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What Is Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese? A Guide to Using Parmesan Cheese in Your Kitchen

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 5 min read

All hail the “King of Cheeses,” Parmigiano Reggiano: a fair and noble ruler of an absurdly prolific cheese kingdom—Italy.

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What Is Parmigiano Reggiano?

Parmigiano Reggiano is a hard Italian cheese made from skimmed, unpasteurized cow’s milk, with a lengthy aging process: a minimum of two years and occasionally more than four.

History of Parmigiano Reggiano

References to cheese makers of Northern Italy and their vaunted Parmigiano Reggiano can be found stretching back to the Middle Ages, when monks in the Emilia-Romagna region began making a hard cheese. It became so popular that by the Renaissance, it was a staple on noble tables, and eventually made its way to the city and ports of Tuscany. It was only a matter of time before the French gourmands discovered the cheese, thanks to the joining of noble families between the two countries and the wheels of cheese brought as gifts of good faith.

The cheese continued to be made, not just in the regions of Parma and Reggio Emilia as before, but in Modena, Bologna, and Mantua as well. By 1934, an association calling itself the Consorzio del Grana Tipico was formed among producers from those areas to make the cheese—and its distinctive character—official. Twenty years later, they changed their name to the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano, in order to honor the historic roles shared by both regions in defining the original cheese’s characteristics. The Consorzio still inspects every wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese today.

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Characteristics of Parmigiano-Reggiano

Because it is produced year-round, the nuances of Parmigiano Reggiano can reflect seasonal variety, ranging from sweet and grassy, to nutty and earthy. Its color ranges from pale white-yellow to a deeper golden-dried wheat hue depending on how long it has been aged.

Our palate can detect six flavors, beginning with salty, sweet, sour, spicy, and bitter. The sixth flavor, umami, is found in dried mushrooms, soy sauce, and parmesan cheese. The process of aging adds a lot to that complexity. The long aging process of Parmigiano Reggiano results in its signature granular texture that melts in the mouth.

How Is Parmigiano Reggiano Made?

  1. A cheesemaker combines whole milk with a naturally skimmed milk, adds bacteria in the form of rennet and whey, and then lets the mixture curdle briefly.
  2. They then break up the resulting curd into smaller pieces, and cook it carefully for about an hour, until firm.
  3. The cheesemaker places the firm curd into drum molds and presses until it holds its shape.
  4. After about a day or two, the cheesemaker imprints identifying details on the rind.
  5. The cheese is then washed with a brine bath every few days, for just under a month.
  6. After the brining is complete, the wheels of cheese are stored in temperature-controlled aging rooms, where they undergo what is called proteolysis: the breakdown of long-chain proteins in the curd into amino acid compounds. These amino acids are responsible for the complex textural and flavor nuances in an individual wheel of cheese—this is why very mature Parmigiano-Reggiano will occasionally have small salty crunchy bits (called tyrosine) throughout as a result.
  7. After one year, members of the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano—bestowers of that important Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status—arrive to inspect the structure of each and every wheel, which they then approve and mark for pristine quality (or not). The wheels then age at least another full year before being sold.

Like other food products—balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and wine for example—Parmigiano Reggiano cheese comes with a strict set of regulations and designations under European Union law. Denominazione di Origine controllata (DOC)—or Protected Designation of Origin (PDO)—protects the integrity of Italian food; the words “Parmigiano-Reggiano” on a rind are a guarantee that the cheese was produced in the provinces approved to do so: Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna, or Mantua.

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5 Ways to Cook With Parmigiano Reggiano

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Massimo Bottura teaches you his take on traditional Italian cooking—from risotto to tortellini—and shares techniques for reimagining your own recipes.

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As one of the world’s premier grating cheeses, it’s best to pair fresh shaves of Parmigiano Reggiano on anything that provides a nice contrast to its deeply nutty notes. Remember that the parmesan as a finishing garnish will also add saltiness, so account for that when seasoning a main dish like pasta.

  1. Rack of lamb. Chef Gordon Ramsay coats his rack of lamb with a Parmigiano Reggiano crust. The crust protects the lamb during cooking, caramelizes in the oven, and adds flavor. Brushing the lamb with mustard while hot allows the mustard to seep into the meat to lighten the gamey flavor of lamb and gives the crust a way to stick to the meat. The breadcrumbs give the crust structure and Parmesan seasons the crust and helps it meld together.
  2. Salads. To add savory depth to a salad, shave the cheese over a bright citrus salad with shaved fennel and mint.
  3. Appetizers and cheese trays. Serve in shards alongside raw honey, prosciutto, aged balsamic vinegar, fresh fruit and bread.
  4. Risotto. Add Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese to risotto for extra flavor.
  5. Broth. Add Parmigiano-Reggiano rinds to your next batch of vegetable stock for a more well-rounded flavor profile.

What Is the Difference Between Parmigiano Reggiano and Parmesan Cheese?

Legally speaking, in Europe, only true Parmigiano Reggiano—which has met PDO standards and has come from the approved regions—can also go by the name Parmesan. The term is not protected outside of Europe, however, so you may find cheeses labeled “Parmesan” that are imitations from the United States, Australia, or countries in South America. It may be an aged cow’s milk cheese made in a similar style, but it doesn’t carry the lineage of Parma and Reggio-Emilia.

Generally, the main difference between Parmigiano Reggiano and Parmesan cheese outside of Italy is in consistency and complexity: While designated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is aged a minimum of two years, you’ll find parmesan in the States only aged 10 months.

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