Which Parmesan Cheese To Buy, Explained

We're breaking down the difference between green cans and fancy wedges

It's hard to resist tucking into cacio e pepe without adding an extra snowfall of nutty Parmesan cheese on top. But why do so many recipes call for Parmigiano-Reggiano when supermarket shelves are loaded with different types of Parmesans? What makes that pricy wedge so special?

Authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano is produced in a specific region of Italy, while anything simply labeled Parmesan is a domestic copycat made in a similar style.

In accordance with the Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese Consortium of 1934, the genuine stuff must be made using milk from the area's cows, in addition to being aged for a minimum of 12 months. An easy way to tell if you're buying certifiable Parmigiano is to look for its name stamped directly onto the rind.

On the other hand, Parmesans labeled without Reggiano can refer to a broad number of American-made cow's-milk cheeses designed to taste somewhat similar to the original Italian version. While they're certainly cheaper, these imitations lack the rich, complex flavors of the real deal.

Don't get us wrong, though, we're not knocking those ubiquitous green cans we all grew up loving. If cheese is merely playing a supporting role in your recipe, like in this spicy spinach and artichoke dip, feel free to go with domestic Parm. Your coveted hunk of Reggiano is better off reserved for an indulgent, creamy risotto.