lazily shredded massive strips of cheese on larger grater teeth, but we can just ignore them for now. I mean, not to insult them—to each their own and all that—but those of us curious about whether there's an important difference between a Microplane and the fine teeth of a box grater already know that those other options aren't worthy of consideration in this particular inquiry.
Then the Microplane arrived on the scene, with its svelte frame and photochemically etched teeth that are probably sharp enough to shave with, if anyone is stupid enough to try that. (Don't try that.) The Microplane rained down fluffy tufts of finely shaven cheese, and it did it so effortlessly. Even better, half the cheese didn't remain glued to the grater, never to be recovered. This thing was a miracle, and it was adopted with the fervor one rightfully has for miraculous things.
Take myself as an example. I've long worked as a professional cook, including years in a good Italian restaurant with a Tuscan chef. There, we'd use a giant grating attachment on a hulking commercial stand mixer, turning pounds of Parmigiano-Reggiano and Grana Padano into a fine powder in minutes. It was the best.
At home? Forget that. I mostly used a Microplane because there were no attachments I could find for my KitchenAid stand mixer to produce such a fine powder so easily. Nor could I track down a hand-cranked cheese grater with fine enough teeth. And that dreaded box grater had left me with so many bad memories; there was no chance I was going to reach for it every time I wanted spaghetti. So, Microplane it would be for me, most of the time anyway, because it was generally good enough.
But some pasta appassionati held firm. My colleague, Roman-raised Sasha Marx, is one of them. For him, there's no convenience that can separate him from his trusty box grater. Shaved cheese? An affront to spaghetti slurpers everywhere. Properly grated, powdery cheese, he and his ilk swear, is fundamentally superior, with a clear and demonstrable impact on the final dish.
When I hear him talk about it, part of me is like, Yeah, I know, you're right, the finely grated stuff is better. And then the other part of me gently elbows myself in the ribs and whispers, You know...the Microplane is so easy.
Which is to say, I wasn't quite sure where I stood on it. And so, here we are.
Weighing My Options: Grating Methods and Their Effect on Mass
After my failed first attempt at a taste test with Kate, I decided a good next step would be to take a step back, maybe answer a simpler question. That question was this: Does the grating method have an effect on the quantity of cheese you get in a given volume?
I pulled my gram scale from a drawer, shaved some Parm on a Microplane and then some more on the finest box grater teeth, and weighed five grams of each sample. Unsurprisingly, the Microplaned cheese curls were loftier, appearing nearly double the volume of the box-grated cheese.
I grabbed a teaspoon measure and carefully spooned some Microplaned cheese into it the best I could without packing it down, until it was full to the rim, and weighed it (minus the mass of the spoon, obviously): 0.7g. Next, the box-grated cheese went into the teaspoon: 1.6g. This confirmed what I'd eyeballed at first—box-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano is roughly twice as dense as Microplaned. Aha! Perhaps some progress.
So...does that matter? It likely depends. When we garnish our pasta with grated cheese, we don't typically measure it.* So while it's conceivable that one might inadvertently sprinkle more box-grated cheese than Microplaned simply by virtue of it being denser, I'd imagine it'd be easy enough to adjust accordingly, but more testing was needed to shed light on that.
* If you measure it, seek help immediately.
But what about a recipe that calls for a specific volume of grated cheese without giving a weight—might that mess things up? Well, yeah, it sure can (which is why we've been giving mass on recipes at SE for years now). And even if the difference doesn't truly ruin a recipe, it certainly could alter the outcome. How much that matters would depend on the recipe, but it's definitely worth keeping in mind when you cook. The two grating methods are not perfectly interchangeable, at least as far as volume measurements go.
A Question of Taste
So far we've established that Kate is now nursing the burned roof of her mouth (along with a grudge against me) and the two methods of grating cheese produce different masses by volume. Cool.
The real question, though, is whether they have a big impact on how good the pasta tastes. To be clear, I mean "taste" in the holistic sense of flavor, aroma, and texture.
To try to answer this question better, I recruited as many of my quarantined colleagues as I could and set them up with instructions and a tasting sheet. I asked them to cook up some pasta and garnish two servings of it with cheese, one Microplaned and the other finely box-grated. I instructed tasters in this particular test not to measure their cheese, but instead do a "real world" scenario in which they garnished with whatever looked like the "right" amount; I also, it's worth mentioning, gave them leeway to use whatever firm cheese they wanted.
They were then to serve these samples to another taster, or have them served to themselves by a helper; whoever was doing the tasting needed to be blindfolded, and, if possible, also kept in the dark about the nature of the test. (This wasn't going to be possible in all cases, so I had them fill out whether the taster knew what the test was about on the tasting sheet.) I asked them to rate the samples on flavor, aroma, and texture, as well as overall preference and any other general notes they had.
Their results weren't conclusive. Overall, the pasta topped with box-grated cheese got slightly higher marks and was pretty consistently described by tasters with words like "stronger" and "cheesier" and "more flavorful." This may be because box-grated cheese is denser, leading to inadvertently more generous doses per serving.
