August 4

Parmesan Cheese – Everything You Need to Know

Written by: Caitlin Clark

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One of the world’s best-known toppings and most accessible delicacies, Parmesan is what comes to mind when most of the world thinks of cheese. But what is the difference between Parmesan and Parmigiano-Reggiano, and is grated Parmesan “real” cheese? Keep reading, and you’ll find some answers! 

What is Parmesan Cheese?


Real Parmigiano-Reggiano is a complex, flaky, yellowing cheese with a thick rind that was first produced in the 13th century by Benedictine monks. Today, the Italian provinces of Bologna, Reggio-Emilia, Mantua, Modena, and Parma are those permitted to produce the cheese. Used chiefly for grating, this style has imitations all over the world. These are generally labeled as “Parmesan.” 

How is Parmesan Cheese Made?


The cheesemaking process begins with part-skim, unpasteurized cow’s milk that's heated in copper vats. The copper ions they contribute help to control the aging process. Lactic acid acidification follows once the milk is warm.

Then, cheesemakers use calf rennet to curdle the milk before splitting the curd into rice-sized pieces. This large curd surface area releases a maximum amount of water, resulting in an extremely dry cheese after molding and pressing.

Next, the large wheels undergo a brining phase for around 25 days, after which they age for no less than a year. Parmigiano-Reggiano wheels that pass extensive quality checks bear identity stamps around their heavy rinds so that imposters can't deceive consumers. 

Disambiguation of Terms


Parmigiano-Reggiano

The Italian original has the words “Parmigiano-Reggiano” stenciled on the rind and is regulated by Italian Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) laws. These cheeses age at least a year and sometimes more than two.

Parmigiano

Some excellent Italian cheeses made in the style of Parmigiano-Reggiano, but which don't meet the PDO quality or geography standards are labeled simply “Parmigiano.”

Grana

This term refers to any hard, dry cheese with a flaky texture and a strong umami flavor primarily used for grating. Both of the above varieties would be considered Granas, but others stretch the description slightly, such as Grana Padano, Gransardo, and Granone Lodigiano.

Parmesan

This English translation usually refers to cheese made in the United States in the style of Parmigiano-Reggiano that is not covered under PDO laws. While there are some delightfully tasty examples, this category is unregulated and may bear little resemblance to Italian PDO Parmigiano-Reggiano. These cheeses rarely age for more than ten months.

Grated or Shredded Parmesan

This is Parmesan-style cheese that has been pre-grated or shredded. The cheese fragments are usually coated with a food-safe additive (often cellulose) to prevent them from clumping. The ingredient list also usually includes a fungicide (often potassium sorbate) to prevent mold growth. Both non-cheese ingredients are entirely safe to consume.

Parmesello

This is the name given to pre-grated Parmesan cheese in Europe, where it can not legally be labeled “Parmesan.”

Parmesan Cheese Substitutes


  • Grana Padano or Grana Trentino: These cheeses are younger and less complex than their famous cousin Parmigiano-Reggiano, but they are perhaps the closest match in texture and umami punch.
  • Aged Manchego: This Spanish sheep’s milk cheese may age for up to two years. Choose an older variety that is oily to the touch and flakes upon cutting as an ideal substitute for Parmesan. 
  • Aged Piave: As with Manchego, young Piave is not a suitable substitute, but when aged, this cheese develops a Grana-like texture and loses its sweetness.

What Does Parmesan Cheese Taste Like?


Parmigiano-Reggiano is exceptionally high in glutamate, resulting in a strong umami character. Tyrosine crystals often form as it ages, ramping up the savory notes of the style. Its profile also has hints of nuts, and it should taste and feel quite fatty on the tongue.  

Parmesan Cheese Pairings


Although many people eat Parmigiano-Reggiano with fresh or dried fruit, it also makes a natural accompaniment to savory flavors. Try it with herbs like rosemary and sage or in vegetable dishes, especially tomato sauces. On a cheese plate, nuts like Marcona almonds or hazelnuts pair well with the oily texture. 

Best Parmesan Cheese Brands


Parmigiano-Reggiano Vacche Rosse

Cows from the Rosse valley graze on a diet rich in wild herbs and produce milk with a high protein and fat content, allowing for a longer aging process (at least 30 months). The result is a PDO Parmigiano-Reggiano widely agreed to be the world’s best. 

Any other PDO Parmigiano-Reggiano

In blind taste tests, real Parmigiano-Reggiano consistently performs better than Parmesan. It is worth the extra effort to find the real thing!

BelGioso Parmesan

Wisconsin-made BelGioso has an excellent reputation for an American Parmesan. Aged 10 months, it's sweeter and milder than Italian Parmesan, and it makes for a perfect introduction to the style. 

Where to Buy Parmesan Cheese


While www.igourmet.com is famous for its Parmigiano-Reggiano offerings, it also has Parmesan and Grana if you wish to compare! We also suggest www.parmashop.com for its impressive selection of PDO Parmigiano-Reggiano.

How Long Does Parmesan Cheese Last?


Parmigiano-Reggiano dries out quickly once the large wheels are cut. Be sure to purchase it from a reputable cheesemonger or online retailer that you trust will store their wheels properly. Once you have cut a piece of Parmesan or Parmigiano-Reggiano, expect it to last 2-4 weeks in the refrigerator. However, professionals know that even old Parmesan is still useful. Try tossing a piece of old Parmesan or Parmigiano-Reggiano into a soup or stew to really dial up the flavor!

How to Store Parmesan Cheese


Unlike other varieties, Parmesan-style cheeses should be tightly wrapped in sealed plastic. Prevent exposure to the air to avoid mold growth and rind thickening.

How to Make Parmesan Cheese


Parmesan-Cheese-Everything-You-Need-To-Know

A Parmesan-style cheese requires advanced cheese-making knowledge and equipment. It also demands patience; you can age this cheese up to two years after you make it! If you still want to give it a try, find a recipe and supplies here: www.cheesemaking.com

Concluding


Genuine PDO Parmigiano-Reggiano is an experience not quickly forgotten. Whether you spring for the real thing or enjoy a foreign example of the style, you’ll be sure to savor the uniqeness of this cheese. 

If you have any questions or comments please don't hesitate to contact us. 

Cheers!

Caitlin


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About the author

Caitlin is a Ph.D student and chocolate researcher at Colorado State University. Her research in the Food Science program focuses on chocolate fermentation (that’s right, it’s a fermented food!) and small-batch post-harvest processing techniques. When she is not acting in her capacity as resident chocolate guru, she researches other fermented foods and beverages like beer, sausage, and natto. Caitlin was drawn to fermented foods while living in rural Spain for six years, where she was exposed to traditional, time-honored practices of food preservation. At home, she practices Bollywood dance for fun and is followed everywhere by two small pet rabbits.

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