Find out what you're buying, why real Parmigiano-Reggiano costs so much and if there are any good alternatives that won't break the bank.

Hilary Meyer

Parmesan cheese, or specifically Parmigiano-Reggiano, costs anywhere between $12 and $24 a pound. That's a huge chunk of change for a small chunk of cheese. So is it worth it? Read on to find out what you're buying, why it costs so much and if there are any good alternatives that won't break the bank.

What Is Parmesan Cheese Anyway?

Well, that depends on where you are. In the United States, one can find grated cheese, shredded cheese and shelf-stable cheese granules stuffed into a vibrant green can-all labeled "Parmesan." If you're in Italy (or anywhere else in the European Union), things are different. The only "real Parmesan" cheese is Parmigiano-Reggiano, a sharp and umami-rich hard cheese with a granular texture made from cow's milk that comes from a small, specific region in Northern Italy. While you may find other hard, white grating cheeses in Europe, it's actually illegal to call them Parmesan. To get to be the real-deal Parmigiano-Reggiano, king of all cheeses, is a unique process.

Related: Healthy Recipes with Parmesan Cheese

Pictured recipe: Balsamic & Parmesan Roasted Broccoli

How Is Parmesan Cheese Made?

One 88-pound wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese starts with 140 gallons of milk from grass-fed cows. Once the cheese is formed into its classic wheel shape, it's brined in salt water for around three weeks. Once that stage is complete, it's moved to a storage room with thousands of other wheels where it will age for a minimum of one year to upward of three years, all the while being turned, cleaned and maintained. And the journey isn't over. After 12 months, each wheel has to pass a test. A cheese grader from the Consorzio Parmigiano-Reggiano, the organization that regulates the industry, makes sure the cheese is up to standards, looking for cracks and other imperfections. If there are none, the cheese gets a literal stamp of approval. If not, well, it doesn't get the stamp of approval and will be either be sold as substandard Parmigiano-Reggiano or used for a different purpose.

Pictured recipe: Baked Parmesan Tomatoes

Is Parmesan Worth It? What About Alternatives?

So we've established that it's not quick or easy to make Parmigiano-Reggiano and hence it's not cheap to buy. Are there less expensive alternatives? The short answer is yes, but before we go there, it's worth considering the fact that Parmigiano-Reggiano is not your typical snacking or sandwich cheese. Just a little bit can add depth to pasta dishes and a rich, savory flavor to risotto. So that pricy hunk of cheese can last you a while. You are not going to achieve the same depth of flavor from another cheese, but if you're still not convinced, there are alternatives. Also from Northern Italy, Grana Padano is another hard Italian cow's-milk cheese that also has standard requirements for quality. It's aged less and so it's softer and the flavor is less full, but it is a good stand-in for Parmigiano-Reggiano. Pecorino Romano is another tasty grating cheese that's delicious in most applications where Parmigiano-Reggiano would shine. Traditionally a sheep's-milk cheese, Pecorino Romano has a flavor that's a bit more briny than Parm, so if you use this as an alternative, taste as you go. And the generic prepackaged grated and shredded Parmesans? They don't offer much in terms of flavor, so you can leave them on the shelf.

Pictured recipe: Chicken & Spinach Skillet Pasta with Lemon & Parmesan

How to Use and Store Parmigiano-Reggiano

So you decided to bite the bullet and invest in a delicious hunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Congratulations! You won't be disappointed. You can enjoy it grated over pasta or roasted vegetables, melted into risotto or thