Some foods are treasured for their intense, concentrated flavors. For example, just a few anchovies give dishes a concentrated fishiness, and good-quality Parmesan adds a similarly potent cheese flavor. The cheese maintains its flavor best when left intact until it is needed, but grated or shredded Parmesan is convenient for quick meals. If you don't have a good Parmesan available and don't want to use the canned commercial variety, several other dry cheeses offer similar flavors.
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Parmesan cheese originates in countryside surrounding the Italian city of Parma, an area well known for fine foods. Formally, the cheese is known as Parmigiano-Reggiano, a term that is legally restricted to cheese produced within a small geographic area by specific methods. The cheeses must be aged for at least one year, and the best are matured for 18 months or longer. The aging process gives them time to dry, while beneficial bacteria produce a range of complex flavors.
One of the best substitutes for your shredded Parmesan cheese is Grana Padano. It is very similar to Parmigiano-Reggiano in how it is produced and aged, but it is made in other areas of Italy. Its flavor is not exactly like Parmigiano-Reggiano, but it is similar in depth and complexity.
Asiago is another of Italy's great dry cheeses. It is a bit sweeter than Parmesan and most brands aren't quite as hard in texture. It is a widely used substitute for Parmesan in pasta dishes and on pizzas, providing good flavor at a price that is usually well below what you'd pay for a high-end Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Romano cheeses are native to the region around Rome, and central Italian cookery often specifies Romano in preference to Parmesan. It is sharper and saltier in flavor than Parmesan, and a little goes a long way. The best-known variety is Pecorino Romano, made from sheep's milk, though there are also goat's milk and cow's milk versions in Italy. American versions are almost always made from cow's milk.
Dry Jack is the homegrown American equivalent to Parmesan. It is Monterey Jack cheese that has been aged and dried through a process similar to the one used in making Parmesan, and you can use it as a substitute for shredded Parmesan in salads and pasta dishes or on cheese plates. Its flavor is usually sweeter and nuttier than Parmesan.
Other European Cheeses
There are a number of other European dry cheeses that you can use as you would use Parmesan, but they are often difficult to find in the United States. Often they're aged versions of well-known cheeses such as Manchego, Gouda or Kefalotyri. Like Parmesan, they have a concentrated flavor and you can use them sparingly. One of the most striking dried cheeses is the "boule de Lille," from France, which develops a vivid orange color as it ages.