In Italy (and the rest of the EU), Parmigiano Reggiano and Parmesan are the same. But the rest of the world doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo. While the term Parmigiano Reggiano is reserved exclusively for the protected Italian cheese variety, Parmesan doesn’t get the same courtesy.
At Yummy Bazaar’s online cheese store, you’ll find both Parmigiano Reggiano and generic Parmesan, each in their separate category. Let’s break down why we decided to separate one from the other.
For simplicity’s sake, further down in the article, we’ll be referring to the authentic POD Italian cheese as Parmigiano Reggiano while referring to other similar cheeses as Parmesan. While this distinction isn’t technically correct (as, in the end, Parmigiano is authentic Parmesan), forgive us just this once, as it’s the easiest way to avoid confusion about which cheese we’re talking about exactly.
What is Parmigiano Reggiano?
Parmigiano Reggiano is a hard Italian cheese of the Grana category, which refers to its granular, crumbly texture resulting from the stir-curd cheesemaking technique. According to historical evidence, it was created sometime around the 13th century in the province of Reggio Emilia. By the middle of the 14th century, it had already been in wide use, as Giovanni Boccaccio mentioned it extensively in his magnum opus Decameron in 1348.
Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is made exclusively from cow’s milk. The milk is traditionally grass-fed, coming only from cows that have been feeding on grass or hay (silage, fermented feeds, and animal flour are forbidden). The cow’s diet is considered of paramount importance for the quality of cheese texture and flavor. For the Parmigiano Reggiano wheel to pass muster, its texture must be rock-solid, fit for chucking away with a chisel, like you would a stone. Once bitten into, you must feel a slight crunchiness coming from the tiny crystals that develop throughout the cheese during the maturation process. Sometimes mistaken for the mold, they’re actually formed by a solidified amino acid called tyrosine.
Parmigiano Reggiano has one of the most decadent and complex flavors among cheeses (the constant source of pride for the cheesemakers that must satisfy tightly regulated standards before the cheese hits the market). The predominant flavor is savory and nutty, but connoisseurs claim that once given a little time to “bloom,” other, more complex layers start to come forward, including fruitiness, earthiness, and even a bit of sweetness, that lessens the further the cheese is aged. In Parmigiano Reggiano, which has been aged for over two years, a week undertone of bitterness is present, though it’s very mild and generally not easy to notice if you’re not an expert who knows what they’re looking for.
The color of Parmigiano Reggiano is also dependent on the aging process. It’s generally described as straw yellow, but the range can vary from very pale and ivory-esque to intense and dark, depending on how mature the cheese is.
Its complex flavor profile, along with high production standards, has earned Parmigiano Reggiano the unofficial moniker of King of Cheeses.
How is Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese Made?
Since the EU has granted Parmigiano Reggiano Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status, its production process adheres to rigorous standards that tightly control where and how Parmigiano Reggiano can be made. The production is limited to certain Emilia-Romagna region areas: Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna to the left of the river Reno, and Mantua to the right of the river Po.
These are the exclusive areas where the milk for Parmigiano Reggiano is produced, then processed into cheese, matured, and finally packaged once it passes the muster of a representative from Il Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano (Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese Consortium).
Parmigiano Reggiano is made from unpasteurized whole milk mixed with skimmed milk. The mix is transferred to copper vats (the copper is vital to achieving the correct texture, flavor, and aroma), where starter whey and calf rennet are added. Once the curds are formed, they’re broken up into small pieces and left to settle. The curd is then collected and placed into round stainless steel forms that are pulled tight to help the cheese wheel retain its shape. At this stage, the cheese wheel is branded with production details on the rind. After the branding holds, the cheese is transferred to a brine bath for the next 20-25 days. Once adequately salted, the cheese wheels are finally left to age until the master cheese grader from the consortium comes along to inspect the cheese. The wheels that don’t pass the inspection, their rinds are stripped of markings as a sign that the customer isn’t getting a top-quality product.
Types of Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese:
Like many other kinds of cheese, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is also separated into different types based on how long it has been aged.
Regular Parmigiano Reggiano must be aged for no less than 12 months (interestingly, this is the longest time among all PDO cheeses). It’s at this point that the master cheese grader visits the production plant for the inspection. After a full year of aging, the cheese fully ripens and acquires the signature texture and flavor.
Parmigiano Reggiano Vecchio is aged between 18 and 24 months. This type of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese has a sharper and more nutty flavor, with more pronounced umami notes to it.
Parmigiano Reggiano Stravecchio is aged between 24 and 36 months. The texture of Stravecchio cheese is harder and more powdery than younger Parmesan. When grated, it breaks down into tiny crumbs. The flavor is more mellow since it starts to lose the acidic sharpness but also more complex: it’s at this stage, according to the connoisseurs, that the cheese begins to develop subtle bitter undertones, adding another layer to the already multi-layered flavor.
