Grating Cheese Overview
For starters, we’ll discuss Italian cheeses often used for grating: Grana Padano, Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino Romano. All have been made for centuries—one for 1,000 years, one for 2,000 years. Although they range in complexity, and three are cow’s milk cheeses while one is a sheep cheese, they can be substituted one for the other. Although some people have strong preferences (e.g. Parmigiano-Reggiano with risotto), others might not know if Grana Padano or Asiago were being grated over their pasta. Still other people prefer the saltier and more pungent Pecorino Romano.
Which is the right cheese to use for your food? What else can you do with these cheeses besides grating them over pasta? As always, your palate will be your guide, but we’ll provide some basic information about each type of cheese. And yes, these graters are also great table cheeses. For those seeking truly special specialty cheeses, there are an authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano and Grana Padano, and an organic Parmigiano-Reggiano.
All four cheeses are D.O.P. (Denominazione d’Origine Protetta) name-protected. This is a legal protection for the consumer that guarantees that you are buying an authentic Asiago, Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano, made by a trained artisan to exacting specifications. The consortium of producers that applies for name protection does so to protect the quality that the brand stands for, from imitators. In Italy, the D.O.P. mark guarantees, among other things, that:
- The cheese was produced within a specific geographical area, from milk from specific herds of animals raised in the same area.
- The cheese was made using strictly defined methods that have been handed down over several centuries.
- The characteristics of the cheese that have been precisely defined: Its size, type of rind, texture and minimum fat content are adhered to strictly.
- The producers submit themselves to review by a control commission or consorzio, which guarantees the authenticity and quality of the products (and rejects those which are not up to standard).
Other European countries, including Portugal, use the D.O.P. designation—for wine, olive oil, meat, condiments and other food products in addition to cheese. In France, the analogous designation is known as A.O.C. (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée), and in Spain it is D.O. (Denominación de Origen).
Buying Pre-Grated Cheese (Don’t!)
Another important note: Please don’t buy cheeses pre-grated. First, you don’t knowhow long they’ve been sitting there. The best flavor comes from freshly grated cheese, not that which has been drying out (that’s why at the finest Italian restaurants, the waiter grates the cheese freshly onto your dish). Equally as important, unless you see the brand on the rind, you don’t know that you’re getting a genuine D.O.P. product. You can easily be getting a lower-quality cheese with less flavor, while you pay a high premium for the “convenience.” Cheese takes almost no time to grate, especially if you have one of the terrific graters that we sell seperately.
While some people report freezing grated cheese with less than stellar results, others do it all the time and are very pleased. Grated cheese can actually be frozen more successfully than whole cheese. The problem with defrosting whole cheese is that the texture changes and the cheese will flake; with grated cheese, flaking obviously isn’t a problem! Try a fine grate rather than large curls; and of course, use an airtight container, not a plastic bag. (We are told, but have not put to the test, that a small metal canister works best to keep out moisture.) If you like the result, you’ll always have a tablespoon of delicious, quality grated cheese to enliven eggs, pasta, salads, soups, vegetables—anything!
Along the same lines, although it should go without saying, pre-grated shelf-stable cheese that comes in shaker tins or jars has as much to do with Parmigiano-Reggiano—or any real cheese—as Velveeta has to do with Cheddar. We suggest that it is better to do without, than to put such artificial flavors on your food!
Photo of Parmigiano-Reggiano and grater, courtesy of Umami Information
Grating Versus Shaving
All of these cheeses can be grated or shaved—you’ll see an example of both in the photos in this article. When should you grate versus shave the cheese?
- In general, if you want something to blend in thoroughly, as in a soup or stew, the dressing of a Caesar salad, or a pasta you want to toss, grate the cheese.
- If you want it to be a garnish or stand-alone ingredient that can be eaten separately with a fork, shave it. You can shave the cheese as a garnish on top of the soup, stew, Caesar salad or pasta as well.
