There’s parmigiano-reggiano, the hard cheese of Italian origin that stands an indispensible ingredient in its origin country’s cuisine, with its complex profile generally described as being fruity, nutty, buttery, and/or pungent. And then there’s parmesan—technically just parmigiano translated into English, but which (due to the lack of regulation surrounding its usage) is often understood in the US to refer to its American imitation. One particularly notable form of parmesan is the pre-grated sort, which is produced commercially and sold in shelf-stable canisters; and though criticized for its “inferior” taste and use of additives derived from wood pulp, it’s a popular addition in across American and Filipino kitchens for its price and convenience. Which canister should you pick up?
American Heritage’s possesses a toasty, nutty profile that resounds relatively deep and isn’t too salty, finishing on a slightly sweet note as you’d find on cooked dairy. You get granules of solid but chewy bits that tend to clump up at certain areas, but more or less stay loose and distinct enough that it’s easy to sprinkle. With its mellow saltiness, it doesn’t register on the tongue as immediately when added to dishes, but its deep dairy notes come through wonderfully when it’s simmered into sauces and other dishes (besides, you can always just add more salt to your own liking). And while the overall sensation reminds us more of a less-salty Edam than parmigiano per se, the overall progression of flavors well resembles that of the real thing.
Though paler in color, Kraft is similar to American Heritage in many ways. The consistency is mostly the same, and you also get a similar toasty, nutty, umami-filled profile that ends with a slight sweetness. But it goes down with less depth, tasting milder in terms of the cheese yet saltier overall. It’s not the best when consumed plain, but the added saltiness proves to be an advantage when Kraft is used for cooking as it allows the cheese (or the semblance thereof) to come through easily—whether it’s added in while cooking, or sprinkled on top right upon serving.
Marca Pato’s is made with a blend of cow’s milk-based Parmesan and Romano cheeses, the latter referring to a related class of cheese also of the hard, grateable sort like parmigiano but said to have a stronger, saltier character. The resulting blend is saltier, as expected, with less of the nutty depth of the previous two brands, progressing to a sweetness that reminds us of powdered milk before ending on an odd flour-y note. The said flour-y taste isn’t as prominent when the cheese is used in cooking, but you do get a musty finish we don’t dig.
Unlike Marca Pato’s, the only cheese on Santini’s is parmesan. But Santini’s is even saltier, with even less of any sort of nutty or sweet depth to resemble parmigiano-reggiano; in its place is an even more flour-y, doughy taste that makes it hard to enjoy. Adding insult to injury is the consistency, where in between granules of cheese are odd, starchy particles that don’t dissolve easily on the tongue (similar to flour or cornstarch). Should you be stuck with a bottle though, it at least adds a decent saltiness to pasta dishes; the starchiness somewhat dissipates when it’s added in while cooking.
The Verdict: American Heritage
With its just-right saltiness, deep, nutty, character and slightly sweet dairy finish, American Heritage comes the closest to evoking aged cheese and thus comes out as our top pick. Kraft’s take comes at a close second, its saltier profile making for a great topper for pasta, pizza, and just about any dish you can imagine.