Parmesan cheese is everywhere in Italian cooking which is great as it’s delicious and healthy too. Low in fat and high in protein, it is easy to digest. It also contains many vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A, B6, and B12, and calcium, phosphorus, zinc, and copper.
It’s also naturally lactose-free and high in glutamate which means it has a umami or savory taste. Umami can easily add complexity and deliciousness to your cooking.
Parmesan does not mean the same thing in Europe and the United States.
In Europe, by law, parmesan can only refer to Parmigiano-Reggiano. It is a hard cow’s milk cheese produced in designated areas in northern Italy and aged for 12 to 36 months.
However, in the United States, parmesan is a generic term for any hard cow’s milk cheese made in the style of the Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano.
When writing recipes, I always specify parmesan cheese and not Parmigiano-Reggiano. Some Italian cooking purists will balk at this. But Parmigiano-Reggiano is not always easy to get outside Italy and can be prohibitively expensive. There are also other hard Italian cheeses to keep in mind for pasta. Pecorino Romano from Lazio and Grana Padano from Lombardy are both great.
There are also some artisanal cheese companies making lovely cow’s milk hard cheeses in the United States. Do these cheeses taste exactly like Parmigiano-Reggiano? Absolutely, not. Can they be used in a delicious pasta dish? Totally.
What to keep in mind when shopping for parmesan cheese
- Parmigiano-Reggiano must be written on the label and spelled correctly for it to be real Parmigiano-Reggiano. Fraud is common.
- Look for parmesan that has been aged for 24 months for pasta. Younger cheeses are often too soft to easily grate and older cheeses can be too dry to blend well.
- Buy blocks or chunks of parmesan cheese instead of grated as the cheese will begin to lose its flavor when it comes in contact with air.
- In the United States, grated parmesan cheese can legally contain a percentage of cellulose which is used as an anti-caking agent. Buying a solid piece to grate ensures that it is 100% cheese.