Learn everything you need to know about this family of flavorful Italian cheese. 

Whether you're reaching for a flavorful cheese to top your favorite pasta dish, pair with a majestic Italian red wine, or just as a quick salty snack—you can't go wrong with a good Parmesean.  

However, understanding the difference in price and quality between the various Parmesean-style cheeses like Grana Padano and Parmigiano Reggiano will have you scratching your head in the cheese aisle. 

Although all these cheeses are technically in the "grana" family, each has a slightly different taste and unique production style. 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 the size of a grain of rice, releasing all the moisture resulting in a hard, dry cheese. Thanks to a long aging process, Grana-style cheese is lactose-free.

So when it comes to shopping for Parmesan-style cheese, which block is the best pick? To help, we enlisted a few leading Italian cheese experts to break down the differences between Parmesan, Grana Padano, and Parmigiano Reggiano.

Parmesan cheese with grater
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What Is Parmesan?

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. In addition, the curd must have been cut into pieces "no larger than wheat kernels."

Parmesan can be made with cream, skim milk, concentrated skim milk, nonfat dry milk, or water sufficient to reconstitute any concentrated skim milk or nonfat dry milk used. Unlike Grana Padano and Parmigiano Reggiano (which we discuss in greater detail below), Parmesan can also be made using pasteurized milk, although critics say that results in a less flavorful cheese.  

There are no rules that designate a specific location where cheese must be made to be considered Parmesan. However, cheese snobs will occasionally reference Parmesan disdainfully for not being the real stuff from Italy. But, there were many years when Italian immigrants in America tried to get the real Parmesan cheese, and it was either too expensive or simply unavailable due to war or economic downturn. Thus, today we have American-made Parm.

Parmesan may not be the ideal cheese to grace your cheese board (unless you know you love it, then go for it), but it's always appropriate for cooking with or grating over pasta.

Related: Browse our collection of Parmesan Cheese Recipes

Parmesan cheese wedges

What Is Grana Padano?

"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 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 specific place to call itself by that name. It is made throughout the Po River Valley with partially skimmed raw milk from cows that eat mostly grass or "preserved fodder."

Grana Padano is the best-selling PDO cheese globally, and about 24 percent of Italy's milk production is used to make it.

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 it is also excellent for enjoying solo, especially if it's the special Riserva Grana Padano.

pieces of parmesan cheese on a wooden cutting board
Credit: Mauro69/Getty Images

What Is Parmigiano Reggiano?

Often called "The King of Cheese," Parmigiano Reggiano is one of the oldest cheeses in the world. The monks who originally began producing Parmigiano Reggiano wanted 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 travel far away from the production area." Nicola Bertinelli, president of the Consorzio Parmigiano Reggiano, explains. 

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 a mountain of "grated Parmesan" on which "Macaroni and ravioli" were rolled, harkening back to its ancient culinary uses.

Parmigiano Reggiano is essentially produced like it was nine centuries ago, thanks to its strict PDO protections. "Using the same ingredients (milk, salt and rennet), with the same craftsmanship and production technique that has undergone very few changes over the centuries," says Bertinelli. To be labeled as Parmigiano Reggiano, only raw milk from grass or hay fed cows in Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Mantua, and Bologna may be used, and the cheese has to be produced, packaged, and pre-grated in those areas of origin, too.

The name protection laws are so strict 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.

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.

Parmigiano Reggiano is 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.