The one type of cheese almost all of us have in our fridge is a traditional grating cheese—most likely Parmigiano Reggiano, Grana Padano, or, at least, cheddar. Considering the variety of cheeses we enjoy on a cheeseboard, it’s curious how unadventurous most of us are when it comes to choosing grating cheese. There’s a whole world of cheeses out there that could do as good a job as the standards— sometimes even better.
preserving and serving
Graters have been used for cheese as far back as medieval times, though the exact origin of the perforated tools is debated. Some claim they were invented in the 1540s in France by Francois Boullier to deal with a surplus of cheese. But graters are illustrated in Bartolomeo Scappi’s 1570 book Opera as standard equipment in the Renaissance kitchen. Households of the time would own a rasp that was used for grating both dry bread and cheese. “It was a way of using up old, dried-up cheese before proper wrap options existed,” says cheese expert and historian Will Studd.
The Italians have always been at the forefront of the evolution of grana (grainy) cheeses, though, as is typical with Italian foods, they differ from one part of the country to the other; Parmigiano holds sway in the center of the country, and Pecorino stagionat —or aged Pecorino—in the south. “I would tend to use Pecorino for lighter, vegetarian dishes,” says TV chef Angela Hartnett, owner of the London restaurant Murano. “A big 24-month-old Parmesan is better for a meat ragu. It enhances the flavor and creates a creamier texture.”
Finely grated cheese was also used as an excellent protein source, bulking out more expensive bits of meat in polpette and ravioli, for example. “The Italians are very good at nurturing their cheeses to become very dry because they know the scarcity of milk and other foods at certain times of year,” says cheesemonger Patricia Michelson of London’s La Fromagerie, author of Cheese: Exploring Taste and Tradition. “It was often the case that meat just wasn’t on the menu in most households, but having a matured cheese with its strong, almost meaty flavors was a very good substitute as well as a protein fix.” A perfect example, she adds, “is bread soup, which is literally stale bread, water, any herbs around, and maybe a crushed tomato and garlic, and then a thick layer of grated Parmesan.” The cheese transforms the leftovers into a meal.
In France popular grating cheeses, such as Gruyère and Comté, have a smoother texture that lends itself better to being mixed with liquid—wine in a fondue, milk in a sauce—again, the purpose being to stretch the meal with a less costly ingredient. In England that would have been ale, low cost and plentiful; hence the evolution of dishes such as Welsh rarebit and cheese and ale.
So what actually makes a good grating cheese? Maturity is the simplest answer. Aging a cheese intensifies its flavor and firmness; the harder the cheese, the finer you can grate it. Conversely, the softer the cheese, the larger the grating hole should be. But almost any cheese that is firm enough to break into shards can be grated, including logs of aged goat’s milk cheese and hard sheep’s milk cheeses such as Manchego. A dense grateable version of ricotta is one of Michelson’s top picks: “ricotta salata, which can be made with cow, goat, ewe, or buffalo’s milk,” she says, “the buffalo [variety] being the one I particularly like for showering with a plate of pasta.” She gives these instructions: Toss the pasta in a fruity olive oil, then crush ripe juicy tomatoes with your hands over the pasta before grating a generous amount of ricotta salata on top. It is Michelson’s culinary ideal: “simple food with accurate flavors.”
Cheese retailers in the U.S. also have their predilections when it comes to grating cheeses. Ezekial Ferguson, cheesemonger at Di Bruno Brothers in Philadephia, raves about Belper Knolle, an obscure hard cheese from Switzerland. “It’s a weird little ball of cheese rolled in black pepper and garlic and it looks suspiciously like a black truffle,” he enthuses. “I was always fascinated by it from a retail point of view, but while dining at Southwark restaurant here in Philadelphia I had it microplaned over a tagliatelle, wild mushroom, and brown butter pasta dish. With a poached egg; do not forget the poached egg. I can still taste it when I think about it.”
bring it to life
Dry Jack, from Vella Cheese Compnay in California, is a favorite of Sasha Ingram, education coordinator at Murray’s Cheese in Manhattan. “It really comes alive when grated and melted,” she says. “The nuttiness holds up to Parmigiano comparisons, but it’s creamier and brighter. I actually prefer it to Parm when making those ridiculously snackable Parm crisps.” Carlos Souffront, formerly a cheesemonger at Zingermans in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is also a fan of the Vella cheese. “For years at the [Zingermans] deli we’ve done a salad of sugar snap peas and grated Dry Jack. It’s a huge favorite.”
Another California cheese, Capricious from Achadinha Cheese Company, is cheesemonger Ray Bair’s pick for his Swiss chard bruschetta. He sautés Swiss chard with raisins, balsamic vinegar, and a generous glug of olive oil, then piles this mixture on toasted bread and grates the goat cheese on top. “We make this all the time at home,” says Bair, the owner of Cheese Plus in San Francisco. Of course there are also the classic grating applications that never lose appeal. “Having a wedge of cloth-bound cheddar handy to grate over a steaming bowl of meaty chili or thick slices of green apple,” says Charotte Kamin, of Bedford Cheese Shop in Brooklyn, “is always a must.”
Chefs often push the boundaries of what they can do with ingredients, and cheese is no exception. With improvements in grater design and temperature control, these pros have given grated cheese a culinary makeover. At the Inn at Red Hills in Oregon, for example, the kitchen turns out a lettuce salad dressed with a cloud of blue cheese flakes made by microplaning a local blue. At his eponymous Edinburgh restaurant, Scottish chef Mark Greenaway half-freezes the grating cheese he’s using for 40 minutes “so that it’s superchilled and doesn’t separate when you cook it. It also preserves the quality and taste of the cheese so that you can also use it for a crust without using too many bread crumbs. I mix it with fresh herbs such as tarragon, chervil, thyme, and parsley.”
Likewise, Peter Graham’s book, Classic Cheese Cookery, published in 1988, advises chilling certain cheeses before grating. “If the cheese is only medium-hard either by nature or because you have not had a chance to chill it,” Graham writes, “quite a lot of it will remain stuck to the grater, particularly if you use the finer holes. A way to get round this is to rub a piece of stale bread two or three times up and down the grater so the cheese is pushed through. A breadcrumb or two in a dish will not do any harm.” And so here we are—back to the medieval use of the grater for both bread and cheese. The wheel always comes round.
written by fiona beckett
photography by jaime goldenberg