What's the Difference Between Parmigiano Reggiano & Parmesan?

It’s not the same, we promise.

January 30, 2023
Photo by Emily Dryden

Picture this: You’re in the grocery store, picking out a cheese to sprinkle over your bowl (or blate) of onion-buttered noodles or rigatoni with vodka sauce. You spot the section of the cheese aisle that could be described, loosely speaking, as “Italian.” You scan each row and see several options that could fit the bill—craggy hunks labeled “Parmigiano Reggiano,” neat isosceles triangles that read “Parmesan,” and a whole host of pre-grated tubs sporting either one name or the other. Are these actually different products? Are they interchangeable? It’s a reasonable question, though the answer can be a little bit confusing. While the cheeses share similarities, Parmigiano Reggiano and Parmesan are not the same thing.

Parmigiano Reggiano hails from Italy, specifically from the Emilia-Romagna region (including the provinces of Parma and Emilia Reggio, giving the cheese its name) in the northern part of the country. As a legally-protected product—the cheese holds DOP (denominazione d'origine protetta) status—Parmigiano Reggiano must be produced in these designated areas, which align with its historical provenance. So, when you grab a hunk of parm at the store and see ‘Parmigiano Reggiano’ imprinted onto the rind or on the label, know that you’re getting the real thing.

Equally important to where Parmigiano Reggiano is produced is how it’s produced. The cheese must be aged for a minimum of 12 months, with 24 to 36 months being the most common maturation length. Additionally, the only ingredients that can be used to make real Parmigiano Reggiano are “milk, salt, and rennet only, with no additives and no preservatives.” Though it varies depending on its age, the cheese is defined by its slightly grainy, crystalline, and crumbly texture, as well as its nutty, complex flavor.

“Parmesan,” in contrast, is not a legally protected category—at least not in the U.S. According to Serious Eats, this means that domestic Parmesan doesn’t have to follow the same rigid standards that define Parmigiano Reggiano. Parmesan can be made anywhere, with any milk, and be aged for any amount of time. As a result, it often lacks the consistency and key attributes of the real thing. For example, the crystals present in Parmigiano Reggiano aren’t usually found in Parmesan, and the latter often features a smooth, not crumbly, texture. Moreover, additives like calcium chloride and artificial coloring are allowed in Parmesan, as are other nontraditional steps in the cheesemaking process. This is especially the case with pre-grated domestic Parmesan, which typically contains a percentage of cellulose—a plant-derived fiber—to prevent it from clumping.

Ultimately, the flavor, texture, and complexity of true Parmigiano Reggiano is hard to beat and is worth seeking out—especially in cases where you’ll be eating the cheese on its own. But, in a pinch, a high-quality Parmesan grated over a plate of pasta will certainly do the trick.

Do you prefer Parmigiano Reggiano or Parmesan? Share your thoughts below!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • gail
  • jerry Reed
    jerry Reed
  • Nick Wilde
    Nick Wilde
  • Gigi's daughter
    Gigi's daughter
  • Smaug
Anabelle Doliner

Written by: Anabelle Doliner

Staff Editor


gail March 23, 2023
For years I've used only Costco P-R in the wedge, food processor grated or shaved. Love it by itself. They had or have a domestic P, much softer, actually not bad as cubes on a cheese plate, but one try sent me back to the aged P-R. After grating chunks, I shave close to the rind as possible ... drop the rinds in slow cooked sauce or even pasta water. I saw one list of the 50 best cheeses, P-R was #1. I agree. My caesar salad dressing is LOTS of anchovies and P-R grated, with shaved P-R on the side for those, like me, who love it. Leonard, not Gail ... actually doesn't like P-R, but don't tell her about my dressings and sauces! You should know, however, that for a grilled cheese sandwich, chemically enhanced American cheese is best.
jerry R. February 5, 2023
This is turning out to be a great education for me about Northern Italian cheeses. OK so so far, we know that parmigiana Reggiano is made from sheep‘s milk, and that it is aged. I’m waiting for an answer about the length of aging.

