Fake parmesan has become a real problem
Parmesan cheese, as popular a choice as it gets here in the United States, is also one of the most controversial. Turophiles, cooks, cheese makers and people in the industry know the genuine stuff as “Parmigiano Reggiano”. Anything else marketed and sold simply as “Parmesan” cheese is generally of a lower standard in the United States and is rightly mocked and sneered at.
But even real Parmigiano Reggiano isn’t always what it seems. Fraudulent Italian export sales have reached such a critical mass that they have forced the 900-year-old Parmigiano Reggiano industry to fight back with a startlingly modern solution.
Here’s everything you need to know about American Parmesan vs Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and how to make sure you’re getting the right stuff.
Learn more:A cheesemonger reveals: here’s how to store your cheese
What is special about Parmigiano Reggiano?
In Italy, where this nutty, pungent and salty style of cheese originates, the term “Parmesan” is strictly regulated, like champagne in France, and any cheese designated and sold as such must meet high production standards. .
The word Parmesan is roughly the English translation of Parmigiano Reggiano, but in America that’s about where the similarities end. The peculiarities surrounding the production of parmesan are very different from those of Italy. In other words, it’s almost completely unregulated, and those $4 blocks of “Parmesan” or (sip) canisters of Parmesan powder that you grab in the dry goods, cheese, or produce aisle dairy are pale in comparison to the real stuff. You might even think of them as a completely different cheese – and many do.
Even though Parmesan can mean a cheese of extremely variable quality, the cheese sold and labeled as “Parmigiano Reggiano” in the United States must come from one of the five regions of Italy – Parma, Modena, Bologna, Mantua or Reggio Emilia. – and comply with strict standards relating to ingredients, production methods and ageing.
Authentic Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is made from just three ingredients, including milk from cows raised in the region and fed only with food grown in the region. Unlike other Parmesan cheeses made and sold in the United States, there is also a long list of foods that livestock cannot be fed, such as fermented grains. Parmigiano Reggiano should be aged for at least a year, but most are aged for two or three years and often even longer, up to 100 months or more. Parmesan made in the United States and elsewhere has no such aging requirements.
These strict Italian cheese laws for cheese and other DOP foods (Protected Designation of Origin, when translated into English) are the law of the land and were put in place to protect the integrity of products sacred to as they grew in popularity and enjoyed exporting around the world. Other Italian DOP exports include balsamic vinegar of Modena, San Marzano tomatoes and Parma ham. If you know how to read labels, they work: spotting a DOP mark ensures you’re getting an authentic food product made to rigorously enforced standards.
How do you know you’re getting “real parmesan” from Italy?
For starters, anything marketed as Parmesan cheese in the United States is definitely not Parmigiano Reggiano, aka the good one. All authentic Parmigiano Reggiano is marked with dot lettering that spells it all out for you, literally. The “Parmigiano Reggiano” will be affixed to the rind of each wheel of cheese from the region and meeting DOP standards. Parmigiano Reggiano wheels also feature a unique alphanumeric tracking code. The distributors here will hack the 70-80 pound wheels into smaller pieces, which will make it harder to read the dotted letters, but the ID number should end up on the sticker or label. You will also want to look for the DOP label that should come with every legitimate serving of cheese. Stores cannot legally sell it as Parmigiano Reggiano without these seals of quality.
There are so many fake cheeses they microchipped the wheels
All that analog authentication hasn’t stopped some from trying to beat the system with fake versions of the real stuff. In fact, the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium has estimated counterfeit sales at around $2 billion per year, almost as much as sales of the genuine item. To retaliate, it began slapping silicon microchips called p-Chips and QR codes onto cheese wheels in 2022 to better track product and detect impostor products and counterfeit operations. The program is still in its infancy, but the hope is that it will significantly reduce the chances of fake cheese ending up in your cart.
Is Parmigiano Reggiano better than Parmesan?
Although made in a style similar to sanctioned products, parmesan cheese in the United States can mean many things and is difficult to define. Typically, cheese labeled Parmigiano Reggiano is higher in quality (and price) than anything labeled “Parmesan.” Parmigiano Reggiano is easier to describe because it is made in much the same way using particular ingredients, tools and production methods.
If you’re not buying Parmigiano Reggiano, you’re probably eating fake Parmesan made in the USA. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that; some are very good and come from quality producers. But try a bite of cheap, generic, non-DOP Parmesan, then munch on some authentic Parmigiano Reggiano, and you’ll see why it’s called the “king of cheese.” Depending on the ripening time, this semi-hard cheese develops crunchy amino acid clusters (flavor crystals) and packs a complex umami punch with fruity, buttery, sour and herbal notes that develop on the palate.
The “other guys”: Pecorina Romano and Grana Padano
Of course, all the work that goes into producing Parmigiano Reggiano makes it a more expensive product than other Parmesan-style cheeses, which gave rise to other Italian hard cheeses, including Pecorino Romano and Grana Padano. Both are made in a similar style and have similar taste profiles, but are made to less stringent standards and therefore can be made and sold for significantly less. If you grate a lot of cheese over your pasta every month and want to save a a few dollars at the grocery storeeither is an excellent substitute for Parmigiano Reggiano.
But nothing beats Parmigiano Reggiano, which holds up beautifully to wines, fatty meats, good balsamic and ripe tomatoes or other fruits. Many here think of parmesan as something that is casually grated over pasta or a Caesar salad. In Italy and other discerning cheese circles, you’ll find the stuff served on cheese platters with apertivo to eat as is or paired with deli meats and olives.
So find yourself a handsome kid real stuff (or a whole wheel if you have three thousand lying around.) It will last a very long time if you treat it with careand Parmigiano Reggiano doesn’t even need to be refrigerated (!).
Long live the king.
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