How to Use Parmesan Cheese in Cooking

Parmesan cheese, a staple of Italian cuisine, is a highly versatile ingredient that enriches the flavor profile of numerous dishes. Renowned for its nutty and salty taste, this hard, granular cheese is made from cow’s milk and is often used to add a savory umami punch to recipes.

When cooking with Parmesan, consider purchasing it in block form rather than pre-grated. This helps retain its robust flavor and allows you to enjoy its freshest taste as it lacks the anti-caking agents found in pre-packaged versions.

Grate parmesan cheese over a steaming bowl of pasta. Sprinkle it on a fresh salad or melt it into a creamy risotto

Incorporating Parmesan into your meals is a simple way to elevate their taste. Whether you’re enhancing a creamy Alfredo sauce, crafting a rich risotto, or folding shavings into a fresh salad, its presence is transformative.

Storing Parmesan correctly is crucial—keep it in an airtight container in the refrigerator to maintain its quality for up to six months. For extended storage, you can freeze it for about a year.

When grating, using a microplane grater ensures a fine texture ideal for melting evenly into hot dishes or garnishing finished plates. Remember, the final gratings of Parmesan cheese can make even the most modest dish taste exceptional.

Parmesan Cheese: An Overview

When you savor the rich and nutty flavors of Parmesan cheese, you’re enjoying a product steeped in historical tradition, crafted through meticulous procedures, and packed with nutritional value.

Historical Background

Parmigiano Reggiano, the true Parmesan cheese, originates from Italy and is deeply rooted in the history of the Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna, and Mantua regions. Your appreciation for this cheese grows with the understanding that its production methods have been honed since the Middle Ages, passed down through generations to preserve its legacy and quality.

Production and Varieties

Parmesan cheese is more than just a name; it’s a standard. Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano are among the most renowned varieties, both carrying a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status, which certifies that they are produced within specific regions using traditional methods. Here’s a quick glance at these cheeses:

  • Parmigiano Reggiano: Crafted from partly skimmed raw milk, aged for at least 12 months, and hails from Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, specific areas of Bologna, and Mantua.
  • Grana Padano: Similar in texture but milder and less crumbly than Parmigiano Reggiano, aged for a minimum of 9 months, and produced in a broader range of regions.

Nutritional Profile

Embrace the nutritional aspect of Parmesan cheese as a source of protein, vitamins, and minerals. A single ounce (28 grams) typically contains:

  • Calcium: 331 mg (strengthens bones)
  • Protein: 10 g (maintains muscle tissue)
  • Fat: 7 g (provides long-lasting energy)

Selecting the Right Parmesan

A hand reaches for a wedge of Parmesan cheese, a grater nearby. A pot of pasta simmers on the stove, ready to be topped with freshly grated Parmesan

Selecting the ideal Parmesan cheese is essential for achieving the desired nutty and rich flavor in your dishes. Pay attention to aging, whether to use rinds, and the form of Parmesan—grated or shaved—to maximize flavor and texture.

Aged Parmesan

Aged Parmesan, specifically Parmigiano Reggiano, is a hard cheese known for its deep, rich flavor and granular texture. The aging process enhances its nutty flavor, which can range from 12 months for a milder cheese to 36 months or more for a more intense taste. When shopping, look for labels that indicate the age to find the depth of flavor you prefer.

Parmesan Rinds

Parmesan rinds are the outer layer of the cheese wheel that have been exposed to air during the aging process. They’re packed with flavor and can be used to infuse soups, stews, or broths. Save your Parmesan rinds or ask your cheese monger for rinds specifically, ensuring they’re free from wax or other non-edible coatings.

Grated vs. Shaved Parmesan

The choice between grated and shaved Parmesan depends on the texture you’re seeking. Grated Parmesan is fine and powdery, with a more concentrated flavor, ideal for mixing into sauces or batters. Shaved Parmesan produces thin, delicate curls that provide a milder taste and a more pleasing presentation, perfect for topping salads and pastas. Use a cheese grater for a fine grate, or a vegetable peeler for larger, elegant shavings.

