Parmesan cheese is a hard and granular cheese made from cow’s milk and aged between 12 and 36 months. It’s grainy, salty, and goes deliciously well with pasta dishes, salads, sautéed vegetables, and baked or deep-fried chicken.
One thing that home cooks get surprised by is that parmesan cheese isn’t really a single cheese. It’s a whole category of cheeses. It’s also one of the things that most YouTube cooks and food bloggers won’t tell you.
Look for parmesan cheese in the grocery store, and you’re going to get overwhelmed by the names of the labels. There’s Parmesan, Parmesan Reggianito, Parmigiano, Parmigiano-Reggiano… which is which?
For the past year, I’ve been researching, buying, eating, and cooking with all the varieties of parmesan cheese out there — so that you don’t have to. And in this post, I’m going to share everything I’ve learned.
Are Parmigiano-Reggiano and Parmesan Cheese the Same?
If you want the most authentic and traditional parmesan cheese, look for no other product in the grocery store than Parmigiano-Reggiano. All other cheeses sold as Parmesan — especially in the U.S., where the term “parmesan” is not regulated — are most certainly not the real deal.
Don’t get me wrong: They can still be of high quality and taste great. But they’re simply not Parmigiano-Reggiano. As Larry Olmsted, award-winning food journalist and author of New York Times bestseller “Real Food Fake Food,” says for Forbes magazine:
“When people who care what they put into their bodies eat Parmigiano-Reggiano, they know exactly what they are putting in their bodies. This is often not the case with Parmesan, Parmigiana, Parmesano, or whatever you want to call it from myriad other producers not subject to these regulations.”Larry Olmsted, Most Parmesan Cheeses In America Are Fake, Here’s Why (Forbes)
We’ll get to that later on. Though I agree to a large extent with Larry, I still think you can find some pretty good parmesan cheeses for a bargain price as long as you know what to look for and how to read the label — even if you’re not getting the real deal.
Where Is Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese Made?
Parmigiano-Reggiano is an authentic Italian cheese with a thousand years of history.
Parmigiano-Reggiano is made exclusively by the labor of 110 dairy farms and 1,200 cattle farmers in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna to the left of the Reno river, and Mantua to the right of the Po river.
The cheese is protected by Italian and European Union (EU) law. It carries a certification seal known in Italian as Denominazione di Origine Protetta (DOP) and in English as Protected Designation of Origin (P.D.O.).
Only cheese made in these exclusive Italian regions and following the strict rules for Italian traditional cheesemaking can be labeled and sold domestically and internationally as Parmigiano-Reggiano (and carry the Parmigiano-Reggiano P.D.O. seal).
What Milk Is Parmigiano-Reggiano Made From?
Parmigiano-Reggiano is a hard and granular cheese with a salty and tangy taste. It’s made from 100% cow’s milk. During production, the only additives allowed are sea salt, whey starter, and rennet (a complex set of enzymes produced in the cows’ stomachs).
The cows whose milk is used for Parmigiano-Reggiano are fed only locally grown forage and following strict rules for traditional cattle farming that forbid the use of silage, fermented feeds, and animal flour as food.
How Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese Is Made
The milk from the morning and the previous evening is poured into copper vats. On average, it takes 550 liters of cow’s milk to produce one 72-pound wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
Rennet and whey starter are added to the milk, which triggers the natural process of coagulation. Coagulation separates the proteins and the fats from the whey, turning the milk into a solid mass called the curd.
The curd is then broken down by hand by a cheesemaker who uses a traditional curd cutter tool called “spino.” The curd is cooked for about 50 minutes to 131°F (55°C) until cheesy granules sink to the bottom of the cauldron.
The cheese is cut into two parts, wrapped in a cheesecloth, and placed in a mold that shapes it into a cheese wheel. A couple of days later, the cheese wheels are submerged in a salty brine for 20-25 days. The Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese naturally absorbs salt that gives it its distinct flavor.
After brining, the cheese wheels are stored in aging rooms for 12 to 36 months. At 12 months, a professional cheese grader from the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium, an organization that protects the origin and integrity of the cheese, inspects each wheel for cracks and voids. The wheels that pass the test are heat-branded with the Parmigiano-Reggiano P.D.O. seal.
Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese wheels are sold whole or cut and sold into 6-oz vacuum-sealed wedges.
Why Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese Tastes So Good
These natural and traditional cheesemaking ways give Parmigiano-Reggiano its distinct, slightly sweet, and nutty taste with a strong salty and savory flavor. The texture of high-quality Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is hard and gritty, making it ideal for grating over pasta dishes and other Italian foods.
