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Parmesan Cheese

Overview

Italy is a country rich in food specialties that qualify for the prestigious guarantee "Appellation d’origine" (registered designation of origin). As one of the most valued and common cheeses, Parmigiano Reggiano is the essential ingredient of Italian cuisine. Originating in ancient Italy, its quality characteristics and reputation were already being celebrated at that time. Parmesan cheese, which is produced in the northern region of Italy, is named after the cities of Parma and Reggio-Emilia located in the heart of the region.

Parmigiano Reggiano is the most well-known cheese of origin in the world. It is not surprising that many countries try to imitate its craftsmanship and ancestry. Parmesan cheese, along with Mozzarella, is perhaps the cheese that has most promoted cheese-based Italian cuisine. It is sold in wheels, in vacuum-packed portions or as grated cheese.


Features

Parmesan cheese is produced from whole or partially skimmed cow’s milk or goat’s milk. It is a medium fat cheese that has been pressed and baked, with a polished smooth rind. Parmesan is a hard, light yellow to orange cheese, with a grainy texture and small holes, and it has a lactic, fruity, almost sharp taste which can be more pronounced depending on how long it is ripened. The barrel-shaped, slightly convex block of Parmesan cheese measures 46 cm in diameter and is 23 cm thick and can weigh anywhere from 33 to 36 kg.

Parmigiano Reggiano is sold after a minimum ripening process of 12 months and can be extended to two or three years. During this time, the body of the cheese becomes very firm. As a result, Parmesan cheese keeps almost indefinitely. It can be stored for ten or more years without undergoing any changes to its qualities, except for a progressive hardening of the cheese. A small chisel and hammer are then used to break off portions of the cheese.

In Canada, Parmesan cheese is ripened for a minimum of 10 months.


Varieties

The term Grana is synonymous with Parmesan. The generic name Grana is applied, in Italy, to grated cheese like Parmigiano Reggiano because of its granular texture. For example, Grana Padano made from cow’s milk and Pecorino Romano made from goat’s milk are placed in this category of very firm body cheeses. These cheeses, which are easy to grate, are enjoyed for their incomparable sharp taste and versatility.


Composition

Parmesan is a very nutritious cheese due to its high protein content. It is also rich in calcium, phosphorus and vitamins. One kilogram of Parmesan contains the nutritional equivalent of 17 litres of high-quality milk. It is recommended for youths, athletes and seniors who require an additional boost of energy. Parmesan is considered to be a dry cheese because its maximum moisture content is 32%. Its minimum milkfat content is 22%.

Average Composition of Parmesan Cheese

Product

Moisture

Protein

Fat

Carbohydrates

Minerals

Parmesan (sliced)

29.3%

35.7%

25.6%

3.2%

6.0%

Parmesan (grated)

17.6%

41.5%

30.0%

3.7%

7.0%

With respect to microbiological standards, Canadian legislation prohibits the sale of cheese produced from pasteurised raw milk if the cheese contains more than 100 colony-forming units (CFU) of Escherichia coli per gram or more than 100 CFU of Staphylococcus aureus per gram.


Various Uses

Parmesan is basically used grated in cooking to enhance the flavour of pasta dishes, soups (Minestrone), soufflés, stuffed vegetables (eggplant in particular) and baked dishes (pizzas, omelets). Dishes that are "à la parmesane" invariably contain grated Parmesan cheese that is most often sprinkled on top. Parmesan cheese is an excellent choice for an appetizer, served in slices, with salads and fruit. It can be incorporated into bread dough or sprinkled over it to add colour and flavour to specialty breads. 

It is recommended to buy Parmesan cheese in blocks and then to grate it as required. Only firm body cheese can be grated. It is much easier to grate cheese which has been refrigerated than cheese at room temperature. Once grated, the cheese can be kept in the refrigerator for about one week. Cheese can be frozen but this is not recommended because it affects the flavour of the cheese and almost all cheeses become crumbly. However, dry cheeses like Parmesan, can be more easily frozen than soft cheeses (fresh cheeses like Ricotta do not freeze well).

Parmesan cheese melts more easily during cooking if it is broken up into small pieces, grated or finely sliced. When added to a sauce, cheese should be cooked gently until it melts. It should not boil since this causes the proteins to separate from the fat. Melting cheese in this fashion produces the classic texture of the famous Parmesan fondue.

Firm body cheeses such as Parmesan cheese, Emmental or GruyPre can tolerate high temperatures, especially when used to create a brown crust on the surface of prepared food dishes.


Functional Properties

As an easy-to-use, high-quality dairy ingredient, Parmesan cheese enhances the flavour of dishes, increases their nutritional value and their functionality. Based on the desired application, cheeses are added to baked dishes to increase viscosity, improve texture, enhance colour or act as a binder with other ingredients. The most sought-after functional properties of Parmesan cheese are the following:

  • Flavour: Parmesan cheese is most noted, among other things, for its incomparable flavour. During the slow and natural aging process of Parmesan cheese, the amino acids released through proteolysis combine with the volatile flavour produced by the lactic bacteria to create a highly complex flavour palette (scientific documents have accounted for over 160 compounds such as aldehydes, esters and acids that contribute to the typical aroma of Parmesan).
  • Melting Behaviour: When cheese is heated, it begins to melt when its structure can no longer support is own weight. It breaks down and spreads out under the force of gravity. This melting quality is measured by the cheese’s spreading coefficient which is the surface of the melted cheese measured against the cheese in its original form. Parmesan has good melting qualities which can vary depending on the composition of the cheese, its pH level, the degree of casein hydrolysis and the heating process used (conventional or microwave).
  • Browning: The surface of cheese browns during cooking through the interaction of sugars and amino acid when heated. When cheese is produced, lactose (milk sugar) metabolizes into galactose and glucose while enzymes break down casein (cheese protein) and gradually release amino acids. Residual galactose content and the intensity of proteolysis during the aging process are the two major factors responsible for browning. The Maillard reaction accounts for the colour of browned cheese and the release of typical aromas that add to the appeal of prepared food dishes.


For more information on cheese, please visit the University of Guelph’s
Dairy Science and Technology Web site.


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