When many of us think of Parmesan cheese we think of the powdery grated cheese we see in pizza parlors and pasta joints, or in shaker boxes on supermarket shelves, but we don’t think of a chunk of cheese, so what is Parmesan, where does this grated cheese come from?
Parmesan is the generic name used in the US and outside Europe to describe domestic versions of the classic Italian hard cheese Parmigiano Reggiano which has been made in central Italy since the Middle Ages. Its name indicates the specific region around Parma and Reggio Emilia where it is made, and is an EU protected designation (DOP). This means that by law the name Parmigiano Reggiano cannot be used for any other cheese. The name is actually etched into the rind during the cheese making process and then officially branded when finished making it instantly recognizable.
Parmigiano Reggiano is made from grass fed cows’ milk, another legal stipulation, which is heated gently and mixed with rennet to make it coagulate into curds. The curds then go through a process where they are pressed into great wheels weighing upward of 84 pounds, brined, then aged for 1-2 years. Parmigiano Reggiano has a distinctive sharp, sweet, nutty flavor, and is used grated over pastas, risotto and soups, eaten with fruit, and the rinds used to flavor soups. The more aged it is, the more you will find white slightly crunchy cheese crystals throughout the cheese providing little blasts of intense a flavor. Parmigiano Reggiano is rich in glutamate, which gives it ‘umami ‘ or ‘savoriness’ making this a cheese that can be used instead of salt to enhance other flavors rather than for its cheesiness, in fact at Cook for Your LIFE we use it a lot for this very reason.
When buying Parmesan, pass on the boxed supermarket varieties – it simply doesn’t have the flavor- and instead buy fresh Parmigiano Reggiano or domestic Parmesan chunk cheese and grate the cheese as needed. A good, little less expensive Italian alternative to Parmesan is Grana Padano. It’s a similar DOP cheese from the Po Valley that is made with less quality restrictions to the milk. A wedge of Parmesan will keep indefinitely in the fridge. The only drawback is that it hardens with time the longer you keep it, but will still be good to grate. And don’t be tempted to buy fresh cheese pre-grated. You are essentially paying for air, plus it doesn’t keep as well or as long.
For those of you who are a lacto-ovo vegetarians, you need to know that the Italian cheeses are are not for you as they are made with animal rennet. Luckily many American domestic Parmesan producers, for example Bel Gioioso and 365, use vegetarian rennet to make their Parmesan cheeses. These can be bought in wedges as well as grated, so you can go ahead and enjoy the flavor and umami of Parmesan.