Preparation Techniques

Effectively using Parmesan cheese in dishes starts with proper preparation to bring out its full flavor potential. Techniques vary depending on the desired outcome, from enhancing texture to imbuing dishes with a rich umami depth.

Grating and Shaving

For the best flavor and texture, grate or shave your Parmesan when it’s cold right out of the refrigerator.

Grating gives a finer texture that’s ideal for melting, while shaving creates thin strips that add a visual appeal and delicate nuttiness to dishes.

  • Tools: For grating, use a microplane or box grater. For shaving, a vegetable peeler or knife works well.
  • Tips: Apply gentle pressure when shaving to get uniform strips.

Melting and Emulsifying

Incorporating Parmesan into sauces requires careful melting to achieve silky smoothness without clumps. Emulsifying is key in sauces like Alfredo, where Parmesan must blend seamlessly with other ingredients.

  • Method: Add grated Parmesan to sauces over low heat and stir until fully melted.
  • Tool Considerations: Use a whisk to help disperse the cheese evenly.

Creating Parmesan Rind Broth

Adding a Parmesan rind to soups and stews introduces a savory element you can control by the broth’s duration and the rind size.

  • Steps:
    1. Add a rind to your broth and simmer.
    2. Cover with a lid to maintain temperature and prevent evaporation.
    3. Remove the rind before serving, ensuring it has not disintegrated into the broth.
  • Tips: The longer the rind simmers, the more flavor and texture it imparts to your broth.

Incorporating Parmesan into Dishes

Parmesan cheese is a dynamic addition to many recipes, offering a rich, nutty flavor that enhances the overall taste. Its versatility makes it a staple in Italian cuisine and an essential ingredient for creating depth in a variety of dishes.

Pasta and Risotto

When adding Parmesan to pasta or risotto, always do so after cooking and just before serving to maximize the cheese’s flavor.

For pasta, while it’s still hot, sprinkle grated Parmesan generously to let it melt slightly, giving a creamy texture. In a Parmesan risotto, stir in finely grated cheese in the last few minutes of cooking to imbue the dish with a luxurious umami essence.

  • Pasta: Toss 1/4 cup of grated Parmesan per serving into the pasta.
  • Risotto: Mix in 1/2 cup of Parmesan for each 4 servings before the final stirring.

Salads and Dressings

Fresh Parmesan can elevate your salads by adding savory accents.

Shave Parmesan over greens for a flavor boost or incorporate into dressings. For a quick Parmesan dressing, whisk together finely grated cheese with olive oil, lemon juice, and seasonings until smooth.

  • Salad: Scatter shaved Parmesan atop your salad for added texture.
  • Dressing: Combine 3 tablespoons of grated Parmesan with your dressing ingredients.

Soups and Stews

Parmesan imparts a savory quality to soups and stews.

Stir grated Parmesan into soups to thicken and enrich the base or use a Parmesan rind simmered with your broth for an underlying depth of flavor that complements the main ingredients.

  • Soups: Add a handful of grated Parmesan during the last 10 minutes of cooking.
  • Stews: Place a Parmesan rind into the pot for the duration of the cooking process, then remove before serving.

Pairings and Combinations

Fine-tuning the flavors in your dishes with Parmesan cheese enhances its savory character. Incorporating the right pairings can elevate your culinary creations to new heights.

Herbs and Spices

With Parmesan cheese, basil stands out as a classic pairing, especially in pesto or sprinkled over pasta.

The aromatic quality of herbs such as oregano and thyme complements the nuttiness of Parmesan.

Don’t shy away from garlic, as it offers a punchy contrast that works well in many Italian dishes.

  • Basil
  • Oregano
  • Thyme
  • Garlic

Fruits and Nuts

Pairing Parmesan with fruits can add a sweet and tangy note. Try slicing it over pears or apples.

For textural contrast and a flavor boost, incorporate nuts like almonds. They can be toasted and sprinkled over salads with shaved Parmesan.

  • Pears
  • Apples
  • Toasted almonds

Wine and Beverages

When savoring Parmesan, reach for a bold red wine, such as Chianti or Barolo, which stand up to the cheese’s deep flavors.

For a non-alcoholic pairing, consider an olive oil based dressing on a salad with Parmesan shavings. It complements the richness while maintaining a balance.

