Parmesan is the frugal choice compared to Parmigiano-Reggiano, but is there a difference in taste? Learn the difference between Parmesan vs. Parmigiano-Reggiano, including a cheesemonger pro tip on how to get more value from your Parmigiano-Reggiano wedge.
In 1200 A.D., the beloved Red Cows of Reggiana (also called Reggiana) produced the most sought-after milk that Benedictine monks used to create giant wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano in Reggio Emilia, Italy.
Seven centuries later, farmers replaced the Reggiana cows with foreign breeds like Holstein and Friesian cows that produce a greater quantity of milk. The Red Cow population dwindled down to the hundreds by 1981.
To save the breed, a group of passionate farmers formed the Consorzio Vacche Rosse and produce premium Red Cow Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Parmigiano-Reggiano, dubbed the “king of cheese”, fetches a premium price compared to Parmesan. But, have you ever wondered whether buying the real deal is worth it?
That’s why we set out to perform a taste test of a variety of Parmesan and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheeses from Trader Joe’s. Our goal is to figure out what is the best value for your buck and whether we can taste the differences.
Let’s start with background on Parmigiano-Reggiano to help you appreciate the difference between Parmesan and Parmigiano-Reggiano.
What is Parmigiano-Reggiano?
Parmigiano-Reggiano is an Italian aged, hard cheese with a granular texture.
“Parmigiano-Reggiano comes from the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy,” according to Samm White, co-owner of Cheese Importers, based in Longmont, Colorado. “It is a controlled cheese which means it has to be produced in a certain region with certain qualifications.” This means it is DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta), which translates to Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) in English.
Where can you buy Parmigiano-Reggiano and Parmesan?
Most grocery stores carry at least one type of Parmigiano-Reggiano and one Parmesan. The cheeses are usually shrink-wrapped in plastic in the deli or cheese section.
Trader Joe’s offered four different blocks and two containers of pre-grated or shaved cheese.
I know that Costco only carries big blocks of Parmigiano-Reggiano. I’ve never seen American Parmesan sold the few times I looked for it.
How is Parmesan different from Parmigiano-Reggiano?
If Parmigiano-Reggiano is champagne, then Parmesan would be sparkling wine. Parmesan is produced with techniques inspired by Parmigiano-Reggiano but Parmesan can’t call itself Parmigiano-Reggiano because it is not from the designated Emilia-Romagna region of Italy and may not follow the Consorzio Del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano’s production requirements.
For example, Parmigiano-Reggiano is made with only three ingredients: raw milk, salt, and calf’s rennet. The cheese must follow dimension, weight, color, and fat content standards. Even the feed that cows eat must come from the “defined geographic area.”
A particular herd can “influence the flavor of the milk” and in turn produce “different types of Parmigiano-Reggiano,” according to Samm White. For example, he cites seven different types of Parmigiano-Reggiano in his store, the Cheese Importers, including the Red Cow Parmigiano-Reggiano.
The rules state a minimum of 12 months of aging, even though it used to be 24 months, Samm said. If you compare that to the American version of Parmesan, it “is typically aged 3 months to a year.”
The FDA’s standards for “Parmesan and reggiano cheese” allows for “harmless artificial coloring may be added” and “milk may be bleached by the use of benzoyl peroxide.”
Note: I’m not implying that the Parmesan you buy has added coloring or bleaching. It could follow the Italian standards. The point is that American Parmesan allows for these additives.
How can you tell Parmesan and Parmigiano-Reggiano apart?
How can you tell if you’re buying Parmigiano-Reggiano or Parmesan?
At a fancy cheese shop or a high-end grocery store like Whole Foods, you may only see the giant wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano on display. In that case, you can check the rind is stamped with the fire-branded “Parmigiano-Reggiano” certification mark.
If your wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano is shrink-wrapped in plastic, the rind should still show parts of the brand.
If you purchase shaved or pre-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, such as the sample from Trader Joe’s, then the container should contain the consortium’s mark to guarantee authenticity.
What are cheese crystals?
If the above signs are absent, another way to tell aged Parmigiano-Reggiano apart from a young Parmesan cheese is to look for cheese crystals.
“Customers who come into our store call them ‘crunchy little yummy bits,'” Samm White told me. “It’s calcification.”
As cheese ages, it is wicking moisture out. Depending on how it is wrapped or unwrapped, it is drying out. As moisture escapes, that allows the calcium salts and a plethora of minerals and sugars to find each other and bind. They build crystalline structures. It’s kind of like letting salt water evaporate. You end up with salt crystals. I call them “pleasant little surprises” in your cheese.Samm White, co-owner of Cheese Importers
Salt crystals typically show up after one and a half years of aging, according to Samm. You can find cheese crystals in aged Cheddar, Gouda, Manchego, and Parmesan.
These amino acid crystals add the iconic granular texture to the cheese and give it a caramelized, sweet flavor. Culture Cheese Magazine claims there are two types of crystals: Tyrosine and Calcium Lactate.
If you can find a Parmesan with cheese crystals, it is likely aged beyond 18 months and could be as tasty as Parmigiano-Reggiano. Don’t discount Parmesan just because it doesn’t have the Parmigiano-Reggiano stamp but do find a high-quality version.
