Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Parmesan Tasting

We just held another class with a group of students at our local university. Besides teaching them some solid cooking skills, we like to throw in a tasting of some sort. While the dishes are cooking, we can take a break and build some taste awareness.

This class we blind-tasted Parmesan cheese. We had 3 types of Parmesan and a ringer (an Italian Pecorino-Romano). Real Parmigiano-Reggiano is precious stuff. Since we like to present recipes with good value - our Valentine's Day dinner for 2 cost about $15 - it's hard to tell cash-strapped students to spend close to $20/lb on a hunk of fine Italian cheese. On the other hand, we don't think the stuff that comes in the green canister (you know what we're talking about but we're not going to name names) is even cheese. We want to give our students the opportunity to discover the flavor differences for themselves. That's why we do the tasting blind.

Our students are wonderfully honest. One exclaimed after trying the cheese from that famous green canister "What is this stuff??!!" with a definite look of confusion. Side by side with the other cheeses, it doesn't even taste like cheese.

Opinions varied but generally the domestic Parmesan showed really well. It tastes mild and fresh. It's not too salty. It doesn't have the depth of flavor of the aged Italian Parmesan but many of the students who had never tasted 36 month Parmigiano by itself thought it a bit intense. If you are looking for a solid domestic Parmesan, the Classic Parmesan from Sartori, made in Wisconsin, is an excellent choice. Still not cheap at $12.80/lb but a very good cheese.

Other domestic Parmesans can be found for as low as $8/lb and they can be good values. Try to buy a small amount and taste different brands to find one you like. Don't expect it to be really cheap. Making good cheese is a milk and labor intensive process and you will have to pay a bit more for quality.

How did our ringer do? Some liked it, others didn't. Pecorino-Romano is a sheep's milk cheese which makes it a little funky but in a good way. Like the aged Parmigiano-Reggiano, it's not shy. Try some yourself and see what you think.

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