While we often use the name “parmesan” to refer to all of Italy’s grateable hard cheeses, there are a number of different styles within the category.
According to FDA laws, any cow’s milk cheese that has a hard, brittle rind and granular texture, and grates easily, can be labeled parmesan in the U.S.
Not only does a hard cheese not need to come from Italy to be classified as parmesan, it doesn’t even need to be made from fresh whole milk. Instead, reconstituted dry milk, skim milk, and/or cream are also all acceptable.
Parmigiano-Reggiano is the style most of us think we’re referring to when using the name parmesan. It’s the highest quality of all Italian hard cheeses, and the one locals refer to as “The King of Cheeses” — just don’t tell the Roquefort-loving French.
To comply with DOP guidelines, Parmigiano-Reggiano has to be made in one of two northern Italian regions: Emilia-Romagna, which is home to Parma (hence the name), or the Mantova province of Lombardy.
Like Parmigiano-Reggiano, Grana Padano is a golden, hard-rind cheese made using cow’s milk. The production region is much larger than that of the King of Cheeses, and, at nine months, the minimum aging requirement is more relaxed.
It is texturally similar to the other three kinds of cheese, but that’s where their similarities end. Rather than cows, it’s sheep that provide milk.
Aging ranges between five months and eight months, and Pecorino Romano production must occur either on the island of Sardinia (where the majority takes place), in the central region of Lazio, or in the Tuscan province of Grosseto.
These bold flavors come from the sheep’s milk base, which also provides a milky white cheese and a dark black rind, compared to the yellow-golden cow’s milk.