How does Grana Padano compare to Parmigiano-Reggiano and Parmesan?
The Grana Padano “Parmesan” from Trader Joe’s is an illustrative example of looking beyond the Parmigiano-Reggiano brand and focusing on quality. You could call Grana Padano the Italian “imitation” of Parmesan 😛
Grana Padano is DOP with its own Consortium setting regulations and controls. It is made with a similar technique to Parmigiano-Reggiano. Because it’s less famous globally than Parmigiano-Reggiano and can be manufactured over a wider area, it’s a smidgeon cheaper.
Because “Parmesan” cheese is an unregulated term, any manufacturer can call their cheese Parmesan. Grana Padano Parmesan may have adopted the name Parmesan as a marketing tool.
In the taste test, learn whether the Grana Padano is just as tasty as the Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Case Study: Parmesan and Parmigiano-Reggiano over pasta & straight
Why do a taste test?
Just like with the garlic taste test, you can’t accept the conventional wisdom that Parmigiano-Reggiano is always better unless you do a blind taste test.
RELATED: Check out our Garlic Taste Test to learn whether we could tell the difference between fresh garlic and garlic powder
How are we running the taste test?
We are sampling the following varieties of Parmesan cheeses (from the most to the least aged, country of origin, price per pound as of 2019):
- Parmigiano-Reggiano Stravecchio – aged 3 years, Italy, $15.99 per lb.
- Parmigiano-Reggiano – aged 20 months, Italy, $12.99 per lb.
- Grana Padano Parmesan – aged 18 months, Italy, $10.99 per lb.
- Parmesan – aged 10 months, no listed country of origin, $5.99 per lb.
- Pre-Grated Parmesan – aged 10 months, Argentina, $6.99 per lb.
- Bonus: Whole Foods Parmigiano-Reggiano (only part of Kat’s taste test), aged ?, ? origin, $19.99 per lb.
Who is in the taste test?
Alex + Anna + Katharina
What was the process for testing?
We grated four of the cheese that came in wedge form and sprinkled the grated Parmesan over capellini pasta. We also tasted the cheese straight.
Kat joined the taste test after Alex & I completed it. She brought a block of Whole Foods Parmigiano-Reggiano with her. Her results include an extra test where Trader Joe’s Parmigiano-Reggiano faces off with Whole Foods Parmigiano-Reggiano
What are the results of the taste test?
Our preference by ranking:
Alex’s ranking from most to least favorite cheese (including comments from the taste test):
- Parmigiano-Reggiano (Probably my favorite. Complex flavor umami. A little less sharp than Parmigiano-Reggiano Stravecchio)
- Grana Padano Parmesan (Not that memorable. Pretty similar to grated Parmesan)
- Parmesan (More flavorful than grated Parmesan and less unpleasant (sharp?) than Parmigiano-Reggiano Stravecchio)
- Pre-Grated Parmesan (Less flavorful and complex. But maybe I like it more. Still has salt + fat + umami)
- Parmigiano-Reggiano Stravecchio (Complex flavor, a little too sharp for my liking, I just don’t like the flavor that much)
Anna’s ranking from most to least favorite cheese (including comments from the taste test):
- Parmesan (Mellowed out and no sharp biting tang compared to Parmigiano-Reggiano Stravecchio. Prefer it)
- Parmigiano-Reggiano (Most amount of flavor but I personally don’t like it the best. Less crumbly grainy texture than Parmigiano-Reggiano Stravecchio. Less sharp and less umami and less complex.)
- Pre-Grated Parmesan (Smoother texture. More “dairy” milk fat flavor like what you’d get from a mozzarella. I like it better in some ways. Less sharp, tangy, and complex. Doesn’t leave a savory aftertaste.)
- Parmigiano-Reggiano Stravecchio (It’s salty and has the crumbly texture of Parmigiano-Reggiano but it lacks the depth of umami I expect from Parmigiano-Reggiano)
- Grana Padano Parmesan (More “dairy milk fat” taste, less sharp. Creamier. Lacks flavor compared to Parmigiano-Reggiano Stravecchio and Parmesan, especially umami.)
Kat’s ranking from most to least favorite cheese (including comments from the taste test):
- Grana Padano Parmesan (Good, creamy. Nutty flavor, a bit sour. The softest of all of them. Little crystals. Now I think this is the Whole Foods one.)
- Whole Foods‘ Parmigiano-Reggiano (Great consistency and complex flavor. Nutty. Still my favorite. Still think this is the Whole Foods one, unless the first one is.)
- Trader Joe’s Parmigiano-Reggiano (Really good, nutty, not salty. Not sour at all. Good but not my favorite.)
- Parmigiano-Reggiano Stravecchio (Pretty good texture and flavor. A bit nutty. Not very salty, not sour. I like it but it could be a bit softer, saltier, and a tiny bit more flavorful)
- Parmesan (Bad consistency, hard and not flaky or with crystals. Could have way more complex flavor.)
- Pre-Grated Parmesan (Pre-grated, hard pieces. Doesn’t taste like much.)
