Parmesan cheese reviews

You don't have to go to a deli to get good parmesan.
 
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  • Updated:28 Jun 2007
 

01 .Introduction

Parmesan-cheese

Test results for 27 parmesans priced from $17.15 to $69.95

We tested for

  • Flavour and aroma
  • Texture and appreance 

Findings

  • One of our experts’ favourites is a prepacked parmesan nationally available in supermarkets.
  • Getting a wedge cut from the wheel should ensure quality cheese. But taste it first and know what to look for to get the best quality.

Please note: this information was current as of June 2007 but is still a useful guide to today's market.


Brands tested

Deli products (cut from the wheel)

  • Auricchio Grana Padano
  • Auricchio Parmigiano Reggiano
  • Biemme Parmigiano Reggiano
  • Pieffe Grana Padano
  • Pieffe Parmigiano Reggiano
  • Rocca Grana Padano
  • Rocca Parmigiano Reggiano
  • Zanetti Grana Padano
  • Zanetti Parmigiano Reggiano

Pre-packaged products

  • Auricchio Grana Padano
  • Auricchio Parmigiano Reggiano
  • Delre Parmesan Authentically Italian
  • Emilgrana Grana Padano
  • Mil Lel Extra Aged Parmesan
  • Mil Lel Parmesan
  • Mil Lel Superior Real Australian Grana Parmesan
  • Pantalica Parmesan Cheese Italian Style
  • Perfect Italiano Extra Sharp Parmesan
  • Perfect Italiano Parmesan
  • South Cape Australian Parmesan
  • South Cape Grana Padano
  • South Cape Parmigiano Reggiano
  • Virgilio Grana Padano
  • Wattle Valley Grana Padano
  • Wattle Valley Parmigiano Reggiano
  • Zanetti Grana Padano
  • Zanetti Parmigiano Reggiano
 
 

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What to buy

From delis (cut from the wheel, so no photo available)

  • ZANETTI Parmigiano Reggiano - $25/kg
  • AURICCHIO Parmigiano Reggiano - $39/kg

From supermarkets (prepacked)

  • SOUTH CAPE Grana Padano - $32.45/kg

We couldn’t test every small brand stocked in delis around the country, though. So while our What to buy list makes a good starting point, we’d encourage you to get out there and try other parmesans on offer. See Buying parmesan, for tips.

The cost of convenience

  • Our experts tasted two brands of shaved parmesan sold nationally in supermarkets.
  • MIL LEL beat the ‘rubbery’, ‘yellow’, ‘cheddar-like’ PERFECT ITALIANO, but neither scored well and MIL LELwas still criticised for being ‘chewy’ and ‘bland’.
  • Shaved parmesan has more surface area and dries out quickly once exposed to the air. So if you want good flavour and texture you’re better off shaving it fresh from the block - a vegie peeler will do the trick.

