Parmesan cheese. Or is it Parmigiano Reggiano? And what does “PDO” after the name stand for? To learn the answers, and answer the questions you hadn’t thought to ask, read on.
There’s no doubt that Parmigiano Reggiano is the king of hard Italian cheeses. Made in Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Mantua to the right of the Po river, and Bologna to the left, this cheese has stimulated the senses of gourmands throughout the centuries.
The recipe for Parmigiano Reggiano is said to date back to the 13th century, if not longer. Legend has it that Benedictine and Cistercian monks came up with it in search for ways to preserve cow’s milk for long periods of time.
Clearly, the monks succeeded. And, fortunately every cheese lover in the world, no matter where you’re reading this form, the recipe stood the test of time. Many balk at the fact that not much has changed in the recipe for Parmigiano Reggiano since medieval times.
Sure, the cheese is made with the help of modern technology. Shiny copper vats shaped like a bell. Modern, QR-code based stencils that track production and verify authenticity. Large, climate-controlled aging rooms that simulate the cold and dampness of a cheese cave.
And yet, the ingredients and production methods for Parmigiano Reggiano remain the same: Milk from local cows fed only hay and grass. Calf rennet and whey starter to coagulate the milk and get it to curdle. Salting and aging for a minimum of 12 months, followed by inspection by a master cheese grader to ensure quality. Absolutely no tolerance for additives.
It takes milk, labor, dedication, and nearly a thousand years of tradition to make this cheese. And the more you learn about the, the greater appreciation you develop for its pleasures.
Parmesan or Parmigiano-Reggiano?
We call it parmesan cheese for short. But is Parmesan the same cheese as Parmigiano-Reggiano? The answer, as it turns out, depends on where in the world you live.
If you live in a member state of the European Union or anywhere in the United Kingdom, chances are that Parmesan and Parmigiano-Reggiano are one and the same cheese because both of these terms are regulated.
See, the European Union has a quality scheme it calls Protected Designation of Origin, or PDO in short, to guarantee that certain products can only be made in certain geographies following certain traditions (a lot of “certains,” but bare with me).
A cheese maker can’t just make any cheese and call it “parmesan,” or they’ll get into trouble. Only a few hundred dairies regulated by the Parmigiano-Reggiano PDO Consortium can, and they need to follow the consortium’s requirements strictly unless they want their product to be deemed unfit for sale.
But this isn’t so if you live in the United States, where the term “parmesan” isn’t regulated. Basically, any dairy from anywhere in the world can make a cheese, label it parmesan, and sell it to US consumers. If you want to get the authentic thing, you have to look for cheese labeled “Parmigiano-Reggiano PDO,” with the yellow and red seal on the packaging.
Should You Buy It Pre-Grated or as a Vacuum-Sealed Wedge?
Unless you skimmed to this part of the article, you already know that to get authentic Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, you should always look for the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) seal on the packaging.
It’ll be pricier than other cheeses, that’s for sure. But if you’re somebody who appreciates cheese — or is in the process of learning how to do so — you will be able to tell the difference. The next question to ask is, which kind should you buy? Most stores carry grated and vacuum-sealed Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese cut into a wedge.
Take our word for it and buy the vacuum-sealed wedges of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Pre-grated cheese is a convenience in that it frees you from the hassle and fuss of grating. But you pay a price for that convenience: the cheese won’t be as fresh as when you break the seal on the countertop and grate or cut it à la minute.
How to Store Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese
Parmigiano-Reggiano is a hard cheese. It has lost most of its moisture during the aging process, so it won’t go bad as quickly as a fresh cheese would if you left it out on the table or countertop.
Even so, if you want your Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese to stay fresh for as long as possible, you should refrigerate it. Wrap it in cheese paper, butcher paper, or wax paper, or loosely in aluminum foil or a plastic bag, then stash it away in the meat and cheese drawer (if your fridge doesn’t have one, is the vegetable crisper).
The trick is to wrap the parmesan cheese so it can breathe. You want the living, breathing bacteria in it to stay alive, or they’ll get replaced by mold and the cheese may become unsafe to eat.
Enjoying Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese
This hard Italian cheese gets its rich and nutty flavor from the aging process. The longer it ages, the richer it will taste and the more crumbly it will become. This is due to the loss of moisture that takes place with time.
Some of our favorite ways to enjoy Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is to eat it as a snack on its own, slice it coarsely on a cheese and charcuterie board, or grate it over tomato sauce pastas. Add it to piadina or panini sandwiches, or top your burger with it — just remember that it will hold its shape and won’t melt well.
As for wine pairings, Wine Enthusiast recommends Marsanne, Roussanne, and Pinot Grigio from the whites, and the low-tanning Corvina, Barbera, and Gamay from the reds. Apples, pears, and grapes are all great fruits to have when savoring Parmigiano Reggiano with wine.