What You're Really Getting When You Buy Parmesan Cheese in America

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

Editor's Note: Larry Olmsted is the author of the New York Times best seller Real Food/Fake Food: Why You Don't Know What You're Eating and What You Can Do About It, released in July 2016. He has spent the past four years researching fraudulence in food and labeling, a journey that has taken him to Japan, Alaska, Chile, Argentina, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, South Africa, and all across the continental United States and Canada. It's also taken him repeatedly to Parma, Italy. Today, he joins us to talk about one of that region's most fraught exports, Parmesan cheese.

There are few cheeses more iconic than sharp, nutty Parmesan—a product so widely respected in the dairy industry that its nickname, even among competing cheesemakers, is simply "The King of Cheeses." In the United States, it's often grated and used as a topping, but if that's the only way you've ever tried it, you're missing half the fun—in Italy, Parmesan cheese is routinely broken into nuggets and popped straight into the mouth, sometimes with a drizzle of aged balsamic vinegar as a bonus. Many Italians even keep a special tool for this purpose, a small, spade-shaped knife that looks a bit like a steel guitar pick affixed to a handle. Insert the tip into the wedge, pry it forward, and voilà, a hunk of cheese breaks off, cracking along the craggy fault lines of its crystalline structure.

Though often categorized as a hard grating cheese, Parmesan is actually semi-hard, with a texture just slightly firmer than that of aged cheddar. The body of the cheese is rich and creamy, studded with crunchy granules of calcium lactate that give it a unique, almost effervescent texture. And, while its flavor varies depending on how long it's been aged and the season in which it was produced, it is always slightly salty, buttery, grassy, and nutty, with subtle notes that range from acidic to fruity to downright piquant.

Real Parmesan cheese is undeniably delicious, but there are few cheeses more misunderstood—at least on American shores. That's largely because, while the name Parmesan may be widely known, the true meaning of the word is a bit more fraught.

20150107-italian-american-meatballs-vicky-wasik-29.jpg

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

Among cheese aficionados, Parmesan is literally synonymous with Parmigiano Reggiano, a cheese that, by both European Union and United States laws, can be produced only in the neighboring historical regions of Parma and Reggio in Italy's Emilia-Romagna. But here's the catch: Even though Parmesan is broadly understood to refer specifically to Parmigiano Reggiano, US trademark law protects only the Italian name. This is true despite the fact that over 250 years before our Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence, the inhabitants of what is now the unified country of Italy began calling the cheese parmesano, meaning "of or from Parma." The French were the first foreigners to be wooed by the cheese's virtues, and shortened the name to "Parmesan," which was adopted by the English and has remained interchangeable with the real thing for 500 years.

In 2008, European courts ruled that Parmigiano Reggiano is the only cheese that can legally be called Parmesan, a policy shift that forced cheese producers around the world to rename their products. And most of the world did so—except the US, that is. Case in point? That ubiquitous, green-capped canister of Kraft Parmesan cheese is actually labeled "Parmasello" in all of Europe and many other countries.

Today, American supermarkets and cheese counters are full of products labeled "Parmesan," but, while many are similar in price or even more expensive, few are even remotely "of or from Parma." It's a loophole that many argue has misled American consumers, diluted tradition, and cheated artisan producers for decades.

20160812-parmigiano-reggiano-niki-achitoff-gray.jpg

[Photograph: Niki Achitoff-Gray]

So what actually happens in Parma that makes the cheese so great? It all starts with the raw material. Historical records date the original production of this particular cheese in the region to between 800 and 1,000 years ago, when Benedictine monks began grazing their cows on the wild flora. Since then, cheesemakers and lawmakers have tried to keep the process as unchanged as possible (with the important and much-needed exception of anti-counterfeiting holograms and similar technology). To that end, the pastures where cows graze cannot legally be chemically fertilized or even planted with new types of crops. Dairy cows in the region are allowed to feed on this untainted natural growth only from spring to fall; in winter, they eat dried hay made from the same fields. Some practices that are widespread in the American dairy industry—like the use of chemical and medicinal supplements (including antibiotics and hormones), or feeding livestock on diets containing animal by-products or silage (a wet feed made by fermenting grasses, grains, cereals, or corn, many of them not part of the natural diet of cattle)—are forbidden. By law, the cheese may contain only three ingredients: milk that is utterly pure and unadulterated, salt, and rennet, a natural enzyme that makes milk curdle and is used in almost all aged cheeses.

But it doesn't stop there: Parmigiano Reggiano is also a long-aged cheese, averaging 20 months. To be labeled simply "Parmigiano Reggiano," it must mature for a minimum of 12 months. A one-year-old Parmesan will have a smooth texture and mild flavor, best suited for grating or incorporating into cooked dishes. But at specialty stores, you can often find loftier versions, with a complexity that makes them ideal for eating on their own. Vecchio (old) is aged for at least 18 months, for a grassy, floral aroma and acid sweetness. But for a real prize, look to stravecchio, which has aged for at least two years. Older Parmesans feature a wealth of crunchy crystals and a deeply savory flavor, accompanied by a richly nutty, fruity aroma.

20160812-parmigiano-reggiano-niki-achitoff-gray3.jpg

[Photograph: Niki Achitoff-Gray]

In Italy, the final important step occurs after aging: Parmesan is one of the few food products anyplace on earth that require individual inspection for quality. A certified expert visits every single 86-pound wheel and taps it with a rubber acoustic hammer, listening for structural defects in crystallization. If necessary, the inspector takes core samples and, if any appear questionable, tastes them. A not-insignificant 8% of all the cheese made in Parma fails this examination and does not make the grade—depending on the inspector's findings, it is either sold under a different name or discarded altogether. Cheese is a living thing, after all, and there are few consumer products that face such stringent quality control, or such high rejection rates.