Results table

    Ratings Details
Brand / product (in rank order) Place of purchase Score Tasters’ comments Origin Price / kg
($)
Zanetti Parmigiano Reggiano Deli 17 Good aroma, sweet, some fruitiness, dry, good grainy structure, lactate crystals showing; salty Italy 25.00
Auricchio Parmigiano Reggiano Deli 16 Sweet, texture is dry, crumbly, occasional crunch, good presentation; very slightly short flavour Italy 39.00
South Cape Grana Padano Supermarket 16 Sweet, nutty, pleasant aftertaste, typical appearance; lacking full character Italy 32.45
Rocca Grana Padano Deli 15.5 Faint sweetness and fruitiness, some large crystals, good presentation; some openness Italy 29.95
Auricchio Grana Padano Deli 15 Good sweetness, some flavour complexity, caramel, good closed body, typical appearance Italy 27.00
Biemme Parmigiano Reggiano Deli 15 Fruity aroma and flavour, some nuttiness, good texture Italy 69.95
Auricchio Grana Padano Supermarket 14.5 Some sweetness but little overall balance, texture good inside; plasticky surface Italy 42.60
Pieffe Parmigiano Reggiano Deli 14.5 Good fruity flavour, sharpish lipase, flaky body, good granular texture, lots of lactate spotting, dark colour Italy 45.95
Rocca Parmigiano Reggiano Deli 14.5 Flaky, crumbles well, large spots of calcium lactate; atypical flavour Italy 69.50
South Cape Parmigiano Reggiano Supermarket 14.5 Slight caramel, fruity aroma, some nuttiness, good closed body, honey colour Italy 49.95
Zanetti Grana Padano Deli 14.5 Good presentation; slightly bitter, slightly gritty Italy 15.00
Mil Lel Extra Aged Parmesan Supermarket 14 Sweet aroma, slightly fruity, lacks some parmesan character but not bad; slightly open texture Australia 25.00
Mil Lel Parmesan Supermarket 14 Sweet flavour; lacking parmesan character, buttery, cheddar-like appearance Australia 17.80
Mil Lel Superior Real Australian Grana Parmesan Supermarket 14 Sweet; slightly buttery, high fat, open body, some free whey, very orange Australia 28.00
Wattle Valley Grana Padano Supermarket 14 Slightly nutty aroma, good flaky texture; slightly bitter, unbalanced at the end Italy 31.90
Zanetti Grana Padano Supermarket 14 Lacks sweetness and full balance, not complex, slightly open body, glossy appearance Italy 28.00
Auricchio Parmigiano Reggiano Supermarket 13 Dry; earthy barnyard aroma, very atypical, oxidised flavour, rind is oily Italy 50.05
Emilgrana Grana Padano Supermarket (Aldi) 13 Lacks flavour development, salty finish, slightly gritty, too pale Italy 22.00
Pieffe Grana Padano Deli 13 Good closed body; lacking flavour, doesn’t look like aged cheese Italy 29.95
Virgilio Grana Padano Supermarket 13 Bitter, very slightly sandy mouthfeel, smooth waxy finish Italy 35.85
Wattle Valley Parmigiano Reggiano Supermarket 13 Good grainy texture; poorly balanced flavour, slightly rancid aroma, slightly grey appearance Italy 43.90
Delre Parmesan Authentically Italian Supermarket 12.5 Lacks flavour, rubbery, quite dark, cheddar-type appearance Italy 29.70
Perfect Italiano Extra Sharp Parmesan Supermarket 12.5 One-dimensional flavour, overly salty, looks like plastic cheese Australia 21.95
Zanetti Parmigiano Reggiano Supermarket 12.5 Fruity/fermented flavour, slightly gritty, shiny due to packing Italy 34.00
Pantalica Parmesan Cheese Italian Style Supermarket 11 Lacking parmesan flavour, slight rancidity, high moisture, very yellow, looks a lot like a ‘fake’ toy cheese Australia 20.00
Perfect Italiano Parmesan Supermarket 10 Lacking parmesan flavour, chewy, waxy, rubbery, very yellow, looks like a wedge of processed cheddar Australia 17.15
South Cape Australian Parmesan Supermarket 9.5 Unbalanced, excess lipase, wet open texture — wouldn’t grate well, doesn’t look like a parmesan Australia 25.80
 

Table notes

Place of purchase. The parmesans we bought from supermarkets were all prepacked. The remaining parmesans are widely available in delis, providores and upmarket department stores and were cut from the wheel at the time of purchase. All cheese was purchased within one week of the tasting and stored in identical conditions.

Score. The experts tasted the cheeses (without knowing the brands) and agreed on a score, following a 20-point system similar to that used in judging cheese shows. The panel also commented on the flavour and aroma, texture and appearance of each cheese, and the tasters’ comments in the table are compiled from what they said.

Tasters’ comments. See Jargon buster, for an explanation of cheese vocabulary.

Price. This is what we paid in March 2007. Use it as a guide only, as the price of cheese, in delis in particular, can vary considerably.

03.Buying, storing and serving

 

Buying parmesan

Use these tips to help you buy:

  • Before buying a precut wedge from the supermarket, check the pack is tightly sealed — any exposure to air results in oxidation, which compromises quality.
  • A specialist deli or cheesemonger might offer more choice, and you can ask to taste a sample before you buy. A good retailer should be able to tell you about the cheese — how old it is and where it’s from, for example.
  • Parmesan should taste sweet, slightly fruity and slightly ‘lipolytic’. It should have a firm, dry and ‘close’ body (no openings). Despite its granular structure it should have a smooth texture that melts in your mouth. Depending on the age, it can be pale and creamy (if it’s young) to a deep straw-yellow (at 2–3 years).
  • Common faults include being overly lipolytic, stale, over/undersalted, lacking flavour, having a weak or open body, or suffering from free moisture, surface discolouration or excessive lactic acid (which shows as calcium lactate crystals). For an explanation of these terms, see Jargon buster
  • If you’re after authentic Italian parmesan look for the branding on the rind: Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano is imprinted in dots on the rind (see the photo, page 13) along with the producer’s number and the month and year of production. Each wheel is inspected individually to ensure it meets the necessary standards before it’s sent for sale. Cheeses that pass the test are heat-branded on the rind with the consortium’s logo. Parmigiano Reggiano wheels whose testing indicates that they’re best eaten young are marked with parallel grooves around the circumference of the wheel. They’re known as ‘Parmigiano Reggiano Prima Stagionatura’.
  • Older doesn’t necessarily mean better — it’s really down to individual preference and what you’re using it for. The more mature the parmesan, the stronger the flavour, and the drier, crumblier and grainier the texture.
  • If the cheese is sold precut, chances are you won’t know when it was produced, although some brands have ‘aged for a minimum of…’ or ‘matured for…’ and the number of months on the label. The Parmigiano Reggiano consortium this year authorised the use of stamps that indicate the minimum maturity of its parmesans (lobster-coloured for more than 18 months’ maturation, silver for more than 22 months and gold for more than 30). But use of the stamps is optional.

