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Is It Authentic Italian Parmigiano?

When you want to top off your favorite authentic Italian recipe with a tasty finishing touch, most recipes recommend sprinkling a generous amount of grated Parmigiano over the top of a dish just prior to serving. However, are you sure that container of grated cheese is really what it purports to be? In this article we'll provide some tips and tricks on what to look for in authentic Parmigiano so you will be sure that you're not missing out on the unique flavor that makes Parmigiano-Reggiano the king of cheeses.

True Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is made in much the same way as it was originally produced over eight centuries ago. It is a raw cow’s milk cheese that has been aged for a minimum of 12 months, but the cheese can also be aged as long as 24 months. Parmigiano-Reggiano is a name protected by law and a cheese with this name can only be produced in specific areas of Italy – namely Parma and Reggio Emilia where the name Parmigiano-Reggiano originates. In order to produce and market cheeses of a similar type and consistency, non-certified manufacturers label their products “Parmesan.” Unlike Parmigiano-Reggiano, which must be produced under strict guidelines and regulations in order to be certified as authentic Parmigiano, “parmesan” does not have any such requirements. In many cases, it is bulked up with fillers and has a flat, salty taste.

In order to find the real deal, here are some key things to look for when trying to identify authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. First and foremost, true Parmigiano is not cheap. The average price is between $15 and $20 per pound. Pre-grated containers of so called “parmesan” or “parmigiano” are most likely not the real thing or they are not as fresh. Find a grocery store with a good cheese department and look for a slice or chunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano with the rind. The easiest way to identify true Parmigiano is by inspecting the rind.

According to the guidelines of the Parmigiano-Reggiano Consortium, the rind must have the markings of identification which include the name Parmigiano-Reggiano in pin-dot writing that is “not covered by oblique lines.” Any cheese that does not contain this stamp is not authentic. Once you have found a true piece of Parmigiano, take a look at the cheese itself. It should be a creamy color with a hint of yellow. Longer aged cheeses could be a deeper shade of yellow. It should be dry but not oily, and you should be able to see small granules throughout the cheese.

Fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano will be semi-hard but will easily break into bite size chunks using your hands. If you are able to smell the Parmigiano prior to buying, it should be lightly fragrant. There’s an earthiness to it and yet it can also be slightly fruity. If you are in a quality market, they may let you taste a piece of the cheese prior to buying as well. If, upon tasting, the primary note of the cheese is salty, that is a sign the cheese is potentially old or the slice was cut too close to the rind. A good tasting Parmigiano is complex and leaves you wanting more.

Once you have found your piece of Parmigiano, it can be used in a variety of ways: grated, shaved, broken into bite sized pieces. It truly does deserve the name King of Cheeses, and once you have a taste of true authentic Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano, any other “parmesan” will not taste the same.