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Parm's Most Flavorful Part

By Cook's Illustrated Published September 2016

When buying wedges of Parmigiano-Reggiano at the supermarket, we typically aim for pieces with more usable interior cheese. Is this the right approach?

When buying wedges of Parmigiano-Reggiano at the supermarket, we’ve typically avoided corner pieces that have rind on two sides, aiming for pieces with more usable interior cheese. But anecdotally, we’ve also noticed that cheese closer to the rind seems to be crumblier, with more of the pleasant crunchy crystals (aggregates of the amino acid tyrosine) that help give this cheese its nutty flavor. We decided to put this observation to the test.

EXPERIMENT

We first set up a tasting of samples of cheese we excised from three locations on one wheel of 18-month-old Parmigiano-Reggiano: the first from the very center of the wheel, the second from a location 1 inch in from the side and bottom rind, and the third from a location between these two points. We asked tasters to describe the texture and flavor of each sample and rank them based on overall preference. Next, we took additional core samples from the center and edge locations, shaved them into thin strips, and manually counted the number of tyrosine crystals in each.

RESULTS

Tasters were clear about their preferences. The sample taken from closest to the rind earned near-unanimous support for its “nutty,” “complex,” “sharp” flavor and “pleasantly crumbly” texture—it ranked first. The sample taken from the center of the wheel ranked third and was often described as “clean-tasting,” with a “smoother,” “plasticky” texture. The core sample taken between these two points landed in second place and was described, fittingly, as “middle-of-the-road” in terms of both flavor and texture. The crystal counts also painted a clear picture. Cheese right next to the rind averaged 20 crystals per 10 grams of cheese, while the center cheese averaged fewer than 9 crystals per 10 grams.

TAKEAWAY

When cheese ages, it undergoes a complex process called proteolysis that affects its texture, melting qualities, and flavor. Proteolysis works from the outside in, so the outer portions of the Parmigiano-Reggiano show more of the telltale signs of advanced aging—a dry, crumbly texture; a high proportion of tyrosine crystals; and a deep, complex flavor. Moving forward, we’ll be seeking out corner pieces of Parmigiano-Reggiano at the supermarket. While we’ll get a little less cheese for shaving or grating, we’ll also be buying the best part of the wheel.

EXTERIOR: Visible tyrosine crystals; cheese tastes very complex

INTERIOR: Smooth appearance; “clean,” less nutty flavor