So here’s a question my third in this series, what is pecorino Romano Reggiano?
cynthia July 9, 2023
Parmigiano Reggiano is a cow's milk cheese that is aged at least 12 months and up to 3 yrs. Pecorino Romano is a sheep's milk cheese which also has a protected designation; is aged 5-8 months; and has a saltier taste than Parmigiano Reggiano.
jerry R. February 5, 2023
Here’s a question that a don’t know the answer to. So, we’ve confirmed that parmigiana Reggiano is made 100% from sheep‘s milk. It also I think must be aged. I’m uncertain whether it’s 12 months or 24 months. Can anybody answer that question, I also have a second question about a sheep‘s milk of the same type as parmigiano Reggiano’s, but it’s distinguish in someway that I am uncertain of. The cheese that I’m talking about is branded as grana Padano, so what is different about grana Padano, that distinguishes it from parmigiano Reggiano ?
Gigi's D. March 24, 2023
The minimum time that Parmigiana Reggiano is aged is 12 months. It can also be 24 or 36 or 40 months, tho I haven't seen 40 month old P-R being sold. It gets a bit drier (and more expensive) as it ages and stronger in flavor. I believe the 24 months is when those delightful little crystals form. Pecorino Romano is indeed from sheep's milk and is saltier and more tart than P-R.
jerry R. February 5, 2023
I believe another distinction between parmigiano, Reggiano’s, and Parmesan is that parmigiano Reggiano it’s made from sheep’s milk exclusively. I could be wrong about that.
Smaug February 5, 2023
You are, it's made from cow's milk. Pecorino Romano is sheep's milk.
jerry R. February 5, 2023
Thanks for your response that confirms my impression that parmigiano Reggiano is derived 100% from sheep’s milk.
Smaug February 5, 2023
Once again, P. Reggiano and all Parmesans are made from cow's milk. Minimum aging for P. Reggiano is 12 months. There is no such thing as peccorino romano reggiano. Wikipedia can doubtless supply further details.
jerry R. February 5, 2023
Thank you.
jerry R. February 5, 2023
Smaug, Oops auto correct changed your name.
Andi June 13, 2023
Except that it isn't. It's made with cow's milk. Pecorino is made of sheep milk.
Nick W. February 3, 2023
At least here in CO, Whole Foods sells wedges of the real stuff - parmigiano reggiano - aged 24 months. Not cheap but oh-so-much-better than the green can.
cynthia July 9, 2023
No comparison between REAL Parmigiano Reggiano and the stuff in Kraft's green can! I have never seen a nice wedge of Parmigiano Reggiano. The P-R that I buy is better described as craggy chunks, broken from a wheel with a cheese knife!
Gigi's D. February 1, 2023
We just experienced the real deal parmigiano reggiano in Italy this summer. There is NO comparison between the flavor of the real deal and what is marketed as parmesan here in the US. I will no longer ever buy anything other than the real deal in the future. We went to the factory in Parma. Incredible product! So glad I saw it being made.
Smaug January 31, 2023
In my kitchen at least, Parmagiano Reggiano is Parmesan but Parmesan isn't necessarily Parmagiano Reggiano.
Lellina January 30, 2023
Parmesan or “parmigiano” in Italian is the kind of cheese, “reggiano” it’s where it came from (the area around Reggio Emilia) and also how long it’s aged. So “parmigiano reggiano” is that spectacular cheese considered one of the best in the world. In Italy you can also find very easily a Parmesan called “grana padano” (that actually many more Italians like better because it’s mellower and creamier, since it’s less aged and so also cheaper) that it’s the same kind of cheese but cannot be called “parmigiano” because that is a denomination of origin protected by law (DOP) and reserved for the Parmigiano coming from the Reggio Emilia area. Here in America what they call parmesan (the dry stuff in a canister and shelf-stable) cannot be considered real cheese but just a cheese by-product.
James G. January 30, 2023
This is neither regiano nor parmesan :