Parmigiano Reggiano (Parmesan)

What is Parmigiano Reggiano (Parmesan)

Parmigiano Reggiano, commonly known as Parmesan in English-speaking countries, is one of the world’s most famous and revered cheeses. Its history spans over eight centuries, with a rich heritage rooted in the Italian provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, and parts of Bologna and Mantua.

Origins and Historical Development

The origins of Parmigiano Reggiano trace back to the Middle Ages, specifically around the 12th century. It was first developed by Benedictine and Cistercian monks who were looking for a way to extend the shelf life of the large quantities of milk they produced. They created a hard cheese that could be aged and thus Parmigiano Reggiano was born.

By the 14th century, Parmigiano Reggiano was already highly esteemed. Its production methods, which involved the careful curdling of raw cow’s milk mixed with natural whey and a subsequent aging process, were refined over centuries but have remained largely unchanged to this day. In fact, the traditional production process is so critical to its unique flavor and texture that only cheese produced within specific areas and adhering to strict guidelines may be legally labeled as “Parmigiano Reggiano.”

Production Method

The production of Parmigiano Reggiano is a meticulous process governed by the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano, which was established in 1934. The method includes:

  • Using fresh cow’s milk from the designated areas.
  • Partial skimming of the milk through natural creaming.
  • Cooking the curdled milk and pressing it into large circular molds.
  • Salting the cheese wheels by immersion in natural brine.
  • Aging the cheese for a minimum of 12 months, and often much longer, in controlled environments.

Common Age Profiles

Parmigiano Reggiano can be categorized based on its aging, with each stage offering distinct textures and flavors:

  • 12 months: At this stage, the cheese is young with a soft, creamy texture and a mild, slightly fruity flavor.
  • 24 months: This is considered a medium-aged profile where the cheese becomes harder and crumblier with a more pronounced nutty flavor.
  • 36 months and older: Fully matured, these cheeses are very hard and grainy, with a deep, savory, and sometimes spicy flavor.

Parmigiano Reggiano in America

Parmigiano Reggiano made its way to America largely with Italian immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It quickly became a staple in Italian-American households, not only for its flavor but also for its ability to be stored for long periods.

In the United States, Parmigiano Reggiano is especially popular in the form of grated cheese, often used as a topping for pasta dishes, soups, and salads. However, it’s also eaten as a table cheese, enjoyed on its own or with fruits, nuts, and wines.

The U.S. market has seen a variety of Parmesan cheeses, including domestically produced versions that vary greatly in quality and adherence to traditional methods. Genuine Parmigiano Reggiano, however, is still imported from Italy and is distinguished by its PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status, ensuring adherence to its traditional production techniques and regional origin.


Parmigiano Reggiano remains a symbol of Italian culinary artisanship. Its rich history and strict production standards exemplify a commitment to quality and tradition that has been upheld for centuries. As a beloved ingredient in kitchens around the world, and particularly in America, it continues to be celebrated for its versatility, depth of flavor, and cultural significance. The cheese’s journey from the pastoral hills of northern Italy to the tables of the global diaspora highlights its timeless appeal and enduring legacy.

Tasting Notes

Here’s a table presenting the tasting notes for Parmigiano Reggiano across different age profiles:

Age of CheeseBody and TextureTastes in Order of StrengthDairy FlavorsOther Notable FlavorsFlavors Arising from Aging
12 monthsSoft, creamy, slightly moistUmami, Saltiness, Sweetness, Very slight acidity, Minimal bitternessFresh milk, light creamHints of grass, herbs, and fruitsSlightly nutty, becoming more complex
24 monthsFirm, crumblier than younger cheesesUmami, Saltiness, Sweetness, Mild acidity, Slight bitternessCream, buttery notesIncreased nuttiness, hints of spiceEnhanced nuttiness, hints of caramel
36 monthsHard, grainy, very crumblyUmami, Saltiness, Bitterness, Sweetness, Noticeable acidityPronounced aged milk flavorsStrong nutty flavors, hints of dried fruitPronounced nutty and spicy flavors, possible tyrosine crystals

Explanation of Tasting Notes

  • Body and Texture: This describes the physical feel of the cheese which changes significantly as it ages, moving from soft and creamy to hard and crumbly.
  • Tastes in Order of Strength: Parmigiano Reggiano is known for its rich umami character which intensifies with age. Saltiness is also a prominent feature, balancing with the natural sweetness of the milk. As the cheese ages, acidity and bitterness become more pronounced, contributing to its complex flavor profile.
  • Dairy Flavors: The flavors originating directly from the milk evolve from fresh and creamy in younger cheeses to deep, aged milk flavors in older cheeses.
  • Other Notable Flavors: These include secondary flavors that are influenced by the diet of the cows and the aging process, such as grass, herbs, spices, and fruits.
  • Flavors Arising from Aging: As Parmigiano Reggiano ages, it develops additional flavors like nuttiness and caramel, and in very aged cheeses, you might even find crunchy tyrosine crystals, which add a pleasant texture and enhanced flavor complexity.

How is it made

Parmigiano Reggiano’s traditional production and maturation process is meticulously defined to ensure its distinct quality and characteristics. Here are the key distinguishing features:

  • Specific Geographic Origin: Only cheese produced in the Italian provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, and certain areas of Bologna and Mantua can be labeled as Parmigiano Reggiano.
  • Natural Ingredients: The cheese is made using only three ingredients: raw cow’s milk (from cows fed primarily on local grasses and hay), natural calf rennet, and salt. No additives or preservatives are used.
  • Milk Processing: Milk from the evening milking is left to rest overnight to allow natural creaming. It is then mixed with the partially skimmed milk from the morning milking.
  • Copper Vats: The curdling of the milk is done in large, bell-shaped copper vats, a traditional method that contributes to the cheese’s development.
  • Heat Treatment: After curdling, the cheese mass is heated and then broken down into smaller granules using a traditional tool called a “spino”.
  • Molding and Pressing: The curds are placed in molds that give the cheese its traditional wheel shape. Each wheel is then pressed to expel moisture and ensure the cheese holds its form.
  • Salting: Wheels are soaked in a natural brine (saltwater solution) for about 20-25 days to absorb salt, which acts as a natural preservative.
  • Aging: The cheese must be aged for a minimum of 12 months, though many are aged for 24 months or more to develop deeper flavors. During this time, the wheels are regularly cleaned and turned.
  • Quality Inspection: Each wheel is inspected by the Consorzio experts who tap each cheese with a special hammer. This test assesses the sound produced by the wheel, which indicates whether the cheese has matured correctly and uniformly.
  • Branding: Only wheels that pass all inspections are fire-branded with the official marks, which include the dots spelling out “Parmigiano Reggiano” and the unique identification number of the dairy and production month and year.

These steps are crucial in maintaining the authenticity and high quality of Parmigiano Reggiano, ensuring that each wheel meets the stringent standards set by the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano.

Different styles

Here is a comparative table illustrating the differences in look, texture, taste, and flavor across various age profiles of Parmigiano Reggiano:

Age of CheeseLookTextureTasteFlavor Notes
12 monthsPale yellow, slightly glossySoft, creamy, slightly elasticMild, gentle umamiFruity, with hints of fresh milk and herbs
24 monthsDeeper yellow, more matteFirm, more crumbly, less elasticRicher umami, balanced saltinessNuttier, with notes of dried fruit and spices
36 monthsStraw-colored, granularVery crumbly, grainyIntense umami, distinct saltiness, slight bitternessPronounced nuttiness, caramel, and possibly tyrosine crystals

Key Characteristics Explained

  • Look: The appearance of Parmigiano Reggiano changes from slightly glossy and pale yellow in younger cheeses to a more matte and deeper yellow as it ages. The oldest cheeses can have a drier and more granular look.
  • Texture: The texture evolves significantly over time. It starts soft and somewhat elastic in young cheeses, becomes firmer and crumblier at mid-age, and ends up very crumbly and grainy in the oldest cheeses.
  • Taste: The taste of Parmigiano Reggiano intensifies with age. Young cheeses have a mild, gentle umami taste. As the cheese ages, it develops a richer, more complex profile with increased umami and saltiness. The oldest cheeses may also exhibit slight bitterness.
  • Flavor Notes: The flavor notes also deepen with aging. Younger cheeses might have fruity and herb-like flavors, medium-aged cheeses show stronger nutty and dried fruit characteristics, and the oldest cheeses exhibit deep nutty flavors with hints of caramel and sometimes a crunchy texture from tyrosine crystals.

These profiles help consumers choose the right Parmigiano Reggiano for various culinary uses, from fresh eating to grating over hearty dishes.

Compare with other cheeses

Parmigiano Reggiano is often compared to other very hard cheeses, including those from its home country, Italy, and international varieties. Below is a comparison table that includes similar cheeses from different regions, focusing on those with similar names or made in similar ways.

Cheese NameRegion of OriginVisual AppearanceTextureFlavor Profile
Parmigiano ReggianoEmilia-Romagna, ItalyPale to deep straw yellow, granularHard, crumbly, can have tyrosine crystalsNutty, fruity, with notes of caramel in older cheeses
Grana PadanoPo River Valley, ItalySimilar to Parmigiano but slightly lighterSlightly less crumbly than ParmigianoMilder, less intense than Parmigiano, less complex
Pecorino RomanoLazio, Sardinia, ItalyWhite to pale creamHard, grainy, slightly less crumblySalty, tangy, with a sharp sheep’s milk flavor
Asiago d’AllevoVeneto, Trentino, ItalyPale yellow, can be mottledHarder and crumblier with ageSweet and mild when young, becomes sharper with age
ReggianitoArgentinaPale yellow, similar to ParmigianoHard, granular, often sold in smaller wheelsSimilar to Parmigiano but saltier, less nuanced
Sartori SarVecchioWisconsin, USAAmber, deeper yellowFirm, crystalline textureSweet, nutty, hints of caramel, fruity undertones

Key Characteristics Explained

  • Visual Appearance: Generally, these cheeses are pale to deep yellow, with age affecting the depth of color. Varieties like Pecorino Romano, made from sheep’s milk, tend to be lighter, whereas cow’s milk cheeses like Parmigiano Reggiano and its counterparts show deeper yellows.
  • Texture: Texture varies from hard and grainy to crumbly with age. Parmigiano Reggiano is known for its potential to develop crunchy tyrosine crystals as it matures, a feature less common in younger or softer varieties like Asiago when young.
  • Flavor Profile: Flavor intensities vary significantly. Parmigiano Reggiano is known for its rich, complex flavors that develop with aging. Grana Padano offers a milder alternative often preferred for less intense applications. Pecorino Romano brings a distinctly sharp and salty profile due to its sheep’s milk origin, making it unique among these comparisons.

These cheeses serve different culinary purposes based on their flavor profiles and textures, from grating over dishes to enhancing flavor in cooked meals or being featured prominently on cheese boards.

What does it pair with

Here’s a table outlining traditional pairings of Parmigiano Reggiano with various wines and other drinks, along with explanations of why these combinations work well:

Drink PairingComparable StrengthBalance of TastesHarmony of FlavoursTextural CombinationProvenance and/or History of Combination
BaroloStrongWine’s tannins balance cheese’s saltinessRich, deep umami from cheese complements the robust, fruity notes of the wineDry, full-bodied wine complements grainy, hard texture of aged cheeseBoth products are iconic in northern Italy, sharing a regional heritage that highlights their natural affinity.
Chianti ClassicoModerate to StrongAcidic wine cuts through the fatty, umami richness of the cheeseTart cherry flavors of the wine contrast with the nutty, salty cheeseMedium-bodied wine with a firm cheese textureTraditional Tuscan wine with a cheese from nearby Emilia-Romagna creates a classic Italian pairing.
ProseccoModerateEffervescence and light sweetness of the wine balance the salty, umami cheeseLight, fruity notes of the wine lift the creamy aspects of younger cheeseBubbly texture contrasts well with creamy to crumbly cheeseBoth are celebratory items in Italian cuisine, often enjoyed together at gatherings.
Amarone della ValpolicellaStrongRich, sweet wine balances intense umami and saltiness of aged cheeseStrong dried fruit and chocolate notes of the wine complement the deep nuttiness of the cheeseFull-bodied, velvety wine matches well with the dense, crystalline texture of old cheeseBoth are luxury items in Italian cuisine, with a robustness that makes them a particularly indulgent pairing.
Lambrusco (Dry)ModerateSlightly sweet, sparkling nature counters the rich umami and salty aspectsFruit-forward, slightly tart flavors work well with the sharp bite of the cheeseSparkling texture provides a refreshing contrast to dense, hard cheeseBoth from northern Italy, this pairing bridges the gap between the rich and the refreshing.
Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of ModenaModerateSweetness and acidity of the vinegar balances the salty, savory cheeseComplex sweetness complements the aged, nutty flavors of the cheeseSyrupy vinegar alongside crumbly cheese offers a pleasing contrastBoth are prestigious products from the Emilia-Romagna region, historically enjoyed together.

Additional Insights

  • Comparable Strength: Each drink’s robustness or subtlety should match the intensity of the cheese to prevent one from overpowering the other.
  • Balance of Tastes: The combination should aim to balance primary taste sensations, ensuring that none dominate at the expense of others, creating a more enjoyable eating and drinking experience.
  • Harmony of Flavours: Flavors should either complement or interestingly contrast each other, enhancing the overall tasting experience.
  • Textural Combination: The texture of the drink can either contrast with or complement the cheese’s texture, adding to the sensory enjoyment.
  • Provenance and/or History of Combination: Many pairings are rooted in regional proximity or traditional usage, contributing to their popularity and perceived compatibility.

These pairings highlight the versatility of Parmigiano Reggiano and showcase how it can be matched with a variety of beverages to enhance both elements of the pairing.

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