Parmigiano-Reggiano is a hard, dry cheese made from skimmed or partially skimmed cow's milk. It has a hard pale-golden rind and a straw-colored interior with a rich, sharp flavor. Parmigiano-Reggianos are aged at least two years. Parmesan cheese labeled stravecchio has been aged three years, while stravecchiones are four or more years old.
Their complex flavor and extremely granular texture are a result of the long aging. Parmigiano-Reggiano has been called the "King of Cheeses" and Italians don't just slap this phrase on any old cheese. There are criteria that have to be followed.
What Makes a Cheese Parmigiano-Reggiano?
The words Parmigiano-Reggiano stenciled on the rind mean that the cheese was produced in Italy in one of the following areas: Bologna, Mantua, Modena, or Parma (from which the name of this cheese originated).
Under Italian law, only cheese produced in these provinces may be labeled "Parmigiano-Reggiano," and European law classifies the name, as well as the translation "Parmesan," as a protected designation of origin.
In Italy, DOC (Denominazione di Origine controllata) laws are meant to preserve the integrity of traditional Italian food products by ensuring the flavor and quality. So within the European Union, per DOC regulations, Parmesan and Parmigiano-Reggiano are the same cheese.
Parmesans are primarily used for grating and in Italy are termed grana, meaning "grain," referring to their granular textures. Within Italy, cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano are also called grana. Many of these cheeses are delicious in their own right. An example is the cheese Grana Padano.
The name Parmigiano is used in parts of Italy for grana cheeses that don't meet protected designation of origin requirements for Parmigiano-Reggiano, such as specific areas of production, what the cattle eat, lengthy aging and so on.
Parmesan is the English and American translation of the Italian word Parmigiano-Reggiano. There is also evidence that in the 17th to 19th centuries Parmigiano-Reggiano was called Parmesan in Italy and France.
In the U.S., the word "Parmesan" is not regulated. A cheese labeled as Parmesan in the U.S. might be genuine Parmigiano-Reggiano, but it's more likely to be an imitation. Most U.S. versions typically age a minimum of 10 months.
Parmesan cheese is also made in Argentina and Australia, but none compares with Italy's preeminent Parmigiano-Reggiano, with its granular texture that melts in the mouth. Parmesan cheeses in other countries have comparatively lax regulations.
Does "Imitation" Parmesan Taste as Good?
A cheese labeled as Parmesan in the U.S. that is not genuine Parmigiano-Reggiano still can be a tasty cheese. Many artisanal cheesemakers are making high-quality cheeses that are inspired by Parmigiano-Reggiano. Many large cheese producers sell decent Parmesan. Is the flavor as complex as genuine Parmigiano-Reggiano? You be the judge. Buy both and taste them side by side.
Pre-grated Parmesan is available but in no way compares with the freshly grated cheese—save your money. Both domestic and imported Parmesans are available in specialty cheese stores, Italian markets, and many supermarkets.
Confused? Then ask the cheesemonger before you buy. They should be able to tell you if the Parmesan you're buying is the real deal or not.