Parmigiano Reggiano Stravecchione is how Parmigiano Reggiano cheese that’s been aged for over 36 months is referred to sometimes (though these cheeses can sometimes be labeled as Stravecchio). It has a crumbly and powdery texture, a robust salty flavor with little to no acidity, but intense nuttiness with a bit of fruity undertone. Bitterness is more noticeable, but it stays subtle and pleasant.
Best Uses for Parmigiano Reggiano:
Parmigiano Reggiano is one of the most flavorful and versatile cheeses around, used in various dishes both as a garnish and as the main flavoring ingredient.
As a garnish, it can be added to all kinds of pizza, pasta, soups, and salads to amplify certain flavors and highlight others.
As the main flavoring ingredient, it’s used in multiple cheese sauces for pasta (ex., pasta carbonara), risottos, soups, etc. You can expect to encounter Parmigiano Reggiano in most Italian recipes that call for cheese.
It’s one of the best cheeses to add to a charcuterie board or a cheese board since it’ll go well with most of the other ingredients, be they savory or sweet. Pair a slice with some prosciutto and honey or some figs and nuts; it’ll work great in both instances.
And last, but certainly not least, it can (and must!) be enjoyed raw, by itself, maybe with some fresh crusty bread.
What is Parmesan Cheese?
Well, technically, Parmesan cheese is Parmigiano Reggiano. At least it is in the EU, where the term has PDO status, so no other cheese can be branded as such. This, of course, doesn’t preclude other countries from producing similar cheeses using similar manufacturing techniques. For the rest of the world, Parmesan has long become synonymous with a hard and granular yellow cheese with a strong savory flavor.
The generic parmesan cheese guidelines vary from country to country. In the United States, for example, the guidelines claim that it must be made exclusively from cow’s milk and aged no less than 10 months. The texture of such cheese must be granular, and it must possess a hard and brittle rind.
Considering the lax approach to parmesan cheese guidelines, the texture and flavor of such cheese often greatly varies not only between different countries but between cheesemakers from the same country. Generic Parmesan is rarely as complex and robust in flavor as the original, and it’s often sold in pre-grated or pre-shredded, which brings down the taste quality further down.
How is Generic Parmesan Cheese Made?
Since the guidelines are far less strict than with Parmigiano Reggiano, the quality of generic parmesan cheese production rests solely with the manufacturers. It can be made from both unpasteurized and pasteurized milk (though the latter is looked down upon as the less flavorful version). The diet of the cows the milk is sourced from is usually not controlled and is rarely exclusively grass-fed.
Not only is the dairy quality not controlled, but the dairy products used in cheese production vary greatly. Aside from the whole and skim milk, the base mix may include cream, concentrated skim milk, nonfat dry milk, and even water as long as it’s sufficient to reconstitute concentrated skim milk texture.
The general parmesan manufacturing process (stir-curd cheesemaking method) is similar to Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Still, the lack of quality control regarding the ingredients and the production process often renders a cheese that’s much inferior in quality to the original Parmigiano Reggiano.
Parmigiano Reggiano vs. Parmesan: The Key Differences
The critical aspect of contention in the Parmigiano Reggiano vs. Parmesan debate always comes down to the lack of consistency.
While there are devoted artisan cheesemakers out there who produce the top-notch product and whose only sin is that they’re not based in the Emilia Romagna region, their numbers are few and far between.
Lower manufacturing standards for parmesan cheese outside PDO regions allow cheesemakers to cut corners and produce an inferior product to save expenses and maximize distribution. Generic parmesan cheese is almost always cheaper than the original Parmigiano Reggiano.
In the United States alone, there’s no oversight on dairy used in cheese production, the aging process is much shorter, and the texture and flavor can vary significantly between different manufacturers. The texture can be gamier or more plastic-like, while the flavor loses much of its complexity. Instead of a multi-layered umami flavor, you’re more likely to get a strong salty cheese that lacks characteristic nutty and fruity elements.
The best parmesan cheeses retain the crumbly texture and intense nuttiness, even when they can’t boast the same complexity (primarily due to lack of access to quality milk used for Parmigiano Reggiano production). If you can’t get your hands on authentic Parmigiano Reggiano and have no access to a small artisanal cheese store, look for cheese that’s been aged longer than the 10-month minimum: the longer the cheese has been aged, the more robust its flavor.
Best Uses for Parmesan Cheese:
Unlike the authentic Parmigiano Reggiano, most cheese experts advise against having generic Parmesan raw by itself. There’s nothing wrong with it, of course; it’s just not the most flavorful option and tends to work better in tandem with other ingredients.
Try to skip the pre-grated or pre-shredded Parmesan and grate it yourself (it retains flavor better as a block of cheese). It’ll work well as an additional garnish on dishes that are already plenty flavorful on their own and don’t depend on Parmesan as the main flavoring ingredient, like pizza, salads, or certain soups and pasta.
As for the dishes that do use Parmesan as the main flavoring ingredient: you might need to use a more liberal amount of parmesan cheese than the original recipe calls for, but it can substitute for Parmigiano Reggiano in complex dishes like pasta carbonara, chicken parmesan, or risotto, once the amount is adjusted (it’ll depend on how robust the parmesan variety you’ve gotten is).