Parmesan vs. Parmigiano Reggiano (The Difference)

Published Categorized as Food
A slice of parmesan cheese next to grapes and nutsAnton Matyukha /Depositphotos

Parmesan or Parmigiano-Reggiano? Find out if you’re really eating the right thing. And get answers to the questions you didn’t know you were asking.

Unless you’re a cheesemonger who deals with cheese daily—which probably isn’t the case if you’re reading this blog—the difference between Parmigiano Reggiano and Parmesan cheese can be confusing. I know it was for me before I got into the art and craft of cheesemaking! I guess this is why I wrote this guide.

To learn the difference between Parmesan and Parmigiano Reggiano, start with the basics.

There’s Parmigiano Reggiano, the O.G. Italian cheese that many call the king of cheeses, and then there’s the American Parmesan cheese inspired by it.

This leads us to the first and most important takeaway from this post: Contrary to what people think, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese isn’t necessarily Parmesan, and Parmesan cheese isn’t necessarily Parmigiano Reggiano!

What Is Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese?

Parmigiano Reggiano cheese must be imported from Italy and produced by one of the 350 dairies in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Bologna, Modena, and Mantua.

Only cheese produced in these parts of Italy can be labeled and sold as Parmigiano Reggiano in Europe and the United States. It isn’t available in every grocery store, and you may have to look for it in Italian delis or at specialized cheese retailers on the Internet.

Parmigiano Reggiano is a cheese with a golden color, a fruity, slightly nutty aroma, and a rich, savory flavor. It’s fragrant, delicious, and highly versatile in the kitchen. It dissolves when added to sauces, melts when grated on pastas, and holds its shape when sliced in salads or on charcuterie boards.

Buy this cheese whole, in vacuum-sealed wedges, and cut or grate them just before using. Store it in your fridge, loosely wrapped in wax paper or butcher paper, in a cheese storage container or under an inverted bowl. Avoid grated Parmigiano Reggiano; it’s expensive, and it has lost much of its original aroma and flavor by the time it reaches your palate.

When you buy Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, you will notice that most, if not all, wedges have the abbreviation “PDO” or “DOP” after the name on the label. This stands for Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), or Denominazione d’Origine Protetta (DOP) in Italian, a quality seal to guarantee that you’re buying the real stuff.

How Is Parmigiano Reggiano Made?

Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is made from skim milk, which means it has a lower fat content than other hard cheeses. It goes through long aging that gives it a grainy texture and an umami, nutty flavor. Its production process follows the strict recipe and quality control procedures of Italy’s Parmigiano-Reggiano Consortium.

For example, the cows that produce the milk for this cheese must be fed only fresh grass, and not silage, fermented feeds, or animal flour. The milk is coagulated and cooked slowly, at 131 degrees Fahrenheit (55 degrees Centigrade), then wrapped in linen and stamped with a serial number to verify its origin.

The cheese wheels are soaked in a saltwater bath, and then they are dried and aged for at least 12 months. The longer the aging process, the richer and more complex the flavor (and the steeper the price tag). Parmigiano Reggiano can be aged 24, 36, 48 months, and sometimes more.

What Is Parmesan Cheese?

Parmesan cheese is also a hard cheese made from cow’s milk. It’s inspired by Parmigiano-Reggiano, but it doesn’t use the specific recipe, follow the same cheesemaking process, or go through the same aging process as Parmigiano Reggiano does.

In the United States, the term “Parmesan” is unregulated. Any cheese maker, Italian or not, can label cheese as Parmesan and sell it. If you live stateside, this means that the terms “Parmigiano Reggiano” and “Parmesan” can’t be used interchangeably; they don’t refer to one and the same type of cheese.

Parmesans can be made in many places around the world—and they’re definitely not made in the parts of Italy described above. They are not as expensive and less flavorful than Parmigiano Reggiano, and they’re sold in wedges or pre-grated packages in almost every supermarket.

Is Parmesan Cheese Real or Fake?

Some are quick to label Parmesan cheese as “imposter cheese” and claim that anything called Parmesan, and not Parmigiano Reggiano, has no place in your kitchen.

I beg to differ. I think cheap, practical Parmesan from Argentina, called Parmesan Reggianito, has a rightful place in the American household’s fridge. While it isn’t the best cheese to use for traditional Italian cooking, it’s a fantastic choice for Italian-American dishes like chicken parm or spaghetti with meatballs.

Here too, buy whole wedges and slice or grate them immediately before using. Pre-grated cheeses not only lose much of their original appeal but also contain cellulose and other additives to keep the cheese from clumping. It’s much better to buy a good grater and enjoy freshly grated cheese whenever you need it.

By Jim Stonos

When Jim isn't in the kitchen, he is usually spending time with family and friends, and working with the HCW editorial team to answer the questions he used to ask himself back when he was learning the ropes of cooking.