It can be easy to misclassify Parmigiano Reggiano and Parmesan cheese, especially if you’re not a cheese fancier. But after the Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese Consortium invited me on a press trip to Parma, Italy, I was not only able to taste the difference, but really learn about the historic process of making Parmigiano Reggiano that truly puts it in a class of its own.
Are Parmigiano Reggiano and Parmesan different?
The two are completely different! One of the first things I learned on the trip to Parma was that Parmigiano Reggiano can only be made in Italy. “Parmigiano Reggiano is produced exclusively in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna to the left of the Reno River and Mantua to the right of the Po River,” says Nicola Bertinelli, President of the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium. “The feeding of cattle in these areas complies with the norms of a strict specification that bans the use of silage, fermented feeds and animal flour.”
The only three ingredients allowed to make Parmigiano Reggiano are milk, salt and rennet. The latter is an enzyme that helps speeds up the fermentation of the cheese. Parmesan makers also use rennet, however unlike Parmigiano Reggiano, the rennet used can be vegetarian. Also, the milk used for Parmigiano Reggiano can only come from cows that are fed locally grown forage, grass and hay.
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When in Italy, you may hear locals refer to Parmigiano Reggiano as Parmigiano/Parmesan. However, when shopping in America, you’ll find that many hard cheeses can be referred to as Parmesan. As Bertinelli notes the “Parmesan” cheese you find in most supermarkets throughout the world are not subject to the strict regulation, aging requirements or quality standards of Parmigiano Reggiano.
One example? According to FDA rules, American hard cheeses don’t have to be made from fresh whole milk. Reconstituted dry milk, skim milk and cream can also be used. Another is the aging process, where the cheese has to be aged at least 12 months to be called Parmigiano Reggiano. That’s not the case with Parmesan.
How can I easily spot Parmigiano Reggiano easily in the stores?
To the average consumer, it’s not easy. But Bertinelli said there are a few things to clue in on when shopping.
When dealing with pre-grated cheese to add to your pasta, you’ll want to make sure the packaging has the name Parmigiano Reggiano, exactly spelled like that — no nicknames or abbreviations. American laws do protect the name Parmigiano Reggiano, so if it says it, it’s almost guaranteed to be it.
For blocks of cheese to cut for your charcuterie board, make sure the name Parmigiano Reggiano is dotted on the rind. You can ask your local cheese monger to double check. A third clue to spot is the logo of the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium.
“We are working on some projects designed specifically to make Parmigiano Reggiano more visible and recognizable in stores for US consumers,” says Bertinnelli. “For starters, we are planning to apply stickers with the logo on products that are cut and wrapped in stores.”
Which is better: Parmigiano Reggiano or Parmesan?
Cheese mongers will prefer Parmigiano Reggiano due to the regulations and tradition, but for consumers during their day-to-day lives, it will likely come down to taste and texture.
Parmigiano Reggiano has a sharp, nutty taste that gets stronger the longer it’s aged. It also has a slightly gritty texture. In my opinion, it’s the superior option. One big reason for that is that with Parmesan in America, you’re not sure exactly what you’re getting. But generally, those harder cheeses are saltier and can be bitter.
Another thing to consider is price. In most cases, because of the incredible process that goes into create it, Parmigiano Reggiano will be more expensive. But that doesn’t mean you can’t indulge while sticking to a budget. A good option to get a smaller cut of Parmigiano Reggiano if that’s what you really want.
Michelle is the deputy director of the Hearst Lifestyle Group, where she helps oversee multiple brand’s strategy efforts on digital. Previously, she was the deputy editor and managing digital editor for Good Housekeeping. She has over 10 years of experience writing and editing lifestyle content.