Pasta without Parmesan?
July 24, 2009 8:34 PM   Subscribe

Is there any good replacement for Parmesan cheese in pasta recipes?

I frequently see recipes like this, that feature pasta, fresh vegetables, and Parmesan cheese. I'd love to make something like this, except that I hate Parmesan cheese - I also hate asiago, bleu cheese, and any other cheese that has that sharp, vomit-like, butyric acid taste. (And yes, I've had really good Parmesan, and yes, I still don't like it very much.)

I'm guessing the Parmesan in those recipes is supposed to melt and coat each noodle with a kind of milky, creamy taste, such that the pasta doesn't taste bland, but the vegetables remain more prominent. Is there some kind of mild cheese I can use for this purpose, that would pair well with pasta and vegetables? I'm kind of new to fancy cheese, and I have yet to develop very sophisticated or adventurous taste, but I've enjoyed Edam, smoked cheddar, fresh ball mozzarella, and monetary jack. I don't think I like Swiss very much.
posted by mellifluous to Food & Drink (28 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
To me, the flavor of a Parmesan-type cheese can't really be replaced. Smoked mozzarella would be good, but different. You may also want to try a pesto sauce. It's easy to make your own: lots of fresh basil, garlic, olive oil and pine nuts (splurge and buy the expensive ones. The super cheap Chinese manufactured ones may leave a horrible taste in your mouth for weeks - I just got over an episode two weeks ago).
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 8:47 PM on July 24, 2009

Lots of vegans use nutritional yeast as a Parmesan substitute. It's pretty yummy.
posted by esmerelda_jenkins at 8:49 PM on July 24, 2009

I had a horrible similar experience with Romano. Exactly like vomit.

I'd recommend Ig Vella's Dry Jack. Very easy to grate, historically used as substitute for Parmesan, and a great American artisan cheese. Much milder in bite than Parmesan, but still relatively dry and flaky.
posted by leotrotsky at 8:50 PM on July 24, 2009

Perhaps the cheese, as an ingredient, might not have the same effect?
posted by gjc at 8:51 PM on July 24, 2009

Monterey Jack, that is, not Monetary Jack.
posted by mellifluous at 8:59 PM on July 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

Based on leotrotsky's testimony, you may also hate Pecorino Romano, but I thought I'd mention it as a good Parternative.
posted by grobstein at 9:02 PM on July 24, 2009

I've used cream in replacement of Parmesan in recipes like this, when I didn't have any Parmesan in the house. I had to wait for the cream to cook down, thicken and get caught up in the pasta, so cooking times were a little longer than they would have been had I only needed to wait for Parmesan to melt, but it worked fine. If you go this route, I'd add some kind of spice (or at least some more salt and pepper) to replace the bite that Parmesan is meant to bring to the party. I use red pepper flakes to this purpose, and it is delicious.
posted by pemberkins at 9:06 PM on July 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Old cheddar has a strong flavour, and lab tests say that it's very butyricious, but to my palette, it doesn't compare to the definite pungency of romano and parmesan, which I've learned to love. There may be some other substance countering the butyric acid (for me, anyway). Any old cheese that is somewhat dry may give you both full flavour and the right light, easily shaved texture.

Seconding playing with pesto. I just made a bunch tonight, and found that the batch without parmesan (destined for the freezer) still tasted pretty damn good.

- 2 cups packed basil leaves
- 1/3 cup almonds, walnuts or pine nuts
- 3 garlic cloves
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- salt and pepper to taste
- (cheese I usually add: 1/2 cup shredded Baby Parmesan)

Use a food processor to chop the nuts and garlic with a little salt, then add the basil and pulverize. Pour in the olive oil slowly through the feeder tube, then adjust seasoning if necessary. (Cheese lovers add cheese at this point).

I tablespoon of this (less than 60 calories) will intensely flavour a moderate amount of pasta.

If you like the basic pesto, try adding a tiny amount of shredded parmesan, maybe 1/4 cup instead of my 1/2 cup. Silani's Baby Parmesan is softer and milder than other parmesans, so it might be worth looking out for it.

Or -- how about feta? I always thought it would be a horrible, stinky over-strong cheese, but I've tried sheep's milk feta and found it quite dry and mild. It's not going to melt like parmesan, and will stay rather granular, but milder feta should be relatively low in butyric acid.

Finally, consider goat cheese, which is also distinct but more rich than sharp. Gordon Ramsay uses it with his broccoli soup here.
posted by maudlin at 9:10 PM on July 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you're looking for a more mild cheese that's good on pasta, they make provolone for pasta in big blocks and it comes in variable levels of sharpness. I've found that, as a topping, it makes for a good substitute (but I happen to love fresh Parmesan - I actually made Alfredo sauce just tonight, which needs lots of fresh Parmesan, but I also put in prosciutto for extra flavoring.
posted by KantGoOn at 9:22 PM on July 24, 2009

I think that fontina might work. If I'm remembering it correctly it's milder than parmesan and asiago but then again I like both of those, so I may not be the best judge. If you have access to a good cheese shop or even a supermarket that has a decent in store cheese section, such as Whole Foods, with knowledgeable staff they should be able to offer suggestions and give you a sliver to taste before you buy.

I had a friend who used to put cheddar on his pasta and I have to say it wasn't bad (not with tomato sauce though, just olive oil, cheddar, and hot crushed red pepper sauce). Definitely not for everyone though!
posted by kaybdc at 9:23 PM on July 24, 2009

Try using store-bought bread crumbs. They serve a similar function but without the distinctive parmesan flavor.
posted by Jaltcoh at 9:30 PM on July 24, 2009

Gee, funny this question comes up. Today here at home I was accidentally served pasta with grated cheese from our goats. It was excellent, and as someone who pours on the Parmesan with spaghetti and linguini, and not only could I not tell the difference but it was excellent -- dry and sharp.
posted by crapmatic at 9:31 PM on July 24, 2009

You could also try egg, carbonara-style, adding them to the drained but still hot pasta and tossing to coat and cook the egg. This, at least in my world, also usually has parm, but the egg provides a lot of saucification.

I tried doing a carbonara-type thing with fresh mozzarella -- the kind you get still in a water bath -- and it made it sort of slimy, definitely too wet. A smoked or other harder mozz would probably work well though.

Goat cheese = win. I like this goat cheese, lemon, and asparagus pasta, for example.
posted by librarina at 9:31 PM on July 24, 2009

(the cheese type BTW was a dry, sharp goat cheddar)
posted by crapmatic at 9:32 PM on July 24, 2009

I've had very good success using Dubliner cheese in place of Parmesan in pasta. It tastes a lot like aged gouda, or a bit like a cross between Parmesan and cheddar. The creaminess that Parmesan adds isn't too hard to replace, I second stirring in a raw egg or using cream. It's more difficult to replace the umami punch, the same processes that break down protein into glutamate are the ones that break down fats into butyric acid. Other good sources of umami in pasta are mushrooms, aged meats like pancetta or prosciutto, and anchovies (toss them in the olive oil and fry for a minute to reduce their fishy taste).
posted by TungstenChef at 10:09 PM on July 24, 2009

You could just skip the cheese. I don't think a super-hard cheese like Parmesan adds that much in terms of texture, unless you use it in large quantity or in combination with a liquid (milk, cream, egg, etc).

Or you could experiment with some of the cheese substitutes used in raw vegan cooking, most of which are nut based and would add the nutty flavor of the Parm or similar cheeses without the other parts of the flavor profile that you don't care for.
posted by padraigin at 10:35 PM on July 24, 2009

I'd agree with padraigin - maybe you just don't need cheese. Really, pasta + veggies, tossed with extra virgin olive oil, lots of nice herbs, and lots of roasted garlic would be just fine with no cheese on it at all.
posted by dnash at 11:21 PM on July 24, 2009

The secret sauce of Parmesan cheese is glutamate, effectively the same stuff as teh dreaded MSG (monsodium glutamate). It directly activates the fifth and sorta recently accepted human flavor of umami. To get naturally occurring glutamate without Parmesan cheese, you could try chopped/grated mushrooms.
posted by NortonDC at 11:32 PM on July 24, 2009

I think a few strips of crumbled bacon and some cream would do it.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 12:30 AM on July 25, 2009

If you're specifically looking for a cheese to use and not an excuse to not use cheese, I think havarti is creamy and mild and it's really good for melting. Otherwise, skipping the cheese entirely is perfectly acceptable!
posted by girlstyle at 2:33 AM on July 25, 2009

Thanks for the suggestions thus far. I've highlight as "best answers" the things I think I'll end up trying. Additional suggestions are appreciated, if anyone's got 'em.
posted by mellifluous at 2:39 AM on July 25, 2009

I'm not sure if you'd find the taste similarly repellent, but I've used gouda parrano as a substitute for parmesan with excellent effect.
posted by saladin at 7:06 AM on July 25, 2009

Try romano cheese though. To me romano is much better then Parmesan , Its more expensive but I would try it anyway.

Do you like sharp cheddar? if you like sharp cheddar then you might like romano cheese. if not you severely limited the kinds of cheeese to choose from.
posted by majortom1981 at 8:42 AM on July 25, 2009

NortonDC is right... I'd say the primary flavor component of parmesan is free amino acids (i.e. MSG) but the more epxensive the parmesan, usually the smoother the overall flavor.

If you're interested in adding a little texture, the toasted breadcrumb suggestion is a good one (and a traditional Italian addition to pasta), especially if you season the crumbs with salt and MSG first.

Pecorino romano, to my mouth, is sharper and saltier, and although it is a bit funky in the same way parmesan can be, it's certainly milder in that dimension. So try it if you haven't.
posted by rxrfrx at 10:02 AM on July 25, 2009

I've seen Grana Padano frequently given as a substitute for Parmesan. It's a similar kind of cheese, but supposedly milder. So you might find the flavor acceptable, and it'll still work well with recipes designed for Parmesan.

Also, just as a side note, I think the way the Parmesan is incorporated into the dish really changes the flavor. If it's just allowed to melt on top of something hot, I find it to be unbelievably gross, but if it's mixed in right away I love it. I could eat a pound of the stuff straight up, so it's not like I don't like it. My wife also likes it mixed in, but can't eat it straight.
posted by Garak at 10:25 AM on July 25, 2009

Really, any cheese that you like will work. Do you have a nice cheese shop? You need a little tasting tour! Very mild brie, very young goats-milk cheeses, fontina, smoked mozzarella. In older, dryer cheeses, perhaps gouda. That Edam cheese you like would be fine, too.

And mildest of all, a splash of cream allowed to cook down for a moment works well too.
posted by desuetude at 12:19 PM on July 25, 2009

One other trick to a creamy texture that I can't believe I forgot is to finish your pasta in the pan. Basically you boil the pasta until it's not quite done, then you drain it and reserve a cup of the cooking water. Put the pasta in a hot saute pan with a few tablespoons of the cooking water, a little of your sauce, and a little oil (no extra oil necessary if your sauce is oily already). Cook it over medium to medium low heat, stirring frequently and adding more water and sauce as necessary. It'll take a bit longer to cook than if you had boiled it straight through, but it's worth it because the pasta will soak up the flavor of your sauce and release some of its starch to create a velvety texture. You can see a great example of a pan finished pasta in this guy's blog. You can use the technique with any kind of pasta other than pesto (which isn't supposed to cook in the pan), I often use it with a simple sauce of olive oil, garlic, red pepper flakes, white wine, and whatever veggies I have on hand. Plus a bit of Parmesan, of course. ;-)
posted by TungstenChef at 10:12 PM on July 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Two of my relatives can't eat Parmesan, because of migraines; they both usually substitute feta.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:40 PM on July 27, 2009

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