Taste Test: Soy Parmesan vs. Parmigiano Reggiano
Like every person rejected at one time or another, every cheese also deserves a second chance. I’ve had soy cheese before, and our love affair stuttered into a rather tepid truce before we drifted effortlessly apart. It’s not that I had a strong disdain for the neon soy cheddar of the late 1990′s, but just perhaps that I thought it had a time and a place that would never intersect with my kitchen table on a given day. Ever. I was quite happy living with this assumption for over a decade, but eventually time mellows us all and we’re open to trying previously horrifying experiences that have faded into the realm of merely unpleasant.
Enter soy cheese, specifically Soya Parmesan.
Maybe I was feeling particularly beatific that day, but when I saw three varieties of soy “parmesan” beautifully merchandised by the deli counter, I was intrigued. I mean, Parmigiano Reggiano is often referred to as the King of Cheese, a cheese so refined and venerated that it must be produced only in using traditional-style techniques and in certain provinces of Italy from the milk of grass fed cows (who are milked by gossamer gowned virgins on the third new moon of the year). But hey, if you never try then you never know, so I reached out a greedy paw and selected my favorite of the three based entirely on packaging. Well hey, I can hardly be in a position to compare brands if I’ve never had it before, so how the heck else would I choose? Also, this one said, “The Original”, which means nothing to me except as a marketing tactic, but I had so little to go on and had to start somewhere.
Note: Purists who think that “the original” usually means “far superior” must be frequently disappointed. I have an original model Prius in my garage and I need to pump air into the front tires every 3 weeks or they go flat, and the replacement battery for that nifty electric motor is going to cost somewhere in the region of $1,000. Sometimes “original” just means, “not yet improved”.
Because I had such poor previous experiences with soy cheese, I really wanted to give this one the benefit of the doubt. I set the bar low. If eating cheese was a game of golf, the parmesan was like Tiger Woods having a handicap of 18 against Rick Allen. That said, I will still endeavor to be as honest as possible with this post, and I promise that I will actually eat soy cheese. On my own. Without force.
Soy Parmesan vs Parmigiano Reggiano
Color Me Hungry
Parmigiano is a slightly mottled golden straw color on the outside, lightening to a slightly paler interior. The soya parmesan was much paler, almost a creamy white. But whatever, we’re color blind here at the Choosy Beggars. Unless the soya parmesan can also jump and play basketball, which would totally change things.
In terms of texture, parmigiano is quite firm and dry with a slightly graininess. It isn’t crumbly, per se, but it lends itself to having nice hunks chiseled off with a glass of port. The soy, although firmer than expected, was much softer with a smooth, even toned exterior and slightly rubbery bounce.
No Slave to Shave
I frequently add luxurious curls of parmigiano reggiano to my salads or to finish a dish, so the “shave test” was first on our list. Using a vegetable peeler, I first sliced a few thin and loosely sibilant shavings of parmigiano, and then did the same with the soy cheese.
Parmigiano (left) sometimes crumbles or breaks when it is shaved, but that’s not the case for soy (right) which shaves in thin, smooth, even sheets. The shavings had none of the sexy curl that parmigiano sometimes gets, but they were easy to produce and looked attractive enough, even if I am rather partial to the rugged and rough edges of freshly hewn parm.
Verdict: A Guarded Pass
The Perils of Grate-ness
When I’m not secretly chiseling off chunks to gnaw on or shaving parmigiano into salads, it often gets grated to crown a glistening bowl of pasta, mix into a gratin topping, or combine with other cheeses to make a stuffing get that little bit of extra pizazz. I grated a small amount of both cheeses using a microplane grater and had equally good results with both cheeses.
Parmigiano Reggiano has a rich, deep and complex flavor that walks the line between sweet and nutty with an undeniably salty edge. The slightly crystalline texture is barely gritty on the teeth and tongue, but reminds you that this is an adults only kind of cheese that can be an acquired taste to really enjoy. Soya parmesan, on the other hand, had a younger and fresher taste with a slightly bitter after taste that mellowed in the mouth. It was surprisingly salty and ‘broke’ on the tongue rather than mimicking the gritty crumble of parmigiano. The texture was not a particularly accurate interpretation of parmigiano, but it did taste quite similar to a younger, softer textured but salty flavored Asiago that I adore.
Parmigiano reggiano is not a melting cheese. If you want melty goodness, grab a ball of mozzarella or a hunk o’ cheddah cheeze. I can’t use this as a criteria for parms.
Results: We’re Shocked Too
Overall, the soy cheese was a surprising success. Sure, I set the bar pretty low, and if we were really comparing apples to apples the soya parmesan wouldn’t have stood a chance. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the flavor, which made up in subtle but rolling nuance what it was lacking in traditional parmigiano flare. It grated well and shaved adequately, and I think that this soya parmesan would absolutely be a fair substitute for a vegetarian or vegan who was looking to bring the flavor of a firm, salty Italian cheese to their meal. I wouldn’t slice it to make grilled cheese, but that’s not what I would do with parmigiano anyway. Let’s be fair here; this cheese will never make it on my top 10 list or bump elbows on even my most elaborate cheese boards, but it was a competent substitute for a flavor that is difficult to fully replicate.
I know. Who would have thought? It just goes to show you that there’s never a bad time to give someone, or something, a second chance.