Cheese Of The Week: Parmigiano-Reggiano

Cheese of The Week is a weekly feature on The Daily Meal, drawing on the expertise of internationally renowned cheese expert and consultant Raymond Hook. What follows is based on an interview with Hook. 

Want more? Click here for the Cheese of the Week Slideshow.

Parmigiano-Reggiano is probably the most well-known cheese in the world, and with good reason. It's sharp, nutty, full of umami, and adds an incredible flavor to just about everything it's added to (except Chinese food; never put it on Chinese food).

True Parmigiano-Reggiano is made in a very specific region of Italy, and the best you'll find in the United States is what's also sold at New York's Eataly. This cheese is made from the red cows of Reggia, in the province of Reggio Emilia. These cows have been making milk used in this cheese since the barbarians invaded eons ago, and were actually endangered in the 1980s. Today they're thriving in the area, and the higher butterfat level and protein count in the milk makes this cheese undoubtedly great.

In order to produce this cheese, the raw milk is cooked and the curds are pressed into giant wheels, rubbed with brine, and left to age for a minimum of two-and-a-half years (most other Parmigiani only age for two years). The resulting cheese must be cracked instead of cut, and develops amino acid crystals, a true sign of proper aging. The flavor is intense and salty, but well-balanced and grassy, with a nutty aroma and flavor that's redolent of the pastures the cows grazed on.

Now is a good time to talk a little about that other cheese that claims to be related: Parmesan. While the ingredients might be similar, the quality of the milk used by, say, Kraft, is far inferior to the good stuff, and these are generally aged for only about six months before being processed. Also, never buy pre-grated cheese if you can swing it; the quality of the flavor immediately goes downhill.

"It's just not real Parm if it's not called Parmigiano-Reggiano," says Hook. "There's a reason it's spelled differently. And never buy it pre-grated. The flavors and aroma come out when you grate it yourself, and there's nothing else like it in the world."

Hook recommends eating Parm this good in chunks, drizzled with high-quality balsamic vinegar, and pairing it with a big, fruity wine like a barbera.