I'm sure you have all heard the phrase, "champagne taste on a beer budget." The underlying message is that, to get the good stuff, you have to pay big bucks. This is especially true with some of the world's top cheeses.
If you are watching your budget, there are a couple of ways to cater to your champagne tastes and still stick to a beer budget. One way is to find products similar to the big-ticket items you are interested in that may not be as flavorful as the original, but for the cost, a good substitute.
Oftentimes, these lesser-known products are quite good, and you can realize substantial savings at the check out line. For instance, Parmigiano-Reggiano is the gold standard of Parmesan cheese.
Everyone has heard the name, and, at $22/pound, this it is certainly a big ticket item. Only cheeses made in a designated area of Italy, including Parma and Reggio Emilia, can bear the Parmigiano-Reggiano name.
This doesn't mean that cheese made in the same style is inferior to Parmigiano-Reggiano. It just means that that cheese was not made in the designated area by the designated consortium of cheese makers. There are very fine examples of widely available Parmesan hard Italian cheese on the market.
Parmesan From Argentina and Wisconsin
For example, I recently sampled two Parmesan cheeses, one from Argentina and the other from Wisconsin that were much less expensive than Parmigiano Reggiano and were very good. Do they match up with the Italian original?
No, but depending what you are using them for and how much you can afford, they are a great alternative.
Regginito is from Argentina and can be tangy to sharp depending on the age. It goes for about $10 per pound at my cheese market and is great for grating and cooking with.
I found it delightful just to eat by itself and would serve this on a cheese board at a party. At half the price of imported Parmigiano Reggiano, I'm thinking this is a good buy.
The domestic Parmesan from Wisconsin is called SarVecchio and is comparable to Asiago, an Italian cheese that has a similar flavor to Parmesan. SarVecchio Parmesan is aged at least 20 months and is also great for grating. At about $8 bucks a pound at my market, this is another good alternative.
Parmigian-Reggiano is considered a grana type cheese because it is a hard, mature Italian cheese with a granular texture but when I think of Grana, I think of Grana Padano. The main difference between these two cheeses is the diet of the cows that produce the milk that goes into making each cheese. The Grana cheese is also usually younger.
There are other distinctions but many more similarities and I will do a post on each cheese separately one day to spell them out. For now let's just say the Grana Padano is an excellent substitute for the most well know Parmigiano Reggiano and although not as inexpensive as the Regginito or SarVecchio, it is less expensive than the Reggiano.
When Should I Splurge?
Another way to economize without sacrificing taste is in deciding for yourself what ingredients you consider "splurge-worthy" and which ones are not. While some people wouldn't be caught dead using the Parmesan cheese out of the green can, others justify it because they are using other quality ingredients.
I'm not a big fan of Parmesan cheese in a can but I have lots of friends whose kids will only eat cheese from a stick (string cheese) and the Green can. We never had the Green can Parmesan in the house so my kids only know Grana cheeses.
Saying that, if you make a risotto using homemade stock and high quality saffron, you might be able to use a bit of green can Parmesan for finishing but I would still prefer one of the lesser expensive Parmesans that I can grate myself. Remember, all cheeses start to loose some of their flavor after they are grated and sit in your refrigerator.
Now on the other hand, if you are making a dish in which Parmesan is a featured ingredient, such as Caesar Salad with shaved Parmesan, sprinkling on some canned Parmesan will probably not work for you. Every cook has to decide what his/her "money ingredients" are. Which ingredients they are willing to pay a premium on and which they are willing to economize on.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that there are no hard and fast rules here. While some cooks will gladly pay premium prices for everything from finishing salts to flavored oils to caviar, others may choose to economize in one area or another.
For some people, a couple of shavings of real Parmigiano-Reggiano can elevate spaghetti made with a jarred sauce. For others, a sprinkle from the green can might enhance a homemade sauce.
Cook for your own palate and budget. With the wealth of ingredients available to us, there is a way to make every meal special, no matter what your budget.
Other ingredients that you should be able to find a lower cost, similar version of include caviar and other roe, wines and sparkling wines, vanilla, saffron and truffles. We can look at them in future posts too.