If you eat parmesan cheese on the regular, you've likely been cheese-shamed at least once in your life. The spiel goes like this: Most "parmesan" cheese isn't "real" parmesan cheese. The real stuff is Parmigiano Reggiano, which has a protected designation of origin (PDO) and can only be produced in a specific region around the Italian provinces of Parma and Reggio Emilia. Everything else is attempting to mimic the authentic stuff, which has been produced the same way for over 1,000 years.
Of course, there are plenty of reasons why you might prefer a parmesan imitator. Maybe you acquired an unwavering preference for Kraft Parmesan as a child. True Parmigiano Reggiano is also significantly more expensive than other cheeses, and for good reason: The Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium—the governing body behind the PDO—requires all of its cheeses to be produced by hand and use milk from cows that must follow a specific diet, and then be aged for at least 12 months. It's a stringent process, and certain stages of production require daily attention, meaning that over 330 producers are working seven days a week, 365 days a year.
But despite the fact that over 330 dairies hand-produce Parmigiano Reggiano, all of these cheeses taste surprisingly similar. That's because the methods of production are so tightly regulated. By contrast, with French wines, for example, you'd pay close attention to the winery, even with bottles from the exact same appellation. But with Parmigiano Reggiano, the producer is of less importance. Either the Consortium approved it or it didn't, and if it did, you're getting quality cheese.
And yet, one important factor that can significantly affect your Parmigiano Reggiano that often gets overlooked by American consumers: the age. After 12 months, every wheel of cheese is inspected by the Consortium, at which point, if approved, the wheel officially earns its Parmigiano Reggiano approval. But the cheese is usually aged further, often for years, and the character will continue to change.
"While it's true that 'good taste' is always required in the kitchen, it's also true that different maturation stages provide different aromatic sensations and make Parmigiano Reggiano versatile in the kitchen," explains Nicola Bertinelli, president of the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium. "There is a Parmigiano Reggiano for all tastes and all occasions."
From 12 to 18 months, Parmigiano Reggiano still exhibits some of its youthfulness, often described as "milk, yoghurt, and fresh fruit" flavors. During a tasting I was invited to by the Consortium, I was told to look out for pineapple notes. In general, the youngest Parmigiano Reggiano consumers will find in the U.S. is at least 18 months. But by 24 months, the changes are clear, not just in flavor, but in appearance and texture. The number of visible white crystals increases, and the cheese is crumblier and grainier on the palate.
These progressions will continue to become more pronounced over time. As far as taste, other umami notes like nuttiness and meat stock enter the picture. And as the cheese reaches 36 months or older, notes of spices become more prominent in both the aroma and flavor. Yes, wheels can eventually be over-aged—turning completely gritty—but thankfully, unless you are aging whole wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano at home, this isn't an issue you'll likely encounter. And if you happen to see a 50-month Parmigiano Reggiano at somewhere like Murray's Cheese in New York City, you can trust you're in for an intensely crystalized treat.
As Michelin-starred Italian chef Luca Marchini points out, this changing character creates choices in the kitchen. "Above all, [Parmigiano Reggiano is] an extremely versatile product," he says. "A classic dish of mine, which was on the menu until a short time ago, was risotto with extract of oven-baked leeks, rocket, cream of 24-month Parmigiano Reggiano, oysters, and raw rhubarb. Today, at my L'Erba del Re restaurant, Parmigiano Reggiano is also a pre-dessert dish: 'Shaving of Parmigiano' is a shell of white chocolate, a heart of 30-month Parmigiano Reggiano, black cherry jam [...] and traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena. The choice of a 30-month maturation period for this dish is given by the need to achieve greater texture and complexity in the mouth."
Speaking of versatility, one of Chef Massimo Bottura's most famous starters at his Michelin three-star restaurant Osteria Francesca in Modeno is "Five ages of Parmigiano Reggiano in different textures and temperatures." Granted, your results may vary, but clearly, age is taken into consideration when the best Italian chefs choose their cheese.
Admittedly, the difference between an 18-month Parmigiano Reggiano and a 36-month Parmigiano Reggiano isn't as dramatic as, say, the difference between any Parmigiano Reggiano and a canister of Kraft. But whenever you opt for Parmigiano Reggiano, you're paying a premium for a quality product, so you might as well make sure it has the qualities you're looking for.