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Substitution for Parmesan in pestos

I know nothing can *really* match the flavor of a good Parmiggiano Reggiano, but I'm currently doing research to do 365 days as a locavore starting sometime next year. I make a lot of various pestos, and I'm trying to figure out what to use instead of Parmesan since nobody around here makes it. I'm on the hunt for local creameries (for reference I live in the Greensboro, NC area. I haven't decided my radius yet, but it'll be probably be 100 miles with some lee-way for specialty items like certain cheeses) that make harder cheeses, but so far all the creameries I can find stop at semi-firm. There's no shortage of softer cheeses around here!

I thought about using some extra cold fresh mozzarella with some added salt maybe? Or even a few crumbles queso fresco? I wonder if it'd be better to just leave the parm *out* if I can only find the good stuff from Italy (oh, woe is me that I only have access to the best quality!). How much of a difference do you think that would make?

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  1. I make a cilantro-serrano pesto with queso fresco, and it works fine. If you can get or make QF locally, use that.

    2 Replies
    1. re: caviar_and_chitlins

      Awesome! There is a place that makes queso fresco. Thank you so much. :)

      1. re: hippiebiologist

        If queso fresco is made locally, the same dairy doesn't make an aged cotija? That's a common sub for parm.

    2. Your local cheese folks that make the queso fresco might be interested in hearing about your quest and consider working on a longer-aged cheese like the one you seek, maybe even as a one-off experiment. Would be fun to collaborate!

      You might want to see if people on the Southeast board who live in your area have recommendations.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Terrie H.

        That's a good idea. One of my friends prefers one of our local cheeses harder and more mature than normally released. He pays for a whole wheel in advance, then the creamery Writes his name on it and keeps it in the aging room another month or so until he's ready for it.

      2. Sounds like a cry for ricotta salata, to me.

        1 Reply
        1. re: njmarshall55

          Do you know of a ricotta salata maker in NC?

        2. If they're available, I'd suggest Asiago, Romano or even a Fontina

          1. I'm amazed at the cheeses that have been suggested as substitutes for Parmigiano in pesto. Parmigiano is a hard, grainy cheese that arrives in the US generally aged at least 18 months. Mozzarella and queso fresco are fresh cheeses that aren't aged at all. These cheeses couldn't be more different from Parmigiano. Quality American take-offs of Parmigiano are few and far between. SarVecchio from Wisconsin is perhaps the best known of them, but it hails from way outside the geographic area to which you've limited yourself.

            Given that you'd like to go no further out than 100 miles from home, I suggest you consider Calvander from Chapel Hill Creamery. It's a hard cheese that is based on Asiago. Nothing can really replace Parmigiano, but this may come closer than other cheeses you could find in your area.

            6 Replies
            1. re: cheesemaestro

              Oh stop. This is about experimentation, not dogma. I have made amazing pesto with QF. Break out of the box where you are "amazed" at things that others try that are different from your experience.

              1. re: caviar_and_chitlins

                Sure you can experiment, but the OP was trying to find a locally made hard cheese that could substitute for Parmigiano.. Your response, and that of others, is that anything goes. If anything goes, why bother to ask for recommendations?

                1. re: cheesemaestro

                  "but the OP was trying to find a locally made hard cheese that could substitute for Parmigiano."

                  But the OP also invited "out of the box" suggestions of softer cheeses when she stated, "I thought about using some extra cold fresh mozzarella with some added salt maybe? Or even a few crumbles queso fresco?" So when other posters went down that path they were not off the mark in doing so.

                  1. re: ttoommyy

                    Just because the OP thought about using mozzarella or queso fresco doesn't mean that these were good ideas. These cheeses have a very mild flavor that, in my opinion, would be overwhelmed by the other ingredients that go into pesto. There are many other cheeses that I would find much more suitable than these. If the OP was concerned that local dairies didn't have anything harder than semi-firm cheeses, it wasn't logical to then suggest even softer, fresh cheeses.

                    1. re: cheesemaestro

                      pffft. I have used QF in pesto. It's quite (amazingly) good.

            2. While it’s true there’s no substitute for Parmiggiano Reggiano in traditional pesto you can be flexible in your use of cheeses, herbs, and ingredients for a variety of flavors. This is your chance to be creative! I make a few types of pesto and have used cheddar, mozzarella, yogurt cheese, and other soft cheeses with success. True, they didn’t have quite the punch or texture of the traditional but the aged cheddar was close.

              1. By all means, try some other cheeses. But you can consider omitting the cheese entirely. Nuts and herbs with oil is already pretty good, and you can sprinkle some cheese on top of the finished dish.

                Can you use a locavore-friendly olive oil?

                Good luck!

                1 Reply
                1. re: Bada Bing

                  Ditto. I make cheese-free basil/olive oil/nut sauces all the time, and they're really good.

                2. I've used goat cheese. The end result was a little strong tasting for me but my husband loved it.

                  Good luck!

                  1. Chapel Hill Creamery is close to you and makes "Calvander" which is "inspired by asiago". It's delicious, and would be great for pesto.

                    Whoops - I just saw that this was mentioned earlier by cheesemaestro

                    1. I'm curious--can you get local pine nuts? If not what local nuts are you substituting?

                      A Google search brought me to Goat Lady Dairy which offers this that may be a substitute for the Parm. I don't think a really soft cheese would be appealing.

                      Gray’s Chapel

                      Named after our rural neighborhood, this mixed milk cheese is a combination of our goat milk and local cow milk. Made in an 8 lb. wheel and aged for 4 to 6 months this semi-hard cheese with natural rind has a unique combination of tangy and nutty flavors.

                      1. What about a (much smaller) amount of nutritional yeast or miso -- in amounts small enough that you can't pick up their own flavors, but you get a little bit of salt and umami out of them. Not at all traditional, but this is a common trick in vegan pestos to get some of the same flavor elements. I don't know how hard those are to find locally-to-you, though.

                        1. I did some research on cheesemakers in North Carolina and found one that actually makes a parmesan: Elodie Farms in Rougemont, north of Durham. They also make other hard cheeses, such as an American version of Montasio (similar to Asiago). I'm not familiar with this producer, so can't say how good their cheeses are.