  • Chianti
  • Barolo
  • Olive oil-based dressings

Creative Uses of Parmesan

Parmesan cheese offers a rich, nutty flavor and can elevate the texture and taste of snacks and appetizers.

Its versatility allows it to be transformed into unique items like crisps and garnishes that enhance your dishes.

Snacks and Appetizers

Parmesan adds a flavorful dimension to snacks and appetizers. You can incorporate it into dips or dust it over potato chips for an extra savory twist.

It’s also perfect for stuffing in mushrooms or sprinkling over freshly popped popcorn. This gives these simple snacks a gourmet feel with its robust flavor profile.

Parmesan Crisps and Twills

  • Parmesan Crisps: Preheat your oven to 400°F (200°C). Spoon mounds of grated Parmesan onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, and flatten them into thin circles.
  • Bake until golden and crisp, providing a delightful snack with a satisfyingly crunchy texture.
  • Parmesan Twills: To make Parmesan twills, follow the same steps for making crisps. But before the cheese cools, gently drape them over a rolling pin or a bottle.
  • They will take on a curved shape, creating an elegant addition to any dish.

Garnishes

Garnishing with Parmesan can be as simple as a light sprinkle over a dish or as inventive as a Parmesan snow.

To create Parmesan snow, freeze a block of Parmesan and then grate the frozen cheese over a plate. This technique adds a dusting of delicate cheese that melts in your mouth, enhancing your dish with a subtle touch of Parmesan flavor.

Cooking Tips and Best Practices

When using Parmesan cheese in your dishes, understanding proper storage, cooking temperatures, and flavor balancing is essential for optimal results.

Storage and Shelf Life

To maintain the quality of Parmesan cheese, store it in the refrigerator at a temperature between 34°F to 38°F.

Wrap the cheese in parchment paper followed by aluminum foil to prevent the cheese from absorbing other flavors and odors.

The shelf life of an unopened block of Parmesan can last up to 7-8 months when stored properly. Once opened, aim to use it within 1-2 months for the best flavor and texture.

  • Unopened Parmesan: Up to 7-8 months
  • Opened Parmesan: 1-2 months

Cooking Temperatures

When cooking with Parmesan, add the cheese towards the end of the cooking process to prevent it from becoming tough or grainy.

Parmesan melts best at lower temperatures and integrates smoothly into sauces when added off the heat.

If using it on pizzas or in casseroles, a short cooking time under the broiler can give you a golden, crispy topping without compromising the cheese’s character.

  • Melting Parmesan in sauces: Off heat
  • Baking with Parmesan: Broil briefly

Balancing Flavors

Parmesan’s rich, nutty flavor pairs well with a variety of ingredients.

For a balanced dish, use butter for a creamy texture or olive oil for a lighter touch, adjusting the quantity to your taste and dietary needs.

As a salty cheese, Parmesan can reduce the need for additional salt in your recipes. Always taste your dish before adding extra seasoning.

  • For creamy recipes: Use butter
  • For lighter dishes: Opt for olive oil
  • Salt content: Adjust seasoning after adding Parmesan

Health Considerations

A hand sprinkles parmesan cheese over a pasta dish

When utilizing Parmesan cheese in your cooking, it is essential to consider dietary restrictions, potential allergies and sensitivities, and the importance of moderation due to the cheese’s rich nutritional profile.

Dietary Restrictions

If you abide by a vegetarian diet, be aware that traditional Parmesan cheese is made using rennet, an enzyme typically derived from the stomach lining of ruminant animals.

Look for Parmesan-style cheeses labeled as “vegetarian-friendly,” which use non-animal rennet alternatives.

ConsiderationDescription
VegetarianAvoid traditional Parmesan with animal rennet.
VeganParmesan is not suitable due to cow’s milk. Alternative: plant-based cheese.

Allergies and Sensitivities

Parmesan is a dairy product made from cow’s milk and can cause allergic reactions for those with cow’s milk protein allergy. If you’re lactose intolerant, Parmesan might be more tolerable as it contains less lactose due to the aging process.

  • Allergy: Avoid if allergic to cow’s milk protein.
  • Sensitivity: May tolerate due to lower lactose content.