Note: The taste test with and without pasta resulted in different preferences. When there was a conflict, I prioritized the ordering without pasta as it is a truer taste of what the cheese is, without the pasta’s flavor interfering.
Can you taste the difference between Parmesan and Parmigiano-Reggiano?
The Parmigiano-Reggiano Stravecchio stood out as the sharpest cheese. Alex ranked Parmigiano-Reggiano Stravecchio his least favorite because he didn’t care for the sharp tang.
The Parmigiano-Reggiano and Grana Padano were more similar to each other than they were different
Katharina detested the pre-grated Parmesan due to its drier texture. I disliked it because of its tendency to clump.
What did we learn from our Parmesan taste testing experiment?
Katharina and Alex have a more discerning palate than me. I’m embarrassed to have picked the off-brand Parmesan as my favorite cheese. Maybe my bumpkin palate doesn’t know how to appreciate the complexity of Parmigiano-Reggiano Stravecchio?
My, ahem, excuse is that I’m most familiar with Parmesan and picked what I knew best. Maybe with enough exposure to Parmigiano-Reggiano Stravecchio, I can learn to love it more.
Is it better value to get the aged Parmigiano-Reggiano?
Some people call Parmesan the “imitation” of Parmigiano-Reggiano because they perceive it as lower quality. They advocate for only buying “the real stuff”.
But from our taste test, I discovered that I preferred the “imitation” Parmesan cheese, which costs a lot less. And Alex liked the regular Parmigiano-Reggiano, aged 20 months, over the 3-year aged Parmigiano-Reggiano Stravecchio.
Based on the results of our taste test, we will likely use Parmigiano-Reggiano for finishing a dish, such as a freshly grated topping for Garlic Tomato Cream Zucchini Pasta with Shrimp, Garlic Pizza, and Garlic Bread with Garlic Powder.
Pro tip for the frugal foodies
If you have tried the blind taste test and discover your palate prefers Parmigiano-Reggiano best, here’s a tip to stretch your Parmigiano-Reggiano Stravecchio further.
If you’re using the 24-month and 36-month aged Parmigiano-Reggiano Stravecchio, you can get away with using less because it’s so strong.
The trick is to grate your Parmigiano-Reggiano with a very fine-toothed grater. It gives you fluffier and thinner threads of cheese, which piles into a mound that looks bigger than if you used a coarse-tooth grater.
How should you grate Parmigiano-Reggiano?
We deliberately bought a zest grater which appears to be the finest grating we can achieve.
Microplane is the famous brand name for zest graters. But they were out of their hand-held grater at Target. So, we went with OXO for $10.99.
What kind of recipes can you use Parmigiano-Reggiano?
Some Italian-inspired dishes that use Parmigiano-Reggiano or Parmesan include:
- Pesto Spaghetti Squash with Mozzarella & Cherry Tomatoes recipe
- Garlic Pizza recipe
- Garlic Tomato Cream Pasta Sauce with Shrimp recipe
- 5-Minute Garlic Bread with Garlic Powder recipe
- From Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat book, I learned that Parmesan is in Caesar’s Salad Dressing.
- We add grated Parmesan into our bison burger patties with copious amounts of garlic powder to give it an extra umami zing.
FAQ for Parmesan vs. Parmigiano-Reggiano
Can I use Parmesan instead of Parmigiano Reggiano?
Yes, many dishes that call for Parmigiano-Reggiano can be substituted with Parmesan. Parmigiano-Reggiano may add more flavor, but it’s OK to use Parmesan.
What can you substitute Parmesan cheese with?
You can use Parmigiano-Reggiano instead of Parmesan cheese. You can use less Parmigiano-Reggiano when substituting Parmesan because it’s more flavorful. Use a fine grater to stretch your Parmigiano-Reggiano.
As uncouth cooks, if a recipe calls for Parmesan and we don’t have any, we may substitute with another hard cheese, such as Manchego or Asiago or even aged Gouda, depending on what’s in the fridge. It works in a pinch (just don’t expect the same flavor).
Is the Parmesan cheese the same as Grana Padano?
Refer to the section above to learn how Grana Padano Parmesan differs from Parmigiano-Reggiano and why it may be called Parmesan.
Are Romano and Parmesan cheese the same?
No. Romano cheeses inspired by the Pecorino Romano and refer to a group of American and Canadian cheese. They are hard cheese and usually grated, which is why they are often used as a substitute for Parmesan. You may also frequently find them in a pre-grated Parmesan-Romano cheese blend.
What about the shelf-stable pre-grated Parmesan?
Why did we exclude the shelf-stable pre-grated Parmesan with the green lid from our taste test?
I read about how some (but not all) of these shelf-stable cheese come with fillers and anti-caking agents, including this story about Parmesan cheese fraud from Bloomberg News that reported some Parmesans were actually mixtures of other cheeses, such as cheddar, Swiss, and mozzarella.
I decided to stick with the refrigerated cheese that we were confident hadn’t been adulterated so we could perform a fair test.
Have you done a taste test of Parmesan vs. Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese? Which cheese do you prefer?