Parmigiano Reggiano: Understanding the King of all Cheeses

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  • October 28, 2016

Have you ever wondered what the difference is between Parmesan and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese? I decided to do some research to better understand this storied and delicious cheese.

parmigiano reggiano

There are a number of characteristics that define Parmigiano Reggiano:

  • The only Parmesan – it means of/from Parma, Italy.
  • It is lactose free.
  • There are only a little more than 300 producers.
  • Rich in high quality, easily digestible proteins.
  • There are 900 years of tradition.
  • There are only three ingredients: raw cow’s milk, rennet, sea salt.
  • It has a PDO or Protected Designation of Origin.

The naming aspect makes total sense when you consider the history of this cheese. In the U.S., we may say Parmesan interchangeable with Parmigiano Reggiano. But in reality, it is not the same thing. We don’t regulate the cheese’s name in the United States the way it is controlled in Europe.

Only cheeses produced in the following regions are allowed to be called Parmigiano Reggiano: Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Mantua and Bologna. It’s interesting to note that “Parmesan Cheese” in Europe only, means the same thing as Parmigiano Reggiano. This was put in to effect in 2008 thanks to the D.O.C. Regulations which supports the preservation of traditional Italian food products. In the U.S., Parmesan is made in many areas but is not Parmigiano Reggiano. This reminds me of how Champagne is classified. Only if grown in the Champagne region of France can sparkling wine be referred to as Champagne. Same philosophy here.

So, now that we understand the importance of the name of the cheese, let’s take a look at the aging process of Parmigiano Reggiano. Parmesan cheese is aged longer than other hard grating cheeses. Aging the cheese gives it a more granular texture and complex flavor. The wheels of cheese are left to sit on wooden shelves with each wheel given a unique identification number by way of a casein plate. The special designation records the month and year in which the cheese was produced as well as its registration number. Inscriptions are then dotted around the circumference of the wheel of cheese.

Understanding parmigiano reggiano

The minimum amount of time that Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is required to mature is 12 months. Each cheese wheel is carefully inspected to ensure that it is worthy to bear its highly regarded name. You may see 24 or 36-month stamps on the labels of the cheese. “Two summers” is the traditional mantra of the Parmigiano Reggiano cheesemaker. The belief is that one summer’s heat energizes enzymes, kick-starting their flavor-enhancing work. The next summer takes those flavors to the intensely complex, nutty, sweet, grassy, creamy heights the cheese is known for.

parmigiano reggiano

If you have bought Parmigiano Reggiano pieces, you probably noticed that it comes with the rind. That is proof that you are getting an authentic piece of Parm made in Italy. Tip: Don’t throw out that rind once you have finished the cheese. Save it for when you are making soups. The creaminess of the remaining cheese will accentuate your soup’s flavors.  If you are going to eat it immediately, let it come to room temperature for the flavors to come out. To store it, wrap it in wax paper tightly sealing in the cheese so no air gets to it. Keeping it in the vegetable drawer is also a good idea. Finally, when buying the cheese, choose pieces that will last you a week or two.

Now, my favorite part, creating a cheese plate to share with my guests. There are endless ways to put together a beautiful presentation of cheeses. I like to offer different textures, flavors and looks along with accompanying fruits, nuts, crackers, olives and pickles. Sweet and salty plays off the cheeses you choose. On this tray, you will find the following:

parmigiano reggiano

  • Parmigiano Reggiano broken into small chunks to pop into your mouth. Salty. Nutty. Decadent. Melts in your mouth. No cracker needed.
  • French Brie with a little honey to be spread on a cracker. Rich. Creamy. Elegant.
  • Rich orange colored Mimolette from France. Hard, nutty cheese with a caramel flavor.  
  • Sartori’s Espresso Bellavitano cheese. Sweet with an espresso crust.

However you put together your cheese platter, choose what you like best. Adding sparkling wines, cocktails or beers that align with cheeses you offer may enhance the cheeses as well.

In the end, whether you are eating cheese alone, on a cracker or cooking with it, there is nothing more enjoyable. Watch for Inspiring Kitchen’s next post on ways to cook with Parmigiano Reggiano in November.

Thanks for stopping by!


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