But whether tasters preferred the stronger punch of the box-grated cheese was less consistent, varying by taster and cheese type. The more assertive hit of the box-grated cheese seemed to be rated as more pleasurable when the cheese was sweeter Parmigiano-Reggiano, but when it was salty and funky Pecorino Romano, the reaction tended toward "too sharp."
As for texture, none of the blindfolded tasters remarked on the difference, except for one, who described the Microplaned sample as "grittier."
In the end, one of the tasters declared themselves a convert to the box-grater approach while another gave a hearty meh, saying, "I don't think it matters in my personal life."
Meanwhile, back at my place, I'd resolved not to do another hot-pasta situation, lest I be kicked out of my own home mid-quarantine, and instead, decided to focus on aroma alone, which accounts for much of what we perceive as "flavor."
I grated some Parm on a box grater, then more with a Microplane, making sure I had an equal mass of each sample. I then had Kate close her eyes and smell the two samples over and over again in what was my best effort at a randomized order of the following combinations: AA, AB, BA, BB. She had to tell me if she thought they were the same or different, and if different, whether she preferred one over the other.
This time, she seemed to find the exercise absolutely hilarious and began chortling through her nose into the little sample dishes, eventually unleashing a snort that blasted the finely grated cheese all over the place. As the test officiant—and only person to possibly ever touch a vacuum in our home—I didn't share her glee.
I huffed back into the kitchen, filled up new samples of each, and returned, testily insisting she administer the smell test to me, since, unlike her, I had enough self-control not to blow cheese onto the rug. This was serious business after all!
She obliged, and I managed to easily distinguish the two samples in five out of six rounds, picking what turned out to be the Microplaned cheese as the more aromatic one in each of my five successful attempts.
At this, Kate began to take the testing a little more seriously and promised me she'd be able to keep a straight face this time. So I held the little dishes under her nose as she smelled each one and managed, just like me, to correctly differentiate the samples five out of six times, also consistently picking the Microplaned sample as her preferred one.
But what, I wondered, if the order in which I grated the cheese mattered? Maybe the box-grated Parm, which I'd grated first, simply had a three-minute head start in the aroma-loss race that inevitably happens as grated cheese, with all its surface area, is exposed to air.
Back to the kitchen, I went, making new samples in the reverse order by grating the Microplane one first. After that, I successfully ID'd the cheeses in every "AB" and "BA" round, but this time I always picked what turned out to be the fresher box-grated sample as my favorite. When Kate gave me the same sample twice ("AA" or "BB"), whether box-grated or Microplaned, I had a harder time knowing what I was smelling, indicating the differences in samples were subtle enough to only be obvious when compared directly against each other.
Next, it was Kate's turn. In every round, she correctly differentiated the cheeses, even getting them right when they were the same. But! She picked the Microplaned cheese as her favorite again, even though it was the older of the two samples. This was getting weird.
In an effort to clear things up, I returned to the sniffer's chair, closed my eyes, and completely bungled the test, unable to consistently identify anything. At this point, I had two theories for our shifting results: Either I was beginning to suffer from nose fatigue, or the box-grated cheese, being a finer particle size, was losing its aroma faster than the Microplaned one was, so whatever advantage it initially had as the fresher sample was fading more quickly as our test went along. Possibly both were true. I decided to call it a night.
The next night, I set up a new test to try to clarify whether time since grating really was an important factor in aroma quality. To remove variables, I decided to grate the cheese using only one method—the box grater—exactly five minutes apart.
As soon as I'd grated the second of my two five-gram samples and had it in its dish, I called Kate into the kitchen and asked her to close her eyes. I set one of the small bowls under her nose. And POUFF! A cloud of cheese dust erupted into the air as she broke down into hysterics all over again.
"What is so funny about this?" I fumed. "Just test me, okay? I don't have time for this."
I sniffed the dishes of grated cheese as Kate held them under my nose, consistently identifying the newer of the two samples and picking it as the more aromatic one, but I was once again thrown off when given the same sample twice in the same round (once again, the lesson here seems to be that the differences are pretty subtle). After that, I decided to do another round, just to see if I could zero in well enough to not get fooled by the "AA" and "BB" rounds. Instead, my results were even more inconsistent.
For a little more data, I asked my colleague Kristina if she could repeat the aroma test at home with her husband, both of whom I'm confident did not guffaw their cheese onto the floor. She reported back that her husband was unable to tell the difference between the Microplaned and box-grated samples while she differentiated and preferred the Microplaned one every time, even though it was grated first. But, she clarified that she smelled the samples after her husband, meaning more time had passed in which the box-grated sample could have lost its flavor advantage just as it did in my tests.
So, what did we learn from these aroma tests? I think both Kate and I (and Kristina) were successful enough at differentiating the samples in most of the rounds to conclude that there was a small difference between them, but that difference was subtle and possibly more due to the timing of when the samples were grated than the grating method itself.
