Often called the King of Italian Cheese, Parmigiano-Reggiano is one of the most well-known Italian cheeses. It has been made for at least 700 years, although a similar style of cheese has been made since the Roman Empire.
Parmigiano-Reggiano is made into large drum-shaped wheels that have a hard natural rind and crumbly, aged interior. The flavor is often described as spicy, savory, salty, fruity, caramelized, and nutty. These complex flavors are what make Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese so popular.
Although Parmigiano is good enough to eat alone, it is most often used in recipes. Parmigiano-Reggiano is typically added at the end of the cooking process so the cheese does not melt entirely and the flavor is not diminished.
01 of 05
How Parmigiano-Reggiano is Made
Parmigiano-Reggiano is protected by Italian D.O.C. laws which indicate where and how the cheese must be made. Among other things, the laws ensure that any cheese called Parmigiano-Reggiano is:
- Produced in Italy in the provinces of Parma, Reggio-Emilia, or Modena or in specific regions in the provinces of Bologna and Mantua
- Made from unpasteurized cows' milk
- Made only between April 15 and November 11 to ensure the milk is from cows pastured on fresh grasses, not silage
- Shaped into wheels weighing between 66 pounds (33K) and 88 pounds (44k)
- Aged at least 14 months
- Stamped on the rind with the words "Parmigiano-Reggiano," the date the cheese was made, and code numbers that indicate exactly where the cheese was made
Making Parmigiano is a complex process, but the basic steps are as follows:
- Cows' milk is poured into large copper cauldrons and starter is added to ferment the milk.
- The milk is heated to about 90 degrees F (32 degrees C) and curds form. The curd is cut up into tiny pieces which causes most of the moisture (whey) to drain away from the curd.
- The curds are heated to about 130 degrees F (55 degrees C) then quickly cooled. The curds are scooped out and placed in a mold that gives the cheese its shape. The curd is pressed while in the mold to release more whey. The more whey that is released, the harder the cheese will be.
- The cheese wheel is removed from the mold after several days and then washed with brine for several weeks to help the rind form. The cheese wheels age on wooden shelves and are regularly brushed and turned while aging.
02 of 05
Styles of Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese
Parmigiano-Reggiano is labeled according to how long it is aged. The longer the cheese is aged, the more complex the flavor becomes.
- Giovane (young) - Aged 1 year
- Vecchio (old) - Aged 2 years
- Stravecchio (very old) - Aged 3 years
- Stravecchione (super old) - Aged 4 years
Grana is a generic term used to describe hard Italian cheeses that are imitations of Parmigiano. An example is Grana Padano, which is aged only 6 months and is less expensive than real Parmigiano-Reggiano.
03 of 05
Buying, Storing, and Serving Parmigiano-Reggiano
As with most types of cheese, Parmigiano-Reggiano tastes best when it is cut from the wheel right before you buy it. If buying pre-packaged Parmigiano, avoid cheese pieces covered in a white film (which means it's dried out) or packaged in loose, saggy plastic wrap. While it's understandable not to want a huge piece of rind attached to the slice you buy, you should always expect to have some amount of rind attached to the cheese.
If possible, buy wedges of Parmigiano and grate it yourself at home. Pre-grated cheese is convenient but rarely tastes as good.
Buy small wedges that you will use up quickly. If the cheese develops a thin layer of mold, simply scrape it off before using.
For short periods of time, Parmigiano-Reggiano keeps fine in a sealed plastic bag. For longer periods of time (weeks) the recommendation from Steven Jenkins, author of the Cheese Primer, is "...moisten a piece of cheesecloth or other cloth–even a paper towel will do–and wrap it around the large hunk. Then, wrap the whole thing in aluminum foil. Store it in the vegetable compartment of the refrigerator."
The mild flavor makes Parmigiano a fairly wine-friendly cheese. It pairs well with everything from Italian dessert wines to sparkling wines, to full-bodied reds and Italian whites like Pinot Grigio.
04 of 05
Parmigiano-Reggiano Appetizers and Salads
Parmigiano-Reggiano is an ideal topping for salads, adding tons of flavor without a ton of calories. It is actually a fairly low-fat cheese, since it is made from partially skimmed milk. It can also dress up vegetables (like Brussels sprouts) and make them more appealing.Continue to 5 of 5 below.
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Parmigiano-Reggiano Main Courses
Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano is the perfect way to finish a dish. It adds rich flavor and softens slightly but doesn't melt into a gooey mess. Adding the cheese as an ingredient before the dish cooks (like in lasagna) adds a salty, savory flavor and often means you can add less salt to the food.