- In the US, the terms Parmigiano Reggiano and parmesan are used interchangeably, but they are not the same.
- Italy has strict laws governing the ingredients, production, and aging process of Parmigiano Reggiano.
- Most cheese labeled “parmesan” in the US is an imitation of Parmigiano Reggiano.
- Visit Insider’s Home & Kitchen Reference library for more stories.
It’s rare that a spirited discussion about Italian food is without mention of cheese. And a conversation of Italian cheese always has a way to involve the country’s most iconic one: Parmigiano Reggiano.
In the US, you might refer to Parmigiano Reggiano as parmesan. At the very least, you’ve probably seen both labels at your local grocery store.
While parmesan has become synonymous with Parmigiano Reggiano — often used interchangeably from recipe to recipe — the two cheeses are not the same. Why? Because of the high standards by which real Parmigiano Reggiano is made.
When you buy “parmesan” in the US — whether it’s blocks, grated, or the powdery stuff found in green plastic cylinders — you’re not buying Parmigiano Reggiano. The reality is Parmigiano Reggiano is hard to duplicate.
So what exactly makes Parmigiano Reggiano so special and how does it compare to its well-known imposter, parmesan?
What is Parmigiano Reggiano?
Parmigiano Reggiano is a hard, fermented cheese made from cow’s milk with a long and storied tradition in Italy that first appeared in the Middle Ages, when monks began aging wheels of cow’s milk cheese to prevent food waste.
For centuries, Parmigiano Reggiano has been made almost the same exact way, making it an age-old delicacy with producers having a vision of how the cheese should look, feel, smell, and taste.
Parmigiano Reggiano is light yellow in color, with a granular, crumbly texture. It’s rich in umami, distinctly salty and nutty, sometimes fruity or grassy, while carrying a touch of sweetness. It’s this range of flavor complexity that has earned Parmigiano Reggiano the title of the “king of cheeses.”
“In every fridge in Italia, there is always Parmigiano [Reggiano],” says Dino Borri, the global vice president of Eataly, adding its ever-presence is due to the cheese’s shelf stability, versatility, and distinctive taste.
But what exactly makes Parmigiano Reggiano so special?
By law, Parmigiano Reggiano must uphold strict requirements in order to be stamped with Italy’s official label of Denominazione d’ Origine Protetta (DOP), which translates to Protected Designation of Origin (PDO).
First and foremost, the cheese must be produced within the northern Italian region of Emilia Romagna, and more specifically, in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna, and Mantua.
With Parmigiano Reggiano, the process starts with unpasteurized cow’s milk, and those cows must be raised under certain standards. The cows are fed only hay and grass, which imparts beneficial bacteria to the cheese-making process native only to the Emilia Romagna region.
“There are different breeds of cows that make the Parmigiano [Reggiano],” Borri says. “For us, each product, each producer, each cow, has their own taste.” Different seasons, vegetation, farms, breed of cow, and producers all make each batch of Parmigiano Reggiano slightly different, says Borri, though its core nutty and fruity characteristics always remain.
In addition to the area of origin and production, the law dictates other specifications, like strict ingredients guidelines (only milk, salt, and calf rennet), quality standards (each wheel must be inspected by a consortium), and aging requirements (a minimum of 12 months).
“[Parmigiano Reggiano] cannot be younger than 12 months. You can age it from 12, to 25, to 56 [months], sometimes even super old,” Borri says. Borri notes that in Italy, each type of aged Parmigiano Reggiano is used or eaten differently, as the older the cheese is, the more its distinctive flavor profile is present.
These requirements help maintain the cheese’s signature quality and taste.
How Parmigiano Reggiano is made
Parmigiano Reggiano gets its start in a large vat where whole milk is combined with skim milk. Rennet and whey are added to the milk and stirred with a spino, a tool to help separate granules from the liquid. The milk is cooked slowly until solids come together to form a ball, which is split in half, wrapped in cheesecloth, and shaped into a mold where it will take its classic shape.
Once in the mold, the cheese is stamped with the famous DOP dotted markings. After a few days, it sits in a salt bath to help form the rind. Once out of the saltwater, it’s placed on shelves to age for a minimum of 12 months. During aging, the cheese will continue to ferment and the salt crystals will develop to add to its grainy texture.
How is parmesan cheese different?
Parmesan is the English translation of Parmigiano Reggiano. But that doesn’t mean the two products are the same.
While Parmigiano Reggiano enjoys protected status in the European Union — meaning only Parmigiano Reggiano with the DOP stamp can be sold under the name “parmesan” — those laws do not apply in the US.
Even though Parmigiano Reggiano and parmesan are widely understood as the same thing in other parts of the world, that’s far from true in the US. Laws do not protect cheese sold under the label “parmesan.” Because the product of origin requirements are not applied to parmesan cheese in the US, parmesan lacks the consistent flavor and essential quality control its Italian counterpart has, Borri says.
When it comes to the production of cheeses labeled as parmesan in the US, they are typically made with similar processes as Parmigiano Reggiano. Despite those similarities, the key elements (like location and bacteria strains, breeds of cow, and ingredients) that make Parmigiano Reggiano taste the way it does aren’t present, resulting in a cheese with a different flavor profile.
Can you use parmesan instead of Parmigiano Reggiano?
Though you can theoretically substitute Parmigiano Reggiano with parmesan cheese, it’s important to understand that parmesan is not genuine Parmigiano Reggiano.
If a recipe calls for Parmigiano Reggiano, it’s worth getting the real stuff.
“They are two different products,” Borri says. “When you buy Parmigiano Reggiano you know there are some specific characteristics.” It’s harder to know how parmesan’s flavor characteristics will show up when you eat it or add it to a dish due to its less stringent rules of production and origin.
If Parmigiano Reggiano isn’t an option, Borri suggests reading the cheese’s label to check its origin and producer to find what’s local or artisan. Choose hard cheeses that are aged longer, as its flavor will be more impactful. If you’re unsure, Borri suggests asking a cheesemonger for suggestions on a good replacement or what is locally made.
If you’re looking for an inexpensive replacement, Borri recommends buying less instead. “Buy less, buy better. Usually with Parmigiano Reggiano you don’t need too much.” Borri also notes that you can buy Parmigiano Reggiano that is aged longer to get more flavor out of less cheese.
Parmigiano Reggiano is a hard cheese with unique flavor characteristics that’s been produced in the same northern region of Italy for centuries. It maintains strict qualifications required to be a DOP product of Italy. In addition to regional requirements, only certain cows can be used, only certain factories can produce it, and it must be aged for at least one year.
Parmigiano Reggiano can’t be used interchangeably with parmesan since they are different products. In the US, cheese labeled as parmesan doesn’t have to stick to the same requirements as Parmigiano Reggiano, meaning the flavor characteristics won’t be the same.