Additionally, it seems probable that the increased surface area of the box-grated cheese (based on visual inspection alone) causes it to lose its aroma at a faster rate than Microplaned. More than anything else, how freshly the cheese is grated may be the most important factor in aroma quality.
Let's Take a Look Under the Hood: Grated Cheese Method and Its Effect on Sauce Quality
We have one more thing to consider before we shut this little venture into cheese-grating minutia down. And that's examining how the two methods in question affect emulsification when cheese is melted into a sauce.
I'm going to tell you right away, based on personal experience, that for most sauces it doesn't matter too much. You can emulsify Microplaned or box-grated Parm into tomato sauce or a butter sauce like Alfredo, for example, without much trouble. The real problems crop up on tricky cheese-forward sauces like cacio e pepe, which are infamous for breaking; when they go wrong, the cheese seizes up into little clumps, leaving a watery puddle of sauce behind.
Kenji saw this clearly enough when he was working on his cacio e pepe recipe, finding that coarsely grated cheese was way too prone to clumping and breaking. He settled on a Microplane or box grater as equally preferred methods (his big no-no were larger shreds of cheese). But he also added butter to his sauce, which can help build an emulsion.
What if you make a more traditional cacio e pepe with nothing but black pepper, grated cheese, and the starchy pasta water? Does using a Microplane versus a box grater matter then? I put equal masses of a 50-50 mixture of Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino Romano in two mixing bowls, and wet each with some of the hot starchy water as the spaghetti cooked, stirring to turn each into a paste.
As you can see in the above photos, the box-grated cheese formed a much smoother paste than the Microplaned cheese did. When worked into the spaghetti, that box-grated cheese paste emulsified more readily into a smooth and creamy sauce while the Microplaned one went straight to hell.
Does this mean you can't make a smooth and creamy cheese sauce with Microplaned cheese? No, it just means it's more difficult, especially if you are building a more challenging emulsified sauce like cacio e pepe. Does it mean that box-grated cheese guarantees success? Nope, you can break that sauce too if you let it get too hot. Box-grated cheese isn't foolproof. It's just fool-resistant.
Conclusions: Our Nerves Are Grated, But What About the Cheese?
Running these tests in quarantine wasn't easy. I'm in for some "make-up" conversations in the coming days. And what'd I gain from it? Sadly, not a definitive answer.
Without a doubt, any sauce that requires emulsifying cheese into it is easier to make if you use a more finely grated cheese, and for the most fickle sauces like cacio e pepe, even the small difference in form and size between Microplaned shavings and box-grated bits matters. You want to box-grate your cheese for that.
As to whether more powdery grated cheese is superior as a topping? The jury is leaning slightly toward the box grater but not emphatically so. If you already know that you strongly prefer one over the other, that's great. But our testing seems to indicate that not everyone cares quite so much. At the very least, it's helpful to remember that box-grated cheese delivers a bigger blast of cheesy flavor by volume than Microplaned cheese does, so you can adjust accordingly, using more or less of either kind to compensate.
And remember: The cheese's magical aroma really does seem to fade quickly once grated, perhaps even more so in the case of super-fine box-grated cheese. If possible, try not to grate the cheese you're using until the last minute, and skip the pre-grated stuff because nothing good has happened as it's sat on a market shelf.
Addendum: The Best Ways to Grate Cheese Finely
In the course of this endeavor, I stumbled on a couple methods of that make it easier to get a finely grated powder of cheese—easier enough that I may be a little more willing to not instinctively grab the Microplane.
The first is to use a box on a rimmed half-sheet pan or quarter-sheet pan. In the past, I'd set the box grater in a larger mixing bowl to catch all the cheese, but the bowl's high walls inevitably got in the way of my hands. Without a bowl, I'd grate right on a work surface, but then the cleanup was annoying.
I finally realized that using a rimmed baking sheet was the best way to do it. The rims contain the cheese, reducing mess, but are still low enough not to get in the way of your grating action. Cleanup is easier too because you can just carry the dirty sheet tray to the sink and wash any cheesy remnants off.
I'd also like to give a nod to Oxo's box grater, which I found a lot sharper than many of the box graters I've used before. Its fine teeth aren't quite as speedy as a Microplane, but they're not nearly as terrible as those dull old punch-out rasps I'd long ago given up on.
Perhaps even easier, though, is the Kyocera ceramic grater. I've long had it in my cupboard and use it for ginger. It has pointy teeth that manage to reduce the cheese to a fairly fine powder in no time, but they're not so sharp that you're likely to cut yourself if you brush your hand against them as you grate the cheese. (I mean, please don't try to prove me wrong. I'm sure an abrasion is possible if you really want one.)
Kyocera's grater has another big plus: a moat all around it that collects the cheese as you go, containing messes and making it easy to then sprinkle or dump the cheese into your food, simply by picking the grater up and tipping it to the side. A few gentle taps or harder knocks will send the cheese raining or pouring down.