- Imported Parmigiano-Reggiano
- Trader Joe's Parmesan
Whenever a recipe calls for "Parmesan", there's only one thing I'll buy: real-deal imported Parmigiano-Reggiano. Sure, I see the domestic Parmesans in the supermarket cheese section. I just look straight past them. True D.O.P. Parmigiano-Reggiano is one of the greatest cheeses in the world, and I'm not generally interested in substituting it with an imitation.
But this week at Serious Eats we're featuring Italian-American recipes, so it seemed like a good time to ask the question, Have I been unfair to domestic Parmesan? Maybe there's a great domestic parm at a great price, and maybe I should be buying that one sometimes.
To find out, we rounded up as many domestic Parmesans as we could find in the New York City area. I also made sure to include an imported Parmigiano-Reggiano in the mix as a control. Back at the office, we tasted the cheeses blind, both cut into chunks and grated on buttered pasta.
We bought any domestic cheese that was labeled as "Parmesan", as well as the one sample of true Parmigiano-Reggiano.
I asked tasters, who tasted blind and in randomized order, to evaluate the cheeses on overall preference, flavor, and texture.
I'll keep this short: The imported Parmigiano-Reggiano whipped the pants off all the other cheeses. Furthermore, it was priced about the same as most of the other cheeses, which means that even from a quality/value standpoint, the imported one is the best option. (Granted, in some markets, finding inexpensive imported Parmesan can be difficult.)
The most expensive cheese in our tasting was a domestic one selling for $15.99/lb, with most of the others priced between $9.99 and $12.98 per pound; the imported Parmigiano-Reggiano cost $11/lb. Trader Joe's has a domestic Parmesan that currently sells for $6.79/lb, making it the best deal of the bunch, and while it didn't score nearly as highly as the imported one, it's the best choice for those looking to spend less.
It's worth noting that even within the world of imported Parmigiano-Reggiano, there are a variety of quality and price levels. The one we bought for the taste test was pre-cut and shrink-wrapped for storage in the refrigerated section of the supermarket—not the best quality nor the most expensive of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheeses. Yet it still won handily compared to domestic options.
As for the domestic Parmesans, one of the biggest problems was none of them came close to replicating the texture or flavor or real Parmigiano-Reggiano, which by law must be aged a minimum of 12 months. Not all had age statements or detailed information on how the cheeses were made, so it's hard to speculate why they were so far off the mark, but, at least to my taste buds, the domestic ones tastes less like Parmesan and more like slightly more aged Wisconsin cheddar that didn't have annatto or some other food coloring added to turn them orange.
The ingredient lists didn't divulge much extra information. The imported parm listed unpasteurized milk, rennet, and salt as the only ingredients. Most of the others didn't specify whether the milk had been pasteurized or not, though they did list cheese cultures as an additional ingredient, which might indicate that the milk had been pasteurized and then the cultures added to re-inoculate the milk with flavor-boosting bacteria.
Because the imported Parmigiano-Reggiano scored so well compared to all of the other cheeses in the taste test, and because it was priced similarly to almost all the others, we can't give a strong recommendation for the domestic Parmesans that we tasted.
Here are our only two recommendations.
Maybe it seems wrong to have an imported Parmigiano-Reggiano win the domestic Parmesan taste test, but we simply can't, in good conscience, steer you to any of the domestic cheeses we tried when the real version is so much better. It received comments from tasters like, "really kinda good flavor," and "nutty and sweet, more so than the others." Others picked up on the fact that it was likely older than the others: "seems the most aged...sweet, with good flavor depth." Another put it more succinctly, "Now that's the stuff!"
Trader Joe's Parmesan
At almost half the price of the others, Trader Joe's domestic parm earns an honorable mention. It's definitely the best value, and as a grating cheese it's just fine. Tasters didn't object to its mild, salty flavor, but didn't celebrate it either. "Pleasant-ish," wrote one. "Salty," noted another, "but no flavor depth." Another touched on its cheddar-like quality: "Okay, I'd eat that. The flavor is remarkably similar to Cheez-It."
I'll stick with my imported Parmigiano-Reggiano, but I'll also implore domestic cheese makers to up their game if they really want to compete in this arena. If any of them do, I'd love to taste what they're making.
Our Tasting Methodology: All taste tests are conducted completely blind and without discussion. Tasters taste samples in random order. For example, taster A may taste sample 1 first, while taster B will taste sample 6 first. This is to prevent palate fatigue from unfairly giving any one sample an advantage. Tasters are asked to fill out tasting sheets ranking the samples for various criteria that vary from sample to sample. All data is tabulated and results are calculated with no editorial input in order to give us the most impartial representation of actual results possible.