The ultimate guide to Italy’s most famous cheese
Italy is home to hundreds of incredible cheeses that are unique to every corner of the country, made with cow, goat, and sheep’s milk alike. But when you think of Italian formaggio, there’s one name that almost certainly leaps to mind first: parmigiano reggiano.
Well-aged and firm with a distinctive crumbly, crystalline interior, parmigiano is instantly recognizable thanks to its ubiquitous use as a pasta topper here in the U.S. It was the first Italian cheese to be marketed to Americans—as early as 1953, a U.S. company was selling grated parm in a can to make it more convenient to midcentury consumers.
Even though it’s so well-known, there are still a lot of questions about just what parmigiano reggiano is and—more importantly—what it isn’t. Never fear! We’ve got answers to all of your questions right here.
What is parmigiano reggiano?
As a DOP-regulated product, authentic parmigiano reggiano has a very clear definition. Anything that doesn’t meet these restrictions cannot legally be called parmigiano reggiano! It starts with fresh, unpasteurized milk from grass-fed cows in Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna, and Mantua. Within 24 hours, the milk must be first separated with a natural culture to start the fermentation process, then cooked over a low heat in copper cauldrons. A master cheese maker carefully tends to this process, breaking up the curds with a traditional tool called a spino. Once they form a mass, it’s shaped into a huge wheel which is immersed in a salt-water bath to give it that characteristic salty charm. Out of the bath, it’s aged for at least 12 months (up to 40 months or longer!) to allow moisture to escape and flavor to intensify.
Is parmesan the same as parmigiano reggiano?
In the simplest terms, parmesan is the anglicized translation of parmigiano, dating back to those early days of the cheese’s success here in the U.S. It’s similar to the reason most English speakers call the city of Firenze Florence—it’s just easier for an English tongue. However, as the Italian cheese grew in popularity, other cheesemakers wanted to cash in on its success by making their own version. By making a cheese that looked similar to parmigiano reggiano and calling it parmesan, they hoped to confuse consumers looking for the real thing. Some artisan American cheesemakers make their own good parmesans using the same methods as Italians, so this isn’t to say it’s always a trick! However, the word parmesan has been diluted by industrial brands, including the shaky stuff you buy in a can at the grocery store. If you don’t know your cheesemaker and want to be sure you’re getting the best, it’s safest to look for parmigiano reggiano on the label.
Is the rind of parmigiano reggiano edible?
Unlike some cheeses, which are coated in wax or other substances to protect them as they age, there’s nothing in a wheel of parmigiano reggiano that isn’t pure cheese. The outermost layer forms a hard rind simply because it has been exposed to the air for upwards of two years. It’s technically edible, though you’ll find it much harder to eat and less enjoyable than the protected interior. But don’t throw it out! Simmer parm rinds in soups, stews, and sauces to imbue them with a deep umami flavor—they’re the secret weapon in Giada’s basic parmesan pomodoro!
What’s with the code on the outside of my piece of cheese?
It’s a quality control system! Every wheel that is made gets stamped all the way around with the words parmigiano reggiano so that it’s immediately identifiable as an authentic product. Each wheel also gets a unique medallion stamp with the month and year of its production and a code for the factory where it was made, so you can trace your cheese back to its source. If you ever purchase a piece of parmigiano from a wheel that doesn’t have these exterior markings, you’ve been tricked! It isn’t the real thing.
Are parmigiano, grana padano, and pecorino all the same?
Definitely not! Parmigiano reggiano and grana padano are both made in the north of Italy, following similar methods, but there is less restriction and quality control on the latter, meaning you may find some amazing versions and some not-so-amazing ones. Pecorino romano is a completely different cheese made with sheep’s milk in the area outside Rome, in central Italy. It’s often used hand-in-hand with parm because it brings a very different flavor to the table, as in Giada’s classic cacio e pepe recipe.