And when to use each of these essential hard, aged cheeses.
parmigiano reggiano cheese cut plate
Credit: Sidney Bensimon

If you've ever stood in the grocery store trying to figure out the difference between chunks of Parmesan and Parmigiano Reggiano, know that you're not alone. There's a lot of confusion—and overlap—between the two cheeses, which can affect everything from its taste to its price. We checked in with Tessie Ives-Wilson, manager of Zingerman's Creamery Cream Top Shop and an American Cheese Society certified cheese professional, to get the lowdown.

What Is the Difference Between Parmesan and Parmigiano Reggiano?

Parmesan is simply the English word for Parmigiano so there is plenty of overlap—think of them like cheese cousins, or siblings even. Though they certainly fall into the same category of cheese (hard, aged cow's milk cheeses) and look the same to the untrained eye, there are a few important factors that distinguish Parmesan from Parmigiano Reggiano. Most notably, Parmigiano Reggiano falls under Italian Denominazione di Origine controllata (DOC) protection. This means that in order to be called Parmigiano Reggiano, the cheese must be produced in Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna, or Mantua according to a set of strict rules (much like Champagne must be made in the region of Champagne). According to Ives-Wilson there are regulations around what the milk-producing cows can eat, the fact that you have to use milk from two successive milkings (evening and the following morning), that no artificial additives can be used, and the cheese must be aged not for a specific number of months but rather over two summers. Even the shape, size, and color of the cheese wheels is prescribed.

Parmesan, meanwhile, is made in the style of Parmigiano Reggiano but without all those pesky regulations (the FDA defines it simply by a moisture content of 32% or less). "In the U.S., there are definitely cheesemakers who are inspired by what's happening in Italy," says Ives-Wilson, but they aren't bound by DOC rules so can take shortcuts and utilize modern tools like preservatives, refrigeration, and temperature control (rather than the natural heat of summer) throughout the process. Parmesan can be produced at any time of year, aged for any length of time, and made using any cow's milk (as opposed to Parmigiano Reggiano, which needs to be made with milk from the DOC area).

Do They Taste Different?

The short answer: Yes. But why? While some of the distinction could certainly come down to terroir, the differences in production—which may not seem like a big deal to lay folks—can end up having a big impact on the flavor and texture of the cheese. Ives-Wilson says that a lot of it boils down to the size of the cheese wheel. "In the cheese world, size matters," she says. Parmigiano Reggiano must be made in wheels of a certain size, which tend to be around 70 to 80 pounds. Parmesan, however, can be made in any size so American producers tend to go for much smaller, 10 to 20 pound wheels. It's not that bigger is inherently better, but smaller wheels take much less time to dry to the requisite moisture content; Ives-Wilson notes that as much as a year can easily be taken off the total aging time, which means Parmesan producers can make more cheese faster than their DOC-protected counterparts.

It's this difference in size—and therefore aging time—that imparts the biggest differences in taste and texture between the two cheeses. Since most Parmesans are aged for less time, "you don't get as much of the intensity of flavor" says Ives-Wilson. "That flavor is really one of those things that there's no magic wand in the cheese world to make things age faster. You still have to wait for time to roll along."

Ives-Wilson says that the younger Parmesan cheeses tend to have grassy, fruity notes whereas the Parmigiano Reggiano will have more complexity of flavor. They will also be drier with more of those crunchy, crystallized bits throughout whereas Parmesan will be hard but less so and melts more easily.

Why Is Parmigiano Reggiano More Expensive?

One of the biggest differences people usually notice between the two cheeses is that Parmigiano Reggiano is usually more expensive. The reasons for this all stem back to that DOC status, which almost always drives up the price—but not without good reason. Making Parmigiano Reggiano is typically aged for longer and the process of making it is generally more painstaking and hands-on. Plus, imported cheeses usually come at a premium. 

When Should You Use Each Cheese?

Should you never look at a hunk of Parmesan again? Certainly not—Ives-Wilson says there are a time and a place for each cheese. Her recommendation is to splurge for the Parmigiano Reggiano when the cheese is the star of the show: When you're eating it on its own with a nice glass of red wine, or making a salad topped with big shaves of cheese where you really want that flavor and texture to come through. She also highly recommends using it in a classic risotto where the cheese is the predominant flavor.

She says to reach for the Parmesan, however, "if you're melting it into a larger dish, something that's going to have a lot of additional flavors…and the Parmesan is just there to give sort of a background boost to the flavors." Examples include a rich, meaty lasagna or a spinach and artichoke dip. Ives-Wilson also points out that Parmesan melts really nicely so is great when you're looking for a smooth finished texture.

What About Pre-Shredded?

You probably know that shredding your own cheese is preferable to buy it pre-shredded (we've told you often!), not least because of the questionable amounts of cellulose in many commercially available varieties. But what does a cheesemonger have to say about it? "I totally understand the convenience factor," says Ives-Wilson. "However, the challenge of pre-grating cheese is that you've exposed a lot of surface area of the cheese. And so it will dry out quicker than a piece that you're fresh grating as you go. The moisture, in addition to changing the texture, also carries with it a fair amount of the flavor so as you lose moisture you're actually losing the flavor that you're looking for out of a great Parmesan or Parmigiano Reggiano."

She says if you're making something where you're just mixing the cheese in and it's not supposed to be the predominate flavor then pre-shredded "isn't going to be the end of the world and can cut some time off your prep. But fresh grating off a larger block is going to give you the best expression of the cheese and the best flavor that will carry through." We heartedly agree.

    Comments (1)

    Martha Stewart Member
    March 12, 2020
    Thanks! Now I understand the flavor and reason for price differences of the two varieties of cheese! :)