Let’s begin with some clarifying vocabulary: “Parmesan” is a style of cheese (like “cheddar” and “mozzarella”) and “Parmigiano-Reggiano” is the world’s best variety of this cheese, only produced in Italy, exclusively in Bologna, Modena, Parma, and Reggio Emilia. Its moniker is “the king of cheese,” and that is no hyperbole.
Almost everything in Italy is finished with a fresh grating of Parmesan, except spicy foods and seafood dishes (try asking for cheese to top one of these dishes in Italy; it is more than likely that they will flat-out refuse you). It’s sweet/salty/nutty flavor is an undeniable flavor enhancer to so many savory dishes.
But there is a big difference between Parmesans produced domestically (and in some non-Italian countries, like Australia and Argentina) are those from parts Italy’s famed Emilia-Romagna region. To understand the variables, I have highlighted the categories in which Parmigiano-Reggiano excels over its Parmesan peers:
Time: Most Parmigiano-Reggiano is aged for 2 years or more (domestic versions are likely 6 months to a year). This prolonged aging process not only helps develop the cheese’s tell-tale nutty and salty flavors, it also helps create beautiful, crystalline clusters within the cheese (a transformation of milk proteins), which adds crunch and character. For Parmigianos aged for 3 years (called “stravecchios”), it is better to nibble it in craggily chunks as part of an appetizer or antipasto platter, so you get the full benefit of its textural superiority.
Purity: Two words: “wood pulp.” Last year, that is what food scientists found mixed into tubs of pre-grated domestic Parmesan cheeses sold in the supermarket. I guess trees are cheaper than cheese, but when you buy a block of Parmigiano-Reggiano, there is no room for such flimflammery. Just 100% pure salty goodness. Leave those green foiled-wrapped canisters on the non-refrigerated shelves.
Oversight: Like with so many of the EU’s prized foodstuffs—champagne, aged balsamic vinegar, San Marzano tomatoes, prosciutto di Parma—there are specific consortiums in place to regulate their production so they are consistent in their superior quality. Parmigiano-Reggiano is one of these “protected designation of origin” foods (often labeled DOP), meaning it can only be called “Parmigiano-Reggiano” if its production follows the rigorous standards set forth by the consortium that oversees it. This includes strict rules for the location of the dairy farms and the diet of the cows that provide the milk; the weight, size, and color of the cheese wheels; the aging length; and its final texture and aroma. That is why every wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano you buy is consistently delicious.
The Rind: This is how you, the consumer, will tell that the cheese you are buying is true Parmigiano-Reggiano: Every giant wheel of cheese is stamped with the words “Parmigiano Reggiano” over every inch of the rind, so no matter how small a piece of cheese you are buying, you will see some of the letters of the name. Without it, it is not the real deal. Also, save the rind! Because the rind is naturally formed during the aging process, it is completely edible. That doesn’t mean it has a great texture (it’s hard and a bit waxy), but it is packed with flavor. Slip it into your next vegetable soup, pot of white beans or chickpeas, or a simmering tomato sauce, to lend a saltiness richness. It won’t melt, so just fish out and discard before serving. Blocks of Parmigiano-Reggiano have a very long shelf life (usually a year after its cut, due to its low moisture content). It should be stored in the refrigerator in a container that allows it to breathe (like a plastic tub or glass container), and placed in plain sight, since you’ll want to grab it to season your dinner as often as you can.
This creamy, dreamy lemon-Parmigiano pasta is the ultimate last-minute meal. The sauce is quickly assembled as the pasta boils away and is made up entirely of items you should always have in your pantry: dry pasta, lemon, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and olive oil. The magic ingredient here is the pasta cooking water, which takes the starch from the cooking pasta and uses it to bind the lemon juice, grated cheese, and olive oil to make a perfect pasta sauce. —Jennifer Clair
- Prep time 20 minutes
- Cook time 25 minutes
- Serves 4
organic lemons, juiced and zested
extra-virgin olive oil
grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and more for serving
Salt and pepper
spaghetti or angel hair pasta
large fresh basil leaves, thinly sliced
- In a medium bowl, combine the lemon zest and juice, olive oil, cheese, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and a few generous grindings of black pepper; mix vigorously so the cheese “melts” into the oil and lemon juice. Taste, adding more salt and pepper to your liking; set aside.
- Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil (1 tablespoon of salt for every 6 cups of water). Cook the pasta according to the package directions for al dente. Drain, reserving 1 cup of the pasta cooking water.
- Return the drained pasta to the hot, empty pot and pour over the lemon-Parmigiano sauce, tossing with up to 1/2 cup of the reserving cooking water (to start) to make a creamy sauce that clings to the strands, adding more water as necessary. Add the basil and toss once or twice just to incorporate. Serve immediately with more grated Parmigiano, as desired.