Given the strict laws governing ingredients, production, aging, and inspection, there is simply no such thing as mediocre Parmigiano Reggiano. Like Champagne and other Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) products, it is carefully made and screened to guarantee that the baseline is, at worst, very good. From there, it soars upward to exceptional heights.

In sharp contrast, Parmesan cheese in the United States and Argentina, another major knockoff producer, must abide by no such rules. It can be made from milk of any quality, age, or provenance. There is no aging requirement, or really any requirements at all—domestic Parmesan is not even vaguely defined as a particular type or style of cheese. While the term has been deemed generic (or common) for trademark purposes, other generics clearly mean a unique product: Bayer lost ownership of "aspirin," but aspirin still refers to a specific painkiller, not vitamin pills. Yet Parmesan can be used to describe almost anything in the dairy case. As the legal counsel for the consortium of Parma cheesemakers told me: "In most cases in the US, the name Parmesan is not used as a common name of a kind of cheese; it is used in a way that may mislead the public as to the geographical origin of the product. If Parmesan has become the common name of a kind of cheese in the US, which kind of product exactly would Parmesan designate?"

Domestic rules allow for, among other things, the addition of calcium chloride and artificial coloring. The milk (which may be whole, skim, reconstituted from dry, cream, et cetera) can be bleached, in which case vitamin A can be added back "to compensate for the vitamin A or its precursors destroyed in the bleaching process." And, though the FDA's definition of Parmesan is a cheese "characterized by a granular texture and a hard and brittle rind," many supermarket wedges of domestic "Parmesan" have no crystals whatsoever and look remarkably uniform, like a triangle of cheddar.

To make matters worse, a significant amount of our so-called Parmesan cheese is pre-grated, with cellulose added to keep it from clumping. The industry norm for achieving this goal would be to add cellulose equal to between 2 and 4% of the finished product, but widely publicized tests by Bloomberg and Inside Edition earlier this year (later dubbed ParmesanGate) showed that these percentages are routinely doubled or tripled. In one notable case, a product marketed as Parmesan was found to be more than 20% cellulose. While naturally occurring, the ingredient, a plant-based fiber, is neither milk-based nor naturally present in cheese at all, leading to Bloomberg's memorable headline: "The Parmesan Cheese You Sprinkle on Your Penne Could Be Wood."

It's far from the first time these observations have been made. Parmigiano Reggiano "is one of the most important and influential cheeses of Italy, if not the world," writes John Fischer in his iconic book Cheese (literally the textbook on the subject for aspiring chefs at institutions like the Culinary Institute of America). "Important because the genuine article is so incredibly delicious and balanced in flavor...influential because there are hundreds, if not thousands of imitations produced around the world, from wedges of 'parmesan' to green cylindrical boxes containing a grated substance that resembles sawdust, though it still bears the name on its label," he continues. Another renowned cheese writer, Laura Werlin, who has produced several books on the topic, adds, "It's misleading to use these names, there's no question about it.... Parmigiano Reggiano is the quintessential example. It's the gold standard, but most people have never had it because everything is called Parmesan here."

I did a book signing in July where I brought a wedge of really good Parmigiano Reggiano and a supermarket house-brand wedge of domestic "Parmesan," then broke them into chunks and passed them out for a blind taste test. Not one of the 82 attendees preferred the copycat. Unlike with Kobe beef or Champagne, this is not a case of having to pay more in order to avoid being ripped off. Serious Eats even conducted a more rigorous and formal domestic-Parmesan taste test in the hope of finding a suitable, less expensive alternative to the real thing, but the undertaking quickly proved fruitless. As Culinary Director Daniel Gritzer wrote:

Maybe it seems wrong to have an imported Parmigiano-Reggiano win the domestic Parmesan taste test, but we simply can't, in good conscience, steer you to any of the domestic cheeses we tried when the real version is so much better. We rounded up as many domestic Parmesans as we could find in the New York City area.... We bought any domestic cheese that was labeled as "Parmesan." I'll keep this short: The imported Parmigiano-Reggiano whipped the pants off all the other cheeses. Furthermore, it was priced about the same as most of the other cheeses, which means that even from a quality/value standpoint, the imported one is the best option.

20160812-parmigiano-reggiano-niki-achitoff-gray2.jpg

[Photograph: Niki Achitoff-Gray]

Many consumers who are serious about cooking understand the tubes of pre-grated stuff to be a lower-quality shortcut, but are still routinely fooled by the wrapped wedges deceptively labeled "Parmesan," even when they're sitting right next to the genuine Italian article—especially since some of the knockoffs cost more. Fortunately, once you know the truth about Parmesan, it's exceptionally easy to shop for the real thing. True Parmigiano Reggiano will be labeled "made in" or "from" Italy, and often sport a PDO seal. Since the Italian name is protected here in the US, those words should be an adequate guarantee on their own. In addition, a wheel of the real cheese will have its name, Parmigiano Reggiano, embossed permanently in a dotted step-and-repeat pattern all over the edge—every wedge you buy should have part of this visible on the rind.

When buying real Parmesan, the biggest worry should be over how it has been stored. The wheels are so big, you'll want to buy it from places that know how to store it correctly, and sell enough of it to have rapid turnover, since it can dry out once the wheel is cut. While it is a semi-hard cheese, it should be a bit oily, not dry or crumbly, so inspect the wedge. Visible dryness, usually seen along the top or bottom, is a bad sign. If the cheese is prewrapped, vacuum-sealed packages are preferable to plastic wrap. High-volume cheese specialists in major cities are a good bet; failing that, I have mail-ordered wedges from Zingerman's—a vendor specifically recommended to me by the Parma consortium. In any case, once you get a well-cared-for wedge of honest-to-goodness Parmigiano Reggiano, you won't want to go back.