Cheese lovers, listen up. Parmesan cheese, though incredibly delicious and worthy of many a good recipe, is not the same thing as Parmigiano-Reggiano. The latter is, in fact, the better cheese.
Why? Because it has stricter standards of country of origin, method of production, and quality of ingredients used.
Certified by the Italian D.O.C., a true Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese comes from any of the following regions in Italy: Parma, Reggio-Emilia, Modena, and sometimes Bologna and Mantua. It is in these specific regions that this cheese originated, and here where strict traditional methods of production are preserved and honored.
Fed a regulated diet of only grasses and hay, local cows produce a raw milk which is used in the production of Parmigiano-Reggiano. The cheese is aged for 12 months before it is inspected by professional experts; if it passes all examinations, it continues to age an additional 12 months. When all is said and done, a proper Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese ages for up to 24 months (and often even longer than that).
The broader term “Parmesan,” however, is more of an umbrella term for dry, granular cheeses that are similar to Parmigiano-Reggiano, though not necessarily following such strict guidelines of origin and production. A generic Parmesan cheese may not even come from Europe at all, and it has no such standards of quality (Parmesan-producing dairy cows are often fed a standard concentrated diet instead of the high-quality grass diet).
The difference in taste between the two is subtle but very present. Parmigiano-Reggiano is sweet, nutty, and even a bit fruity, with a texture that’s dry, gritty, crumbly, and hard until warmed (it can seem to melt in the mouth upon contact). Parmesan, on the other hand, is often heavily salted to compensate for the lack of natural flavoring (without the grass feed diet, much of the good flavor is lost). Parmesan lacks the fine crystalline, grainy texture of Parmigiano-Reggiano, and sometimes the texture can be downright rubbery or concrete-like.
The difference between the two cheese may not be strong enough for you to care one way or the other. But for lovers of cheese, cooking enthusiasts, and pure foodies, a simple taste test of the two, side by side, should be enough to convince you. When in doubt, always default to the traditional method. If it’s still done after all these years, they must be doing something right.