Storing parmesan

  • Unless you have a cool, damp cellar with a constant temperature, the best place to store parmesan is in the warmest part of the fridge, at about 4°C.
  • Advice varies as to how cheese should be wrapped. Aficionados would have you keep any cuts from whole wheels wrapped in wax paper or clean, damp cotton cloth to allow the cheese to breathe and avoid it sweating. But wrapping parmesan in cling film or foil is perfectly OK, according to the consortiums.
  • What’s certain is that quality soon deteriorates after parmesan is cut from the wheel, or the vacuum pack is opened and it’s exposed to the air. And as ideal cheese storage conditions are difficult to replicate at home, it’s best to only buy enough for use within a few days of purchase.

Serving parmesan

  • Parmesan is best known as a grating cheese, and is wonderful sprinkled over pasta dishes or stirred into soup or risottos. But don’t stop there. If you’ve spent money on good-quality parmesan, try serving it as parmesan petals in a salad, or make it the feature of a cheese board.
  • Younger parmesans are ideal served with dry white wines and as an accompaniment to fresh fruit such as pears and green apples. Older parmesans go well with red wines or dessert wines, and are great served with prunes and dried figs or in chunks drizzled with a good-quality balsamic vinegar. Just don’t serve it straight from the fridge — take it out an hour or so beforehand, unwrap it and let it breathe in order to accentuate its aroma and flavour.
  • If you’ve only got a cheap block of parmesan, parmesan chips are delicious, and dead easy to make. Place heaped tablespoons of grated parmesan onto a tray lined with baking paper. Cook at 160ºC for 8–10 minutes — or until dark golden — then cool and serve the chips with your favourite dip, or simply on their own.
  • For recipe suggestions, and details of parmesan producers and how the cheese is made, go to the consortium websites:

04.Jargon busters and meet the experts

 

Jargon buster

  • Aging. Often referred to as curing, maturing or ripening, aging is the process of holding cheeses in controlled environments to allow flavour development and change in texture. These changes are due to the activity of natural milk enzymes and the development of micro-organisms.
  • Bitter. An unpleasant, biting flavour — usually an aftertaste. A bitter aftertaste is sometimes associated with variations in manufacturing and curing or aging procedures.
  • Close. A word used to describe how compact the body of a cheese is. Parmesan cheese should be ‘close’ rather than ‘open’.
  • Culture (starter). Starter cultures speed and control the process of curdling milk during cheesemaking, in part by converting lactose (milk sugar) to lactic acid, which over time results in the formation of white calcium lactate crystals (see Grainy, below). Starter cultures also lend unique flavour characteristics to the cheese. The starter for Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano is a natural culture of lactic ferments from the whey produced by the initial cheese-making process.
  • Eyes. The technical name for holes formed in cheese after fermentation. Swiss cheeses are best known for their large eyes. Eyes in parmesan aren’t desirable.
  • Grainy. A descriptive term for the granular texture created by calcium lactate crystals, which are the product of long aging. It’s desirable in parmesan, though not to the point of grittiness, which indicates excessive numbers of these crystals.
  • Lipolytic. A word used to describe the flavour created by the enzyme lipase releasing fatty acids from butterfat in the process of ‘controlled rancidity’. The desired lipolytic flavour may be mild or sharp depending on the cheese age. Some cheeses, such as Romano, gain much of their flavour from fatty acids. Others, such as cheddar, aren’t supposed to have flavours caused by fatty acids in high concentrations. Undesired lipolytic flavours produced from unwanted micro-organisms or from using old milk are referred to as ‘rancidity’.
  • Rind. The outside of a cheese. The rind acts as a barrier between the cheese and the outside environment, while sometimes imparting a flavour of its own. Natural rind is one that develops naturally on the cheese exterior through drying while ripening, without the aid of ripening agents or washing. Most semi-firm or hard cheeses have natural rinds, which may be thin like that of cheddar or thick like that of parmesan.
  • Whey. The thin, watery part of milk that separates from the coagulated curds during the first step of the cheesemaking process. It contains most of the milk sugar or lactose found in milk.

Meet the experts

  • Russell Smith – Specialty Cheese Consultant with Flavours Culinary Academy, has judged in cheese competitions nationally.
  • Neil Willman – Director of Cheese Expertise, conducts cheese courses and training programs across Australia, and has judged cheese and other dairy products at competitions nationally and internationally.
  • Don Sandman – Tasmanian Dairy Industry Authority Quality Assurance Manager, is a dairy technologist and has judged in many cheese and dairy shows.
  • Sophie Classon – cheese expert and consultant to the industry, runs cheese seminars and workshops for Richmond Hill Cafe & Larder Cheese Room in Melbourne.
  • Roberta Muir – Manager of Sydney Seafood School, has a Master’s degree in gastronomy and is a trained judge of both olive oil and cheese.
  • Joanna Saville – food journalist and food TV presenter/producer, is a trained judge of both olive oil and cheese.