Like every Italian-Canadian kid growing up, I thought my grandmother was the best cook in the world. Eventually, I learned that one of her kitchen secrets involved throwing Parmesan cheese into just about everything she made. She'd stir fat granules of the salty cow's cheese into the potato dough that made gnocchi or whip it into scrambled eggs. Parmesan even found a place in her mouthwatering Thanksgiving stuffing.
Great cooks everywhere have long marveled at Parmesan's ability to add complexity and flavor to myriad dishes, from vegetable broths to balsamic-glazed chicken to hamburgers.
Now chemists at the Technical University of Munich have figured out why. In a recent study, published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, they identified the 46 chemicals that give the cheese its sharp and salty bite.
Part of the study involved feeding "trained sensory panelists" — who were asked to define Parmesan's taste profile — cubes of cheese. The panelists thought saltiness, burning, and kokumi were the most intense flavors, followed by sour, bitter, umami, and sweet. (Kokumi, as the Economist has explained, is a group of chemicals that researchers say could account for the mouthfeel of certain foods.)
The researchers also figured out the cheese's "molecular blueprint" by screening cheese extracts for compounds known to produce Parmesan's distinct flavor and determining which compounds are present in high enough concentrations to be tasted. They were also able to reverse engineer the cheese by creating a "cheese-like matrix that tasted almost identical to the real thing," according to Chemistry World.
Understanding Parmesan's chemical makeup may help root out food fraudsters who claim to be selling "100 percent Parmesan" when they're actually selling cheddar- and mozzarella-laced wood pulp. (Yes, that's a thing.) The study authors suggested the new insights may also be applied to manufacturing processes, to further improve the taste of the cheese … as if it needed to get any better.