Comparing The Cheeses
We’ll go into depth on all of the cheeses below, but here’s a quick comparison:
Parmigiano-Reggiano Cow’s Milk
Considered by many to be the top grating cheese for its complexity of flavors, it is also saltier and costlier than its cousin, Grana Padano. For those with money, Vacche Rosse is the supreme Parmigiano, priced higher and worth it.
CHOOSE THIS IF you are serving the cheese in a dish where its complex, nutty flavors can stand out—i.e., they won’t be drowned out or covered up by the preparation. Think risotto, carpaccio or light pasta preparations.
Grana Padano Cow’s Milk
Grana is sweeter (less salty) and subtler (less complex) than Parmigiano, but most people wouldn’t know the difference. For the money, a good Grana is a value cheese—and many restaurants use it instead of Parmigiano-Reggiano.
CHOOSE THIS IF you want “value Parmigiano,” or if you want a Parmigiano-like flavor but with less less sharpness and saltiness. Italians know a bargain: Grana Padano is the best-selling hard cheese in Italy.
|Sharp and salty, only a true salt lover would want to eat most of these as a table cheese, except for the few “genuine” Pecorinos still made in Rome, not Sardinia. The saltiness makes it an excellent grating cheese: no more seasoning is needed.|
CHOOSE THIS IF you like sharp, salty flavors, appreciate a bargain, or are lactose-intolerant—sheep’s milk is much more easily digestible.
Incidentally, please do not confuse Parmigiano-Reggiano with “Parmesan.” Anyone, anywhere can make “Parmesan” cheese. It may vaguely resemble Parmigiano-Reggiano, but if someone tries to tell you they’re the same thing, don’t buy a used car from that individual! Parmesan is much cheaper than genuine Parmigiano-Reggiano and invariably of lesser quality. It doesn’t have the distinct aroma or glorious flavor of the real McCoy, although it can be used for grating. Parmesan is often excessively salty, and it lacks the “nutty” quality of and flavor nuances of an authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano.
One rarely needs an excuse to grate delicious cheese over a dish, but here are some of our favorite uses.
Photo courtesy of MurraysCheese.com.
- Always grate the cheese onto the food right before serving. As appropriate, let people grate the cheese themselves at the table: onto eggs, Caesar and other salads, soups, casseroles, stews, risotto, pasta, potatoes and other vegetables.
- You can cook it into sauces, soups, stews and eggs as well. The entire rind is edible and should not be wasted—toss it into the soup or pasta sauce pot (but remove it before serving).
- These applications are true for all of our grating cheeses: They easily substitute for one another. Although there are significant differences in flavor and cost when they are stacked shoulder-to shoulder (or rind-to-rind), the beauty is that, like Barbera, Barbaresco, Barolo and Chianti, when you don’t have one, you’ll happily use what you do have.
A Great Alternative To Grating
Parmigiano-Reggiano is considered one of the world’s great table cheeses. Italians are chagrined that Americans limit the King of Cheeses to grating on pasta. In Italy and elsewhere, it has a place of honor, along with Brie and Roquefort, on the cheese plate. The Italian gourmet will crave only a few chunks of aged Parmigiano, some fine balsamic vinegar or artisan honey for dessert. It can be served with fruit (especially figs, pears, grapes or dried fruit such as prunes, as shown in the photo at right); but no bread is needed. Or, add it to the cheese board along with a variety of different cheeses—a young chèvre, a semisoft cheese like Brie and a washed rind cheese, for example.
Wine Pairing: Profound Parmigiano needs a substantial red wine. Any of the robust wines of Italy will do—the big-bodied Barolos and Chiantis (and California Cabs) and the robust Barbaresco, Barbera, Brunello and others. For dessert, we also enjoy it with Tawny Ports.
To add to your knowledge of the King of Cheeses, read the history of Parmigiano-Reggiano, a cheese enjoyed by the nobility 700 years ago, accessible to everyone today.
