Toni Lydecker's Tavola Talk Blog

July 17, 2012

Great Graters for Hard Cheeses

Maria's cheese graterWe all have our favorite kitchen tools, and I happen to have a weakness for graters. In my kitchen, they’re most often used to transform hard cheeses into pillowy mounds for deployment in all manner of Italian dishes.

My latest infatuation is with my friend Maria’s grattugia, a commodious bowl topped by a grating plate. She showed me how to rub the cheese over it in a round-and-round motion, preferably while sitting in a comfy chair and chatting with a friend or watching the telly.

Graters have a long history, and the hard cheeses they are made for go back even further–at least eight centuries in the case of Parmigiano Reggiano, according to a new site, In pre-Orangerie paintingrefrigeration eras, cheese making was a brilliant way to preserve the goodness of milk, and hard cheeses were the most shelf stable of all.

I usually have a wedge of Parmigiano Reggiano in my refrigerator, and depending on my mood and the dish at hand, I might also grate Grana Padano, aged pecorino, aged Asiago or Bra Duro. All of these hard cheeses glide smoothly across the grater, drifting down on the other side as tiny shreds–a satisfying moment, compared to dealing with a soft ball of mozzarella that insists on gumming up the grater.

My lust for Maria’s grater isn’t reasonable because I have several of my own. But I seem to find a way to use them all. This isn’t a real product review–for that I’d have to bone up on grater technology and do systematic testing–but I did dig out my graters to compare.

cheese gratersThe grater I use most is a cute little number made by Alessi–the concave grating plate attaches to a colorful rounded container that fits comfortably into the non-grating hand. It produces fine shreds that I can shake directly into the dish I’m making or into my formaggiera, a small covered dish for serving grated cheese. I was so taken with this grater after spotting it in an Italian shop that I brought home extras to give away–only to find that it’s
readily available in the U.S..

Occasionally I use a medium two-way grater, the kind we call a microplane–erroneously, as it turns out, because Microplane is a trademark that refers to all of the manufacturer’s products made with a photo etched-steel process (whatever that means). With less personality but a slightly broader surface than my Alessi, it’s good at plowing through a large cheese wedge.

box gratersLike everybody, I also have a cheesy (as in cheap and wretchedly inefficient) box grater. But recently I upgraded to a deluxe model with a nutmeg grater on one end. Mine is a Cuisipro I bought from Colbrook Kitchen, but Microplane also makes them. As you can see, they are bigger and more sturdily made than the cheap kind. You can choose among three sides for fine, medium and coarse shreds, or use the fourth side to create small shards. The medium side makes lovely long feathery shreds that I can use for just about anything.

Box graters are sometimes called knuckle graters and for good reason. An upmarket model like my new one can be thought of as a four-sided mandoline. After grating my fingertips twice in one week, I learned to respect its multitude of razor-sharp edges. Like mandolines, some come with guards–safer, yes, but also more awkward. Instead, I make sure to use a big wedge of cheese that keeps my hand far from the jagged surface.

My smallest grater, only 3 1/2 x 5 inches, also gets regular use. It’s the one we pass around the table with a cheese wedge for each diner to grate over a bowl of steaming pasta or soup.

Aesthetics and ergonomics aside, I wondered if the two-way grater was really faster? So I tested it against the box grater, using the medium side. Grating steadily but not frantically, I could grate an ounce of hard cheese in 1 minute 35 seconds, while the box grater required about 5 seconds more. In other words, pretty much a toss up. Those results surprised me–I expected the two-way grater to have a bigger edge, so to speak.

If you are a certain age–and I am–you remember the Mouli grater, with its round metal drum. Back in the ’70s it made me feel like a sophisticated cook, probably because I was actually grating cheese rather than shaking it out of a box. But assembling the two parts was a bit of a chore and storage was an issue, too. Mine broke years ago and I’m not going back, even though rotary graters are still out there.

Nor am I interested in an electric cheese grater. I saw one in operation in a home kitchen, but that was in Parma, where a family might go through a kilo of Parmigiano Reggiano in a week.

Recently, though, I saw a picture of a Microplane cheese mill. Now that sounds intriguing, and it just might be the next acquisition for my grater collection.


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Tue, July 17 2012 » Eggs and Cheese, Italian food

One Response

  1. Chef Scot Hill July 20 2012 @ 11:23 am

    What a “grate” article. I have enjoyed the blog and I look forward to many more. Thanks for your insights and in-depth reporting.

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