You Probably Already Own the Best Substitute for Parmesan Cheese

For all your cheesy needs.

July 26, 2019

Cooking on the cheap shouldn't mean minute rice and buttered pasta every night. With a little creativity and a little planning, Catherine Lamb shows us how to make the most of a tight budget—without sacrificing flavor or variety. 

Today: No, breadcrumbs are not the same as Parmesan, but they'll still sate your salty, crunchy, oily cravings.

Spaghetti Aglio e Olio with Broccoli

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I have an internal debate every time I sidle up next to the cheese aisle: To Buy Parmesan Cheese or Not To Buy Parmesan Cheese, that is the question. I pick up craggy, irregular hunk after hunk, hoping to find one that is miraculously under $10. No dice. Is the cheese worth the high price tag? Depending on how hungry I am while grocery shopping or how bad of a week I’ve had, the answer is yes. 

The bummer about Parmesan, aka Parmigiano-Reggiano, is that there’s nothing quite like it. Made solely by cheese producers in certain regions of Northern and mid-Italy (think: Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena some of Mantua and Bologna) it’s a double-edged sword. Those nutty flavors, the salty-tang. It's inimitable—but that’s how it keeps selling for such high prices. (Ditto cousin cheeses Grana Padano, from Emilia-Romagna, and Pecorino Romano.)

I’m not going to tell you whether or not to treat yourself to Parmesan; that’s an internal dialogue you’ve got to have with yourself. I am going to tell you about a substitute that, in a pinch, will sate your Parmesan craving. It may seem unconventional and downright far-fetched, but this substitution actually has a precedent in Italian cooking. 

So what are we talking about?



We did not make up this concept on our own; Italians were making the "poor man’s Parmesan" many, many years before we were. It seems Parmigiano-Reggiano has long been an expensive commodity, so when Italians couldn't (or wouldn't) fork over enough to buy some, they'd sprinkle oily, toasted breadcrumbs over their pasta dishes. Smart, right?

Breadcrumbs that are toasted in olive oil (that has sometimes been infused with garlic, citrus zest, anchovies, or chili oil) and sprinkled with salt take on most of the same notes as Parmesan. They're savory, unapologetically rich, and nutty from toasting. They also have the added benefit of texture; unlike Parmesan, they won't melt into your warm spaghetti.

Spaghetti Pangrittata

Here are a few tricks to make the most of your Poor Man's Parmesan:

-- Make your own breadcrumbs. Use crusty bread, good-quality olive oil or butter, and nice flaky salt if you can. After all, you’re saving money by not hitting up the cheese aisle.

-- Add garlic, anchovies, dried herbs, chili pepper, or citrus zest to your pan of olive oil as it heats up to infuse your breadcrumbs. And don't skimp on the oil! 

-- As always, add a fried egg. The oozing yolk mingles with the breadcrumb shards in a textural paradise.

-- Choose your pasta shapes wisely. My favorite is orecchiette, whose little scoops are prenaturally disposed to cradle all the salty, oily breadcrumb goodness. 

-- Don't stop at bread! Try toasting some pulverized oats with oil, garlic, and salt and use them to top pasta or casseroles.

More: Feeling especially ambitious? Use some hand-rolled Tuscan pici pasta as your next breadcrumb canvas.

Broccoli and Cheese Macaroni Casserole

But don't stop at spaghetti:

-- Use toasted breadcrumbs to top baked pastas and casseroles to get the coveted caramelized, crunchy lid.

-- Toss them warm into salad of greens like collards, kale, or chard, and watch them soften and mellow.

-- Sprinkle some on top of a bright tangle of lemon-dressed shaved vegetables to balance the acidity.

-- I haven't tried this yet, but I imagine toasted breadcrumbs would be lovely as a final touch to soup in lieu of a shower of freshly shaved Parmesan.

Chard Salad with Breadrumbs and Walnuts

And if you do decide to invest in Parmesan, make sure you store it right. Also, don't waste one iota of that pricey wedge; use the rind to make flavorful, creamy Parmesan broth—or add it to your soup pot along with carrots and celery for added nuttiness and creaminess.  

Now, put that substitute for parmesan cheese to work:

Sprinkle it all over Victoria Granof’s Pasta con Ceci.

Take already top-notch grain salads to brand new heights.

Make roasted potatoes really sing. 

Use it to give a snowy shower to Martha Stewart's One-Pan Pasta.

And, psst, looking for more ideas to substitute for parmesan cheese? Try this cashew, plant-based version:

A four-ingredient, vegan "cheese" recipe.

What else do you substitute in for Parmesan? Let us know in the comments.

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A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Margaret Ferrazzi
    Margaret Ferrazzi
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  • Wes
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    Unix Rab
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    Leanne Dawson Hurley
A kitchen scientist and dog-lover. Someday I want to have you over for dinner.


Margaret F. October 28, 2019
nutritional yeast flakes are another great substitute for parmesan. I use them whenever I want to add umami notes to anything.
beejay45 October 14, 2015
Can this be frozen? I have a whole loaf of French bread that got forgotten in the bread box and is now petrified. I'd love not to waste it. ;)
Wes May 6, 2015
Making breadcrumbs creates a mess. I'm going to make this for lunch and use panko!
Unix R. April 7, 2015
"prenaturally" is not a word.

You probably were looking for "naturally", "preternaturally" or "predisposed." Just FYI

( " My favorite is orecchiette, whose little scoops are prenaturally disposed to cradle all the salty, oily breadcrumb goodness. " )
Leanne D. April 6, 2015
There is no actual recipe to make your own. That would be helpful. You also say to make sure to store parmesan correctly but don't say how.
Ann-Marie D. April 1, 2015
Just tried this just to see the flavor, and it´s a wonderful idea - mostly as we keep a tone of bread crumbs from our box-cutting board!
Laura S. April 1, 2015
I have a recipe called spaghetti with sand. It's spaghetti, breadcrumbs and oil. I made it when we were really poor because it's cheap and it fed us. We are not poor now and every once in awhile my husband will ask, "Can you make spaghetti and sand?"
Dan M. April 7, 2015
What's the recipe?