Highly regulated in Italy, Parmesan cheese standards in the US are much less clear. Here's how to know you're getting the good stuff.
Ask about Parmesan cheese and you'll likely get a range of answers, depending on who you ask and where you are when you ask them. That salty packet of Parmesan powder that accompanies your favorite meal kit or holds court on the counter of your local pizza parlor may taste good, but it barely resembles the cheese as imagined by its Italian originators. Turophiles, chefs, cheesemongers and industry folk know that real Italian Parmesan is "Parmigiano Reggiano." Anything else made and marketed simply as "Parmesan" cheese in the US is typically of a lower standard and is often scoffed and snickered at.
But even real Parmigiano Reggiano isn't always what it seems. Fraudulent sales of the stuff became so excessive that it forced the 900-year-old industry to strike back with a surprisingly modern solution.
There's a lot to sort out when it comes to Parmesan and the many iterations of this highly regarded hard cheese. Here's everything you need to know about American Parmesan vs. Parmigiano Reggiano and how to ensure you're getting the good stuff -- or at least what you paid for.
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In Italy, where this nutty, sharp and salty cheese style originates, the term "Parmesan" is tightly regulated, similar to Champagne in France, and any cheese designated and sold as such must meet high standards for production.
The word Parmesan is broadly the English translation of Parmigiano Reggiano, but in America, that's about where the similarities end. The particulars surrounding Parmesan production are vastly different than in Italy. In other words, it's almost completely unregulated, and those $4 blocks of "Parmesan" or (gulp) canisters of Parmesan powder you're grabbing in the dry goods, cheese or dairy aisle pale in comparison to the real stuff. You might even consider them a different cheese altogether -- and many do.
Even though Parmesan can mean cheese of wildly varying quality, cheese sold and labeled as "Parmigiano Reggiano" in the US must come from one of five regions in Italy -- Parma, Modena, Bologna, Mantua or Reggio Emilia -- and adhere to strict standards as it relates to ingredients, production methods and aging.
Authentic Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is made using only three ingredients, one of which is milk from cows raised in the region and fed only food grown in the region. Unlike other Parmesans made and sold in the US, there is also a sizable list of foods the cattle can't be fed such as fermented grain. Parmigiano Reggiano must be aged for at least a year, but most is aged for two or three years and often even aged longer, up to 100 months or more. Parmesan made in the US and other places has no such aging requirements.
These stringent Italian cheese laws for cheese and other DOP (Protected Designation of Origin, when translated to English) foods are the law of the land and were put in place to protect the integrity of the sacred products as they grew in popularity and enjoyed exportation around the world. Other Italian DOP exports include Modena balsamic vinegar, San Marzano tomatoes and Parma ham. If you know how to read labels, they work: Spotting a DOP marking ensures you're getting an authentic food item made with standards enforced with austerity.
For starters, anything marketed as Parmesan in the US is almost definitely not Parmigiano Reggiano, aka the good stuff. All authentic Parmigiano Reggiano is marked with pin-dot lettering that spells it all out for you, quite literally. 'Parmigiano Reggiano' will be stamped into the rind of every wheel of cheese that comes from the region and meets DOP standards. Parmigiano Reggiano wheels also feature a unique alphanumeric tracking code. Distributors here will hack the 70- to 80-pound wheels into smaller chunks, making it harder to read the pin-dot letters, but the ID number should make its way to the sticker or label. You'll also want to look for the DOP label which should accompany every legitimate portion of cheese. Shops can't legally sell it as Parmigiano Reggiano without those stamps of quality.
All that analog authentication hasn't stopped some from trying to beat the system with fake versions of the real stuff. In fact, the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium estimated around $2 billion in fake counterfeit sales per year, which is nearly as much as sales of the genuine article. To battle back, it started slapping silicon microchips called p-Chips and QR codes on cheese wheels in 2022 to better track the product and suss out imposter products and counterfeit operations. The program is still in its infancy but the hope is that it will significantly lower the chances of fake cheese ending up in your shopping cart.
While it's made using a similar style to the sanctioned stuff, Parmesan cheese in the US can mean many things and is hard to define. Typically, cheese labeled Parmigiano Reggiano is of higher quality (and price) than anything marked "Parmesan." Parmigiano Reggiano is easier to describe since it's all made in pretty much the same way using particular ingredients, tools and production methods.
If you don't buy Parmigiano Reggiano, you're likely eating American-made imitation Parmesan cheese. There's nothing inherently wrong with it; some are very good and come from quality producers. But try a bite of cheap, generic, non-DOP Parmesan, then nibble on some authentic Parmigiano Reggiano, and you'll see why it's referred to as the "king of cheese." Depending on the length of time aged, this semi-hard cheese develops crunchy amino acid clusters (flavor crystals) and packs a complex umami punch with fruity, buttery, acidic and grassy notes that develop in the mouth.
Of course, all of the labor that goes into producing Parmigiano Reggiano makes for a pricier product than other Parmesan-style cheese, which has given rise to other Italian hard cheeses including Pecorino Romano and Grana Padano. Both are made in a similar style and have like taste profiles, but are made under less stringent standards and so can be crafted and sold for significantly less. If you grate a lot of cheese over your pasta every month and are keen to save a few bucks at the grocery store, either one is a fine substitute for Parmigiano Reggiano.
But there's nothing quite like Parmigiano Reggiano, which stands up beautifully to wines, fatty meats, good balsamic and ripe tomatoes or other fruit. Here, many think of Parmesan as something that's casually grated over pasta or a caesar salad. In Italy and other discerning cheese circles, you'll find the stuff served on cheese boards with apertivo to be eaten as is or served alongside fancy meats and olives.
So, find yourself a hunk of the real stuff (or an entire wheel if you've got three grand lying around.) It'll last for a very long time if you treat it with care, and Parmigiano Reggiano doesn't even need to be refrigerated (!).
Long live the king.