When it comes to Parmesan, should you always spring for the real-deal stuff? We break it down, with the help of some experts.

By Christine Clark

Maybe you want a cheese to grate over your pasta. Maybe you want a flavorful Italian cheese to pair with a majestic Italian red wine like Barolo. Maybe you just want some delicious cheese for a quick snack!

Whatever the reason, Parm and its siblings are always a good decision. Thanks to some confusing labeling, though, it may be hard to understand the difference in price and quality between the various Parm-style cheeses.

While each is a different cheese with slightly different production methods, all these cheeses are technically in the "grana" family. Grana means "grain," and refers to a step in the cheesemaking process when the curd (the solidified fat and protein from the milk) is milled down to pieces the size of a grain of rice, releasing moisture and resulting in a hard, dry cheese. Thanks to a long aging process, Grana-style cheese have no remaining lactose.

Read on for the differences between Parmesan, Grana Padano, and Parmigiano Reggiano.

Types of Parmesan

What Is Parmesan?

Occasionally, Parmesan is referenced disdainfully by cheese snobs for not being the real stuff from Italy. But, there were many years when Italian immigrants in the U.S. tried to get the real stuff and it was either too expensive or simply unavailable, due to war or economic downturn. Thus, today we have American-made Parm!

According to the US Code of Federal Regulations, anything called "parmesan" must be a cow's milk cheese with a "granular texture" and a "hard and brittle rind," and have been aged for at least 10 months. The curd must have been cut into pieces "no larger than wheat kernels."

Unlike Grana Padano and Parmigiano Reggiano (which we discuss in greater detail below), Parmesan can be made with pasteurized milk. Critics say that results in a less flavorful cheese. Parmesan can be made in Illinois, Indonesia, Italy, or really wherever — there are no rules about where it must or must not be made.

Parmesan can be made with "Cream, skim milk, concentrated skim milk, nonfat dry milk, water in a quantity sufficient to reconstitute any concentrated skim milk or nonfat dry milk used." Parmesan may not be the ideal cheese to grace your cheese board (unless you know you love it, in which case go for it), but it's always appropriate for cooking with or grating over pasta.

Related: Parmesan Cheese Recipes

What Is Grana Padano?

Grana Padano is a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) cheese, meaning it has a set of rules that must be followed and must have been made in a certain place in order to call itself by that name. In fact, Grana Padano is the best-selling PDO cheese in the world and about 24 percent of Italy's milk production is used to make it. It is made throughout the Po River Valley with partially skimmed raw milk from cows eating mostly grass or "preserved fodder."

"Grana Padano is a cheese with a history almost 1,000 years old," says Nicola Cesare Baldrighi, President of the Consorzio Grana Padano, "which is still made today with the same production method invented by the Cistercian monks."

Grana Padano is sold in three different age profiles:

  • Between 9 and 16 months: Softer, pale yellow, milky and delicate flavor.
  • Over 16 months: Crumbly, with a crystalline structure. Creamer flavor with notes of hay.
  • Riserva (over 20 months): Grainy, with a flaky structure. Aromas of butter, nuts, and dried fruit.

Thanks to this range of options, Grana Padano makes an excellent cooking cheese, but is also ideal for enjoying solo, especially if it's the special Riserva Grana Padano.

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What Is Parmigiano Reggiano?

Parmigiano Reggiano, often called "The King of Cheese" and also produced by monks originally, is one of the oldest cheeses in the world and is also protected by a PDO. Nicola Bertinelli, president of the Consorzio Parmigiano Reggiano, explains their goal was to create a less perishable cheese, which they achieved by "letting the cheese mass dry and increasing the wheel size, thus enabling the cheese to keep long and thus to travel, including far away from the production area."

The first written evidence of Parmigiano Reggiano is from a 1254 notary deed, referencing "caseus parmensis," or the cheese from Parma. Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron references mountain of "grated Parmesan" on which "Macaroni and ravioli" were rolled, harkening back to its ancient culinary uses.

Thanks to its strict PDO protections, Parmigiano Reggiano is, says Mr. Bertinelli, "essentially produced like nine centuries ago: using the same ingredients (milk, salt and rennet), with the same craftsmanship and production technique that has undergone very few changes over the centuries." Only raw milk from Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Mantua, and Bologna may be used, and the cheese must be made there, too.

The cows have to have only been eating grass or hay. Even packaging and pre-grating must be done in the area of origin to still be labeled as Parmigiano Reggiano. The name protection laws are so strict, in fact, that an EU Court ruled in 2008 that even the term "Parmesan" can only be used if the cheese is PDO Parmigiano Reggiano.

Parmigiano Reggiano is sold at 4 different age profiles:

  • 12-18 months: Aromas of yogurt and fresh fruit. Crumbly, delicate.
  • 22-24 months: Grainy texture, with balanced flavors of broth and dried fruit.
  • 30-36 months: Crumbly, grainy. Notes of spice, toasted nuts, and beef broth.
  • More than 40 months: Layered, complex, very hard texture.

Parmigiano Reggiano is certainly marvelous grated over pasta, soups, and salads, but is also excellent for snacking on, especially when paired with some Prosciutto di Parma, which is made from pigs who were fed the leftover whey from making Parmigiano Reggiano.

Some extra special versions of Parmigiano Reggiano include Vacche Rosse — famously shown in Netflix's "Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat" — made only from the milk of the Reggiana Red cow and Solo di Bruna, made from only the milk of Swiss Brown cows.

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