Cheap shaker parmesan is not Parmigiano-Reggiano. The “real stuff” is nutty, slightly fruity and filled with savoury, crunchy crystals. It’s a luxury cheese, a fancy boy cheese, a cheese you should enjoy in fluffy piles atop the finest of pasta. The cheese that comes in a green shaker is not Parmigiano-Reggiano, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth having around.
Shaker parm — as it is known around my apartment — is a good product, actually. Existing somewhere in between the pre-shredded tubs of Parmesan-style cheeses and pouches of cheese powder, shaker parm offers two flavours: salty and generically cheesy. It’s not refined, but it does taste good, particularly when you accept it for what it is: a chorus girl that is there to provide excellent background flavours. (Parmigiano-Reggiano is a diva, you see.)
The most obvious benefit to using shaker parm is cost. There’s no need to be precious with it, and you don’t have to worry about obscuring its fancy flavour with other, aggressive ingredients. The second, less obvious benefit is cellulose.
Though there was a lot controversy surrounding “wood pulp in your cheese,” cellulose is a very common, food-grade additive that is added to all sorts of shredded cheeses to keep them from clumping. (That said, read the label and price tag and make sure you are not paying fancy cheese prices for cheese powder. Shaker parm should be cheap.) This less-prone-to-clumping cheese powder is actually perfect for three of my favourite things: popcorn, salad dressing, and pasta (with some caveats).
Portland is a fancy popcorn town. We love it at our wine bars and we love it as a playful appetiser “for the table.” When I was first served a mountain of popped corn with a pile of finely shredded, authentic parm, I was delighted. “What luxury,” I thought, as the plate was set down next to my local wine flight. But then, as I ate the popcorn, I realised that this was not a popcorn I could munch mindlessly from a bowl; it required a fair amount of concentration.
Instead of grabbing small handfuls of cheese-coated popcorn, I was having to compose little bites of popped kernels with tiny piles of cheese on top. (Obviously, it was still delicious, just very messy for the setting.)
Thanks to its light, fluffy texture, shaker parm clings to popcorn, while providing cheesy umami and a hint of salt. I have recently been combining it with nutritional yeast and MSG, and I think I have created the perfect popcorn seasoning.
Dressings have a lot going on. At the very least, you have an oil, an acid, and some form of sugar; often mustard is involved. This competitive environment is not ideal for showcasing a cheese you paid 15 bucks a pound for. Shaker parm, however, thrives in here.
It adds that cheesy flavour, and even a small amount of funky depth, while dispersing and suspending itself in the dressing like a dream. My favourite dressing that uses powdered parm is this maple vinaigrette, which is fantastic on a shredded Brussels sprout situation.
I am not about to suggest you make cacio e pepe with shaker parm, because I don’t want to be yelled at today. The reason that dish only calls for four ingredients is because one of those ingredients — the cheese — is so good, not much else is needed. But one problem with the real deal cheeses is that they can get weirdly stringy when folded into hot pasta, especially if you don’t take the time to shred it very finely (I’m talking microplane).
If you’re making a “clean out the pantry” style kind of meal, or just want something hot, salty, and cheesy, shaker parm makes a delicious, rich (non-stringy) sauce. My buddy Jeff — you all remember Jeff — actually prefers using it to the pricey stuff. “If it’s pasta, garlic, olive oil, chilli and shaky parm with a little pasta water,” he explained to me, “that’s all I need.”
A cup and a half of powdered cheese to a pound of pasta is plenty, just make sure to break up any chunks before shaking it in to help with even dispersal. Cook your pasta per the package instructions, then add a cup of the pasta water to a large pan with garlic and pepper — and whatever else you crave — that’s sizzling in olive oil.
Let that simmer for a couple minutes, then add the pasta, and then the cheese, tossing constantly to coat. It’s a cheap, satisfying and very cheesy meal.