Shredded Parmesan Cheese
How we tested
Nothing beats the savory saltiness of real Parmigiano-Reggiano, the name protected aged cheese made in Parma, Italy, according to strict traditional standards. Cheese made in the same style anywhere else or by less exacting standards is just called “Parmesan.” The distinction can bring a drop in flavor but also a big drop in cost: Parmigiano-Reggiano often costs twice as much as domestic Parmesan.
We’ve recommended a number of domestic Parmesan wedges in the past, but when we polled our readers we learned that more than half use preshredded or grated Parmesan for topping weeknight pasta dinners or in cheese heavy dishes like polenta or risotto. As Parm purists, we were skeptical—but if there was a good shortcut out there, we wanted to know about it. So we gathered seven nationally available preshredded Parmesans (we couldn’t find preshredded Parmigiano-Reggiano that was widely available) and tasted each plain, atop sauced pasta, and melted into polenta. We purchased the products in either cans, tubs, or bags, and while some brands were available in multiple types of packaging, follow up taste tests indicated the type of container had no significant impact on flavor or texture.
Texture was the biggest issue. Compared with the fluffy strands of freshly shredded cheese, some preshredded Parmesans were stiff and fibrous. To get a closer look at shred size, we sifted equal amounts of each cheese through a strainer, weighing the small bits that fell through the 4-millimeter holes and the larger strands that remained. Brands with more than 75 percent large shreds left goopy strings in polenta, while products with more small bits (up to 50 percent) were mealy on pasta. We preferred Parmesan that had one-third small shreds and two-thirds large. (When following recipes, we recommend measuring Parmesan by weight instead of volume to account for varying shred sizes.)
We also wanted flavor that matched the punch of real Parmigiano-Reggiano. Tasters chided lower-ranked products for their bland flavor. We examined ingredient labels thinking that salt might be the culprit, but while no product matched the 433 milligrams of sodium per ounce found in real Parmigiano-Reggiano, only one “too bland” product suffered from too little sodium (252 milligrams, compared with 336 milligrams and up in top-ranked cheeses).
We needed more information, so we sent the cheeses to a lab for analysis. According to the consortium that oversees its regulation, Parmigiano-Reggiano has 8 grams of fat and 8.7 grams of moisture per ounce. Our favorite preshredded product came back with results that almost matched: 7.9 grams of fat and 8.6 grams of moisture, which translated into the firm, crystalline bite and complex buttery richness we associate with real Parm. Lower-ranked cheeses varied from Parmigiano-Reggiano by up to 4 grams of fat and 2 grams of moisture and were, in turn, overly soft, stiff, or bland.
Which led us to the question: Could our favorite preshredded Parmesan stand a chance against real-deal Parmigiano-Reggiano? We held a final blind taste test with new batches of pasta and polenta. Most tasters still preferred the subtle tang and nutty flavor of Parmigiano-Reggiano, but our new winner held its own, especially in polenta, where tasters remarked that it was “rich,” “cheesy,” and “creamy.”
When we have the time and money, we still prefer freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, but we found acceptable shredded alternatives. Our winner came out on top for its “nutty,” “rich” flavor and “softer,” medium-size shreds. Though most manufacturers wouldn’t disclose aging information, we learned that the manufacturer of our winning product is made with a blend of 10- and 18-month aged Parmesan for extra “punchy” flavor. At $0.80 per ounce, it’s only slightly cheaper than real Parmigiano-Reggiano ($1.00 per ounce) but requires less prep time for fairly comparable flavor.