When making Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, every single detail matters. Take the copper vats. In 2009, researchers at Italy’s Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore made eight batches of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese: four in copper vats, and four in stainless-steel vats.
They let the cheese to mature for 17 months. At first, all cheese wheels looked the same on the outside. They also had comparable levels of fat, protein, and moisture. When they were cracked them open, however, the differences started to appear.
The stainless steel-made wheels had interior fissures and a strangely elastic paste. Taste tests by master cheese graders revealed another discrepancy: the stainless-steel vat cheeses weren’t as flavorful or as aromatic.
Is Parmigiano-Reggiano Lactose Free?
Yes, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is naturally lactose-free. Thanks to its recipe and production, it has a lactose content below 0.1 grams per 100 grams.
Lactose is a sugar that’s naturally present in milk. According to the Parmigiano-Reggiano Consortium, when Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is made, lactose is fermented by the microflora of lactic acid bacteria in the first 48 hours of production.
“This is the so-called lactic fermentation, during which lactic bacteria, normally present in milk, turn lactose sugar into lactic acid during the first two days following production,” the Consortium’s guide to the nutritional characteristics of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese says.
This statement is backed by existing studies, the latest of which was conducted by Giovanni Valentino Coppa at the Università Politecnica Delle Marche, and independent tests that the Consortium periodically conducts to verify its claims.
Is Parmigiano-Reggiano Vegetarian?
No, traditional Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and most lesser-grade Parmesan cheeses are not vegetarian. This is because they contain rennet, a complex set of enzymes found in the stomachs of calves. Rennet is usually obtained from the stomach lining of calves. It contains chymosin, which helps digestion and absorption of milk.
If you’re vegetarian, always check whether or not a cheese contains rennet. The best way to ensure that you’re getting a cheese that’s not in conflict with your diet is to only buy those cheeses explicitly labeled as vegetarian. Such cheeses usually have vegetarian rennet.
Vegetarian rennets are vegetable-based (made from plants such as figs, nettles, and thistles), microbial (produced using molds and fungi sources), or made using genetically modified rennet.
Is Parmigiano-Reggiano Halal?
Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese contains rennet; an enzyme is extracted from the stomach of young calves. Islamic scholars unanimously agree that rennet is halal as long as the animal’s slaughter was halal.
To get the highest quality cheese that conforms to your strict dietary requirements, only look for parmesan that’s labeled as “Halal Parmigiano-Reggiano.” Parmesan cheese that carries this label follows both the Protected Designation of Origin (P.D.O.) production standards and the Islamic directions for halal food.
An alternative is to look for vegetarian parmesan-style cheeses made with vegetable-based rennet (do avoid the ones with microbial or genetically modified rennet).
Why Is Parmigiano-Reggiano So Expensive?
Depending on where you shop for it, Parmigiano Reggiano can cost anywhere between $12 per pound at supermarkets and $18 per pound at Italian delis and artisanal food markets. This makes it a pricier cheese than most.
So it’s only natural that one of the top questions home cooks ask online is, why is Parmigiano-Reggiano so expensive?
Some will tell you that it’s economics. Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is a food made in an exclusive part of Italy by a small number of dairy farms. This means that only 3.6 million cheese wheels are produced every year.
Though 3.6 million cheese wheels may sound like a big number to some, keep in mind that this is all the cheese made for that year for domestic and international consumption — and the world’s population is 7.8 billion people!
Another reason why Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is costlier than others is that it’s made following strict rules and using traditional methods:
- The cows need to be raised and fed in a certain way.
- The milk needs to be cooked in copper (and therefore expensive) cookware and mixed with traditional tools.
- The cheese needs to mature for at least 12 months and goes through a mandatory inspection by a master cheese grader.
To keep each step as close to the original cheesemaking ways as possible and to preserve the tradition of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, the natural trade-off is a higher price. But, if you ask me, every single dollar and cent of that price is completely worth it. There are few kinds of cheese as aromatic and as savory as Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Does Parmigiano-Reggiano Need to Be Refrigerated?
Just like any other cheese, Parmigiano-Reggiano should be kept refrigerated. Most wedges come in vacuum-sealed packaging. Store them in the fridge as soon as you return from the supermarket (or the moment when your groceries get delivered to you).
Do not let the cheese sit for more than 4 hours at room temperature. You will see the cheese drying out and oil dripping off of it. Also, prolonged exposure to room temperature will promote bacterial growth, making the cheese potentially unsafe to eat.
Once you’ve opened a wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano, it’s best to wrap it in wax paper or place it inside an airtight container. Wax paper is coated with a thin layer of paraffin wax, making it non-stick and water-resistant. Unlike parchment paper, however, wax paper is not heat resistant and can only be used for storing food, not baking it.
How Long Is Parmigiano Reggiano Good For?
Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is mostly sold in vacuum-sealed wedges. Once you open a wedge, store the cheese in the refrigerator. How long the cheese will be good for depends on its maturation period.
Store Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese by wrapping the wedge tightly in wax paper or putting it inside an airtight container. Cheese that has matured 12-18 months will keep for 2 weeks. Cheese that has matured 24-36 months will keep for up to 1 month.
There’s one thing about storing cheese in the fridge that most people don’t know. Cheese and moisture don’t really get along well, and fridges are generally a humid environment. The best place to store cheese in a fridge, especially if the cheese is wrapped in wax paper, is in the veggie drawer as it’s least humid.
Freeze Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and it will keep for 12-18 months. Hard cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano are highly durable because of their low water and high salt contents, which inhibit mold growth.
To thaw frozen parmesan cheese, transfer it from the freezer to the fridge for 24 hours. After, slice or grate the cheese and eat it as you normally would.
By now, you should be crystal clear that there’s only one “real” parmesan cheese, and that cheese is produced, labeled, and sold as Parmigiano-Reggiano. It carries as Protected Designation of Origin (P.D.O.) from the European Union and can only be made by a small number of dairy farms in a geographically restricted area of Italy.
Simply said, 90% of the parmesan cheese you’ll see in U.S. supermarkets is not really parmesan. It’s parmesan-style cheese. As long as you understand that, this doesn’t necessarily make it bad. Parmesan-style cheeses can be more affordable and are generally easier to find than the original Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
Here’s my guide to some of the most common parmesan-style cheeses.
Parmesan that’s still made in Italy — but by dairy farms outside of the designated geographic area for Parmigiano-Reggiano P.D.O. and oftentimes not following the production standards as strictly as the original — is labeled and sold as Parmigiano cheese.
When buying Parmigiano cheese, make sure that it’s made in Italy, from 100% cow’s milk, and the only additives listed on the table of ingredients are salt, rennet, and whey starter.
This way, you can still buy pretty good Italian parmesan-style cheese, even though it’s not up to the same standards as the original.
Reggianito (or Parmesan Reggianito)
Another parmesan-style cheese that you’ll find often in U.S. supermarkets is labeled as Parmesan Reggianito. Parmesan Reggianito (which should actually be called “Reggianito”) is a hard and granular cheese made from cow’s milk. Though it has an Italian name, it’s actually made in Argentina.
This style of cheese was brought to Argentina by Italian immigrants who fled their home country during World War I. Today, it has become an Argentinian industry of its own, which exports the majority of its products to North America.
In Europe, Parmesan cheese is the same as Parmigiano-Reggiano. This is because the term is regulated by European Union law, which forbids cheesemakers who don’t belong to the geographic region for Parmigiano-Reggiano or whose product doesn’t meet the strict standards for production to label their cheese with that name.
In the U.S., Parmesan cheese is not the same as Parmigiano-Reggiano. Unlike in Europe, the term “parmesan” is not regulated in America. This is why, for better or worse, Parmesan cheese is often an inferior product to Parmigiano-Reggiano.
American-made Parmesan cheese is still made from cow’s milk, but not necessarily following the original recipe or traditional Italy’s traditional cheesemaking methods.
Unlike Parmigiano-Reggiano, American Parmesan often has a long list of additives. It’s aged for less time and using more modern mass-production methods. This is why its aroma, flavor, and texture are often subpar when compared to the original.
Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is the original. I’ve tasted them all and, honestly, no parmesan-style cheese compares to it. If you live in the U.S., it can also be hard to find and costly. Still, it’s completely worth the money.
When you can’t buy Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese for one reason or another, this is where parmesan-style cheeses come into play. There’s Italian Parmigiano, Argentinian Reggianito, and American Parmesan.
Look for the Italian or Argentinian options and make sure they have no additives or as few additives as possible. Remember: the original recipe only has cow’s milk, calf rennet, whey starter, and salt.
Here’s how these cheeses compare to one another:
|Cheese||Family||Made From||Made In|
|Parmigiano-Reggiano||Parmesan||Cow’s milk||Italy, within the exclusive geography of the P.D.O. *|
|Parmigiano||Parmesan-style||Cow’s milk||Italy, outside of the exclusive geography of the P.D.O. *|
|Parmesan * *||Parmesan-style||Cow’s milk||U.S.|
* The geography of the Protected Designation of Origin (P.D.O.) includes the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna to the left of the Reno river, and Mantua to the right of the Po river in Italy.
* * In Europe, Parmesan is the same as Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, as both of the terms are protected by law. In the U.S., the term “parmesan” is not regulated — hence why Parmesan cheese sold at American grocery stores is not the same as Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.