Moderation and Portion Sizes

Even though Parmesan is a nutritious addition to meals, offering a good source of protein and calcium, its rich content means it should be consumed in moderation.

Use it sparingly to control calorie and sodium intake.

  • Rich in Nutrients: High in protein and calcium.
  • Portion Control: Limit intake due to calories and sodium.

Authentic Italian Cuisine

Italian cuisine is renowned for its emphasis on fresh, high-quality ingredients and age-old traditions, particularly in the use of cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Considered a staple across the diverse regions from Tuscany to Modena, this hard, granular cheese elevates both everyday family dinners and luxurious feasts.

Classic Italian Recipes

Linguine al Pesto To experience authentic Northern Italy on a plate, you can’t go past Linguine al Pesto.

Ingredients:

  • 100g linguine
  • 2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
  • Generous dollops of homemade pesto
  • A sprinkle of salt to taste

Cook the linguine until al dente, drain, and while still warm, fold through the pesto, adding the Parmigiano-Reggiano for an umami-rich finish.

Eggplant Parmigiana Venture further into Italy’s culinary heart with Eggplant Parmigiana.

Ingredients:

  • 3 sliced eggplants
  • 200g fresh mozzarella
  • 150g freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
  • 500ml simple tomato sauce
  • A pinch of salt and basil for seasoning

Layer the fried eggplant slices with mozzarella, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and tomato sauce before baking it to perfection. Enjoy the harmonious blend as part of your family dinner.

The Role of Parmesan in Italian Tradition

Craftsmanship and Quality
Parmigiano-Reggiano, synonymous with excellence, has carried the culinary prestige of regions like Tuscany and Modena for centuries.

Its production, bound by strict guidelines, ensures that every wheel of cheese gracing your plate enriches your dish with a taste of Italian tradition.

Usage in Culinary Practices
While Italy’s pasta and risottos stand out, incorporating freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano can transform an ordinary meal into an extraordinary one.

Its versatility extends from being a prime ingredient in Risotto al Parmigiano to a refined finishing touch on a crisp, green salad.

Always serve Parmigiano-Reggiano at room temperature to maximize its rich, nutty flavor profile in your recipes.

Frequently Asked Questions

Parmesan cheese can transform your dishes by adding a rich, salty flavor and a pleasant umami touch. Below are answers to common questions on how to integrate Parmesan into various recipes.

How can Parmesan cheese enhance flavors in chicken dishes?

Grating Parmesan over baked or grilled chicken can add a savory crust and depth of flavor.

For chicken parmesan, the cheese is essential for that classic golden topping and rich taste.

In which types of pasta dishes can Parmesan cheese be best utilized?

Parmesan is versatile in pasta dishes, from creamy fettuccine Alfredo to a simple aglio e olio.

Sprinkle freshly grated Parmesan for a salty, umami lift, and a perfect finish to your pasta.

What are some quick and easy recipes that include Parmesan cheese?

Whisk Parmesan into scrambled eggs or omelets, or add over roasted vegetables for a flavor boost.

Parmesan crisps made by baking small heaps of the cheese until crisp are an easy, delicious snack.

How can Parmesan cheese be incorporated into traditional Indian cooking?

Use Parmesan sparingly to sprinkle over Indian flatbreads like naan or to enhance the flavor of creamy dishes like paneer butter masala, adding a unique twist to the cuisine.

What are creative ways to use Parmesan cheese as a topping?

Parmesan can be shaved over salads, soups, or pizzas for not just flavor but also a delightful texture.

When roasted, it forms a crunchy garnish perfect for your dishes.

When cooking with Parmesan cheese, should it be added before or after the dish is cooked?

For melted or gooey textures, add Parmesan during the final minutes of cooking.

To retain its robust flavor and prevent overbrowning, sprinkle it after the dish is cooked, especially when used as a garnish.

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Cassie brings decades of experience to the Kitchen Community. She is a noted chef and avid gardener. Her new book "Healthy Eating Through the Garden" will be released shortly. When not writing or speaking about food and gardens Cassie can be found puttering around farmer's markets and greenhouses looking for the next great idea.
Cassie Marshall
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