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How Parmigiano Reggiano Is Made — and How to Spot the Real Deal at the Grocery Store

published Nov 24, 2020
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Credit: Parmigiano Reggiano

When you pick up a wedge of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese at the grocery store, you know it’s going to be wonderfully salty and umami-rich, and that your pasta won’t be the same without it heavily grated on top. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this traditional Italian cheese. What is Parmigiano Reggiano, exactly? Why is it so distinct? And what are some of the best ways to enjoy its full flavor? Here’s everything you need to know.

What Is Parmigiano Reggiano and How Is it Made?

Parmigiano Reggiano is no ordinary cheese. It’s made using a centuries-old process with just three simple, natural ingredients: milk, salt, and rennet. The milk is heated and the starter and rennet are added to allow the milk to slowly and naturally coagulate and form curds. These curds are broken into tiny granules, then cooked so they become one single mass. This mass is then formed into two wheels, immersed in a saltwater brine, then removed and left to age for a minimum of 12 months. Parmigiano Reggiano is a Protected Domination of Origin (PDO) cheese. This means before it can earn the name, it must undergo strict monitoring and pass rigorous testing — otherwise, it can’t be called Parmigiano Reggiano!

It also means the land on which Parmigiano Reggiano is made is as much a part of the equation as the ingredients and traditional methods used to make it. Cheese production must take place in one of five Italian provinces: Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna to the left of the river Reno, or Mantua to the right of the river Po, where it has been made for almost 1,000 years. The milk used for Parmigiano Reggiano can only come from cows that are fed locally grown forage, grass, and hay — just another reason why Parmigiano Reggiano is so special.

Credit: Parmigiano Reggiano

How to Shop for Parmigiano Reggiano

Because Parmigiano Reggiano is a PDO product, it’s easy to shop for the real deal at the grocery store — and it’s easy to spot, too. The full wheel is engraved with a number of markings on its rind, including the date of production, which dairy it was made in, the PDO seal, and more. The easiest marking to see, though, is the dotted wording of ‘Parmigiano Reggiano’ around the entirety of the wheel. No matter how big or small a wedge you buy, these pin dots are easily visible on the rind. If your wedge has them, you can be certain you’re buying true Parmigiano Reggiano.

As we mentioned, the cheese is aged for a minimum of 12 months, but it can mature for much longer. It’s well worth seeking out Parmigiano Reggiano aged for 24 months, 36 months, 40 months, or even longer because the aroma, texture, and flavor evolve in the process. At 12 or 18 months, the cheese is more delicate, fresh, and milk-forward, but over time, its texture becomes crumbly and pleasantly grainy, while its aroma and flavor deepen with notes of spice and nuts.

Credit: Parmigiano Reggiano

The Best Ways to Enjoy Parmigiano Reggiano

Grating Parmigiano Reggiano over your favorite pasta is just one of countless ways to enjoy it. Its rich, complex flavor makes it an ideal candidate to enjoy raw, too. Pick up a couple of wedges, each matured for a different length of time, and try chunks on their own to taste their flavor variation.

Even better, pour yourself a glass of wine and make it a pre-dinner snack! Parmigiano Reggiano aged for 12 or 18 months pairs well with sparkling and white wine, while Parmigiano Reggiano aged for 24 months or longer pairs well with red wine. Or, try shaving the cheese over your bowl of soup, tucking it inside an omelette, using it as a garnish for pizza, or tossing it into salads. However you choose to eat it, this is a cheese that’s as distinctive as it is delicious.