Those who read the Italian Tribune may note that whenever we discuss or provide a recipe calling for Parmigiano, we never describe it as ‘Parmesan.’ Is there more to it than just a name? When a pasta or risotto recipe calls for Parmesan cheese, should you buy Parmesan or Parmigiano-Reggiano?
Although, technically you can use either, there is a difference. If you use Parmigiano-Reggiano when the recipe specifies Parmesan, you should expect exceptional results. But it is important to realize that Parmesan is by no means the same as Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Parmigiano-Reggiano and Parmesan cheese refer to a hard, cow’s-milk cheese, notable for its nutty taste and a grainy texture. As our readers know, it is staple of Italian cooking, often grated and baked into dishes or sprinkled on top of pastas and soups. Its basic ingredients are cow’s milk, salt and rennet (the enzymes from a cow’s stomach). The word Parmesan is an Anglicization of Parmigiano, but that too can lead to confusion, especially when it comes to quality.
In the United States, Parmesan has become a generic term for the beloved type Italian cheese, but labeling rules in Italy are far stricter than in the U.S. Among generic Parmesan cheeses, quality can vary greatly. There are many small dairy farms throughout the world making Parmesan, but there are many mass-produced Parmesan cheeses that range from less than stellar to profoundly disappointing.
Parmesan is usually purchased pre-grated. When it comes grated, there is often a little flour or cornstarch in it to stop it from sticking together and it loses any any flavor it may have. Invariably, many have looked at cheese in a plastic canister that is labeled Parmesan and wondered what in the world it contained. The answer invariably is cheese and wood. That’s right – wood; it is worth noting that the FDA allows up to 4% cellulose (wood pulp) to be mixed in as an anti-clumping agent.
In the case of Parmigiano-Reggiano, it is authentic. It is what all other Parmesan cheese strives to be. Made only in certain parts of Italy, it is a protected product and can only be labeled Parmigiano-Reggiano if it is made in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and certain parts of the provinces of Mantua and Bologna, according to the Parmigiano Reggiano consortium. As such, Parmigiano-Reggiano is a highly-regulated product. The raw milk used must come from cows fed primarily from fodder obtained in the area of origin. The cheese must be aged for at least 12 months. There are even regulations about the size of the wheels of cheese and the color of the rind. There may be differences in flavor because of the different regions it is produced in and the amount of months – 12, 18 or 24, it is aged.
You can use this cheese in any recipe that calls for Parmesan because it is authentic. It has been produced and aged under traditional and noble methods. To determine if the wedge of cheese that you are purchasing is authentic, simply look at the rind. If the rind is embossed with the name produced over and over, that is the sign it is authentic. If the rind isn’t embossed at all or if it simply says Parmesan, the cheese may be decent, but it’s not Parmigiano-Reggiano. It might not be a complete waste of money, but is it really worth such a risk?
Speaking of that rind, do not throw it out after you have eaten all the cheese. Parmigiano cheese rinds have many culinary uses, including flavoring soups and infusing olive oil. So when it comes to Parmigiano, there is more to it than just a name. Buy authentic…buy Parmigiano-Reggiano.
(Thank you to our subscriber John Fesken for sharing this article with us)