Grana Padano is Parmigiano’s cousin: It is almost the same recipe, but is produced outside of Reggio Emilia. The cheese was created around 1,000 C.E. by the Cistercian monks of the Abbey of Chiaravalle, near Milan, and predates its cousin, which began to be produced in the 1400s in Benedictine monasteries of Bologna, Modena, Parma and Reggio Emilia. Between 1150 and 1200, a large number of cheese makers began to produce Grana Padano; by 1477, when Parmigiano was a mere newborn not known beyond Reggio Emilia, Grana “was held to be the most famous cheese of Italy.” Today it certainly is the best-selling Italian cheese.
The knife shown in the photo is a special Parmigiano knife, or cotello per Parmigiano. It is used to chip away smaller pieces of Parmigiano-style cheeses, or to cut smaller wedges.
While Grana, like Parmigiano, can only be made within a certain region of Italy, that region is enormous, spanning 32 provinces in northern Italy, from Lombardy on the northwest coast, all the way across the country to the Veneto on the northeast coast. This is also known as the Po River Valley—the Po River flows cross-country from west to east. “Padano” means “of the Po River” (from the river’s Latin name, Padus) and “grana” means grainy, the characteristic of the cheese. Unlike today’s fancy marketing names, customers of yore asked for things by origin: Give me the grainy cheese from the Po River, give me the cheese from Parma and Reggio (i.e., Parmigiano-Reggiano) or the cheese from Asiago.
Parma and Reggio, the only town where authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano can be made, are also Po Valley towns, so it’s “all in the family.” Because Grana is made in a much larger area, there is twice as much cheese for sale: four million wheels of Grana are made per year versus two million wheels of Parmigiano, according to Lou DiPalo of DiPalo’s Fine Foods in New York City, a specialist in Italian cheeses. This is why Grana is so much more affordable (and the best-selling cheese).
Like Parmigiano-Reggiano, Grana Padano has its own consortium of producers, the Consorzio Tutela Grana Padano, founded in 1954 to guarantee Grana’s quality, place of origin and method of production. Experts visit each dairy, check each wheel of cheese for proper aroma, texture and taste, and stamp each wheel of cheese with the Consorzio’s mark (you can see it in the photo above).
Both Grana and Parmigiano begin with raw cow’s milk and end up as 80-pound wheels with a straw-colored paste (the interior of a cheese), suitable for grating or eating. The only difference is that with Grana, the cows are milked in the evening and the milk stands until morning, which allows the cream to rise; it is then partially skimmed off and the cheese is made. The cheese is made a second time in the afternoon using morning milk. Parmigiano is made only once a day using the cold evening milk blended with the warm morning milk (also a combination of whole milk and partially skimmed milk). As with Parmigiano-Reggiano, there is a minimum 12 months of aging, and fine aged Granas can be found here that are 22 months or more. A stravecchio is a Grana that has been aged 15 to 20 months.
It’s not easy competing when your cousin has already beaten thousands of cheeses in the world to the title, “King of Cheeses.” But the finest Grana Padano is considered by some to be as flavorful as a top Parmigiano—although most would concur that in a blind tasting of the greatest Grana and the greatest Parm, Parm would have the edge. Parm fans say Grana is “less complex”; Grana fans counter that the complexity of Parm tires the palate, while Grana can be snacked upon all day. Like Parm, it is served at every course from appetizers (try it with carpaccio or crudités) to desserts (with berries or melon). The rivalry and debate have been ongoing for centuries, and since taste is subjective, it will never stop.
A good Grana can certainly be complex, offering both sweet and savory flavors. According to GranaPadano.com, though, Grana is more than the best-selling cheese in Italy, it’s “the best selling cheese in the world.”
Next time you’re at the cheese counter, try a piece of Grana side-by-side with Parmigiano. However, note that all cheeses are not created equal: Even if you like one better than the other, your cheese monger may be carrying a better quality of one. So, keep trying, every time you have the chance.
In addition to grating Grana, Parmigiano and Asiago, you can shave the cheeses for a totally different visual effect and mouthfeel.
Wine Pairing: You can use the wine pairings from Parmigiano-Romano above. But because Grana can be less sharp than Parmigiano, it can also take a less robust red.
Beef Carpaccio: thin slices of raw beef topped with arugula and shaved slices
of Grana Padano, drizzled with olive oil. Photo by
S. Hyman IST.