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What is the difference between Parmigiano Reggiano and parmesan?

Parmigiano Reggiano on a board

Most of us are familiar with parmesan cheese and use it to top pasta and other dishes.  But what about Parmigiano Reggiano?  It looks similar to parmesan but what are the differences?  Healthy Food Guide investigates.

At Healthy Food Guide, we believe it’s possible to maintain a healthy diet while enjoying a little bit of what you fancy. When cooking with cheese, we’ll often recommend opting for a strong variety such as parmesan. This is because you can achieve that desirable umami flavour with a smaller quantity.

Parmigiano Reggiano is a hard, easily grated Italian cheese that often comes under the umbrella term ‘parmesan’. But to get the Parmigiano Reggiano label, this ‘king of cheeses’ must be produced in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy. Here it achieves its strong flavour through a traditional ageing process – the cheese is matured for a minimum of 12 months before it can be classified as the real McCoy. Interestingly, it’s lactose free, and it has no added preservatives, which makes it a good choice if you try to avoid overly-processed foods.

Just three ingredients

What makes Parmigiano Reggiano quite remarkable is that it uses only three ingredients to achieve its depth of flavour: raw milk, rennet and salt. That’s it.

The milk is stirred with a traditional tool called a ‘spino’

At the dairy, the raw milk is left to rest in trays, where the fat separates and floats to the top. The milk is then siphoned out, while the fat is removed and sent off to make butter. The skimmed milk is then poured into a large cauldron, where calf rennet and fermented whey are added.

The cheese is gathered up in muslin cloth before being split in two

As the milk starts to thicken, it’s broken up with a traditional tool called a ‘spino’. The cauldron is then heated to reach around 55°C and the granules sink to the bottom. After resting for around 50 minutes, the cheesy mass is gathered up by the cheesemaker into muslin cloth to make a giant cheese ball! But the work doesn’t stop there…

The cheeses spend a few days in their moulds for a few days before brining

The cheese ball is then split in two and each half is placed in a mould to give it its shape. A unique number is then written on each wheel to identify which batch and cauldron it came from. Each cheese is marked around the outside with a band to denote the month and year in which it was made. A few days later, the wheels are submerged in brine.

After salting, the cheeses are allowed to rest on wooden tables, where the outside of the cheese forms a hard rind. Each cheese must be matured for a minimum of 12 months before it can be classified as Parmigiano Reggiano.

Each wheel is tapped with a small hammer to check for air pockets

A member of the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium must then inspect the cheeses one by one, before a mark is fire-branded on to the cheese. Identifying marks are removed from the cheeses which don’t meet PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) requirements.

Buying Parmiagiano Reggiano

You can buy real Parmigiano Reggiano from the supermarkets, but there are a few things you need to look out for to make sure you’re getting the real thing.

As well as making sure the packaging bears the actual name and the cheese has distinctive dots embedded in the rind, real Parmigiano Reggiano should be labelled with two distinctive logos. Firstly, the black and gold brand logo for Parmigiano Reggiano should be present and secondly, the cheese should bear a red and yellow DOP badge.

Wedges from many of these wheels will end up in the supermarkets

Most supermarket versions will be aged between 18 and 24 months and therefore have a creamier texture and sweeter flavour than the granular cheeses, which have been maturated for longer. This means that they’re perfect for grating on top of pasta dishes.

Is Parmigiano Reggiano the same as parmesan?

Parmesan is the name given to cheeses made by a similar method outside of the Emilia Romagna region. For a cheese to qualify as Parmigiano Reggiano, it must have been produced and matured in the area of origin and must be made with milk from the region, too.

The Consortium requires cows to graze and be milked in the Emilia Romagna region

Wheels that don’t meet the requirements may also be referred to as ‘Italian hard cheese’. Remember that each cheese made in the Emilia Romagna region is assessed for quality by a member of the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium.

What are the health benefits?

As well as giving great flavour with less product, (meaning you’ll cut fat compared to using more of a milder cheese) Parmigiano Reggiano is lactose free. If you have a sensitivity to dairy, or follow a lactose-free diet, it might be worth trying, as it’s likely you’ll find it easier to digest.

In addition to being a source of calcium, needed for strong teeth and bones, the fermentation process involved in the production of Parmigiano Reggiano means it has gut health benefits too.

Hard cheeses like Parmigiano Reggiano or parmesan have a strong flavour, so you can use less of them to get a lovely cheesy result in your dishes, keeping your saturated fat and sodium levels down compared with milder cheeses.

How can I eat it?

Of course, it’s great for topping your pasta dishes. But for more inspiration, use it in place of parmesan in one of these four healthy recipes:

First published: May 2022
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