Published September 1, 2007. From Cook's Illustrated.
At nearly twice the price of supermarket options, is a gourmet Parmigiano worth the extra money?
While conducting our review of Supermarket Parmesan Cheese (see related tasting), we ordered Parmigiano-Reggiano from four gourmet website to test more-expensive waters. As we learned in that tasting, the making of Parmigiano-Reggiano in Italy is highly codified. The process is laborious and time-consuming, which explains the high price tag for this cheese.
Parmigiano-Reggiano’s unique flavor comes from several factors other than manufacturing. What the cows eat affects the flavor of their milk and the resultant cheese. In Italy, the cows designated for Parmigiano-Reggiano are pastured, grazing outdoors rather than eating a concentrated feed. In addition to the cows' diet, there are different and unique microflora and yeasts in the milk. Since Italians use raw, not pasteurized milk to make Parmesan, these microorganisms add unique flavor components to the cheese (pasteurization kills microorganisms). However, using raw milk also leads to a less consistent product; you can get extreme highs and lows of flavor.
And it's not just the milk that's different between the two countries. American cheese makers often use nonanimal rennet to curdle the milk; Italians use animal rennet. And the starter cultures differ, with Italians using the whey left from the cheese-making of the day before, while Americans generally purchase starters from enzyme manufacturers.
One of our four cheeses included a type new to us, Vacche Rosse Parmigiano-Reggiano or "Red Cow" Parmesan. It comes from the red-colored Reggiana cows that were the earliest breed native to northern Italy. Due to their lower milk yield, these cows were edged out by modern high-yield cows just after World War II. A few traditionalists are bringing them back to make cheese the old-fashioned way. Their milk has a naturally higher fat content, and the cheese is usually aged at least 30 months.
Our Results? Two of our mail-order cheeses won by a landslide, ranked significantly higher than the other mail-order cheeses for complexity of flavor and appealing texture. They also easily won against our supermarket cheese.