Cheese sometimes gets a bad rap for being high in saturated fat and salt, and because of that, a food you should only eat on special occasions. But that's not entirely true, especially when it comes to Parmesan cheese. This famously hard cheese is not only loaded with nutrients, but a great ingredient to keep on hand in your kitchen.
What Is Parmesan Cheese?
Parmesan is a dense, dry cheese. It contains a lot less water than softer cheeses like mozzarella.
Its history dates back to the Middle Ages, when monks in Italy figured out how to make a cheese that could be stored for long periods of time. It was known as Caseus Parmensis, or the "cheese from Parma." By the 15th century, it was being made in large wheels weighing close to 40 pounds.
Parmesan is sometimes called the "King of Cheese" – and for good reason. In the 2021 World Cheese Awards, it beat out over 4,000 other cheeses to become the most awarded cheese in the world. Scientists have identified 31 compounds – including amino acids, fatty acids, and minerals – that unite to create Parmesan's unique taste profile. Its flavor isn't salty, sweet, sour, or bitter, but best described as umami (savory).
How Is Parmesan Cheese Made?
The basic building blocks of all cheese, from cheddar to Gouda to Parmesan, are the same: milk, salt, bacteria, and rennet (special enzymes that kick off the cheese-making process.)
First, the milk is curdled. The curds that form are broken up to release more whey, or liquid. Then, the curd is strained and pressed into large wheels before being dunked into a salty brine. From there, the wheels are moved into an aging room where they may stay, ripening in flavor, for several years.
Parmesan vs. Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese
You might think anything called "Parmesan" is the same as the Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano, but that’s not the case. There aren't strict rules in the U.S. about what can go into the making of cheese labeled "Parmesan."
True Parmigiano-Reggiano is a storied cheese with a tightly controlled process and simple recipe. It has only three ingredients: fresh milk from the Parma/Reggio region of Italy, salt, and rennet. Many kinds of cheese labeled Parmesan are created with more or different ingredients.
It's worth noting that the rennet used in real Parmigiano-Reggiano is taken from the stomach linings of calves, so it's not vegetarian. For a vegetarian option, you'll need to choose a type of Parmesan. Some of those cheesemakers use manmade rennet.
Parmesan Cheese Nutrition
While different dairies produce Parmesan, the process is so well-controlled that the nutrition remains the same across cheesemakers. For every 100 grams of Parmesan:
- Calories: 392
- Protein: 35.71 grams
- Fat: 25 grams
- Carbohydrates: 3.57 grams
- Fiber: 0 grams
Despite being a dairy product, Parmesan is naturally lactose-free. It also contains a number of vitamins and minerals. Parmesan is a good source of:
Health Benefits of Parmesan Cheese
When it comes to health perks, Parmesan can help:
In Europe, Parmesan is classified as a functional food, meaning a food that has medicinal benefits. Its high amount of calcium can support good bone health and help prevent osteoporosis (a condition that weakens your bones).
Avoid protein deficiency
If you don't eat meat, then you know it can sometimes be a challenge to get enough protein. Dairy products, especially cheese, can be a rich protein source. Experts suggest around 3.5 ounces of protein-rich foods, such as cheese, in a healthy vegetarian diet.
Keep a healthy blood pressure
Besides helping to strengthen your bones, calcium is a vital nutrient for maintaining healthy blood pressure. It helps your blood vessels contract and relax when they're supposed to. Just 1 ounce of Parmesan contains approximately 335 milligrams of calcium. That's about 26% of the daily recommended value for adults.
Potential Risks of Parmesan
Overall, there are few risks to eating Parmesan. It’s a lactose-free cheese, and its hard texture makes it safe to cut away moldy pieces and safely eat the rest. But there is a substance in Parmesan – and all cheeses – that can cause an allergic reaction.
Also sometimes referred to as a milk allergy, a casein allergy means that you're allergic to the protein casein, found in milk and milk products. A reaction usually happens within a few minutes to a few hours after you've eaten something that contains it.
Symptoms of a casein allergy include hives, wheezing, itching and tingling, swelling of the mouth, shortness of breath, and throwing up. In extreme cases, you could have life-threatening anaphylaxis, or severe allergic symptoms, such as loss of consciousness or death. Kids are the most likely to have a casein allergy, but many outgrow it over time.
Although Parmesan cheese has many health perks, it is high in calories. Carrying extra weight raises your risk of serious health issues like heart attack and stroke. So like most rich foods, Parmesan cheese is best eaten in reasonable amounts.
Parmesan Cheese Uses
Besides sprinkling Parmesan on pasta, here are a few other easy ways to enjoy the "King of Cheese":
- Shave Parmesan onto a salad.
- Pair with slices of fresh pears or apples.
- Grate onto hot popcorn.
- Add to a breading for chicken or fish.
- Top steamed veggies, scrambled eggs, or avocado toast.
- Combine in a food processor with basil, garlic, and olive oil to make a quick pesto.
- Shake onto your favorite pizza.
- Drop a Parmesan rind into soup as it cooks to add a creamy texture and subtle, salty flavor.
- Bake a thin layer of grated Parmesan for a few minutes to create Parmesan crisps.
- Dunk a small chunk of Parmesan into melted dark chocolate for a rich sweet-salty dessert.
- Add to baked goods, like ensaymadas, Philippine yeast rolls.
If you’re concerned about calories, you could try cheeses with less total fat and saturated fat than Parmesan. Some options include:
- Cottage cheese
- Soft goat’s cheese