What's better, 18-month old Parmigiano Reggiano or 36-month old Parmigiano Reggiano Stravechhio? I wanted to know if the extra year and a half (and the extra couple of dollars) was worth it, so I purchased two half pound wedges from igourmet.com.
Most places I've read say that older Parmigiano Reggiano cheeses have a deeper color than the younger cheeses. I personally couldn't tell the difference in color between my 18 month and 36 month old cheeses. I asked my wife if she could tell, and they looked the same to her as well. Since the cheeses where so similar in color, I had to keep track of the two by the rind. The rind on the younger cheese was darker, and was imprinted.
One difference between the two cheeses in appearance was the number of amino acid crystal in the cheese. These crystals form from the breakdown of proteins as the cheese ages, and older Parmigiano Reggianos have more amino acid crystals in them. (Aged Cheddars and some other cheeses have the same thing happen to them.) Inside it's vacuum packed plastic that the cheese arrived in the crystals looked like white patches of mold to my wife.
Both cheeses appear to be wire-cut. I was a little disappointed by this, because knife-cut Parmigiano has a much more interesting rough texture while wire-cut Parmigiano is pretty smooth. I imagine wire-cut Parmigiano Reggiano wastes less cheese though, since when you cut the cheese with a knife small flakes or crumbs come off.
When I cut off small chunks of cheese with a knife it became apparent that the older cheese was much more crumbly than the younger cheese.
The younger Parmigiano had a nutty flavor with somewhat of an acidic bite to it. To me the flavor of the younger cheese was stronger than that of the older Parmigiano. The younger cheese was sharper, as well.
The Stravecchio was more mellow in taste, but also much more complex at the same time. The taste was fuller, and didn't have the same acidic bite that younger cheese had. Both cheeses had the crunchy amino acid crystals, but the older cheese had much more. I enjoyed the crystals as it made the texture more interesting. The older cheese was also more crumbly and you could feel that in your mouth as you bit down on it.
With Balsamic Vinegar
I tried the cheeses by themselves and also with balsamic vinegar. I had never tried cheese with vinegar before, and was pleasantly surprised by how well I like it. I was also surprised that the younger cheese tasted much different than the older cheese with balsamic vinegar.
The younger cheese drizzled with balsamic vinegar had a fruity taste to it. The older Parmigiano had a sweet taste with balsamic vinegar. I liked the fruity taste of the younger cheese with balsamic vinegar more than I liked the sweet taste of the older cheese with balsamic vinegar.
Parmigiano Reggiano is well-known as a grating cheese. I used the same rotary grater to grate both cheeses. As you can see in the photo the results were different for each cheese.
The Parmigiano Reggiano Stravecchio broke down into tiny crumbs in the cheese grater. It had an almost powdery texture.
The younger Parmigiano Reggiano (on the right side of the photo) held its shape better and resembled shredded cheese. It also had some of the powdery crumbs that the older cheese had, but not nearly as much. And the older cheese did not have any of the larger pieces that the younger cheese had.
I melted some of the grated cheeses on a griddle to see how they might differ. The photo doesn't show it as well as I would have liked, but the younger Parmigiano (on the right) melted slighltly faster than the older Parmigiano (on the left). I expected the opposite to be true, since the older Parmigiano was shredded into much smaller pieces. Even though the younger cheese melted more quickly, the difference in time wasn't very large; on a 300 F griddle the younger cheese started showing signs of melting about 10 seconds sooner.
Some cheeses seperate or become oily when melted. Neither of my two Parmigianos did this.
I don't know if I could pick which one I like better overall; I really liked both of them quite a bit.
With the balsamic vinegar, I liked the younger cheese better, but still liked the older one.
Eating the cheese by itself, I liked the older cheese. I liked the more complex, mature flavor of the older cheese better than the acidic sharpness of the younger cheese. I also liked biting into the amino acid crystals. However, I could have easily spent the afternoon nibbling on them both.
I didn't use either of these cheeses on top of pasta. If I did, my guess is that I would have liked the younger cheese on top of the pasta better, since I like to be able to taste the cheese on my pasta and the younger cheese had a stronger flavor. (That's why I prefer Pecorino Romano on my pasta.)
I would strongly recommend both cheeses. Parmigiano Reggiano Stravecchio is much more difficult to find in stores than its younger version, so you may have to purchase it online like I did. But you may be fortunate enough to have a local shop that carries the older version too. Have you had either of these cheese? Please comment below. You can also learn more about Parmigiano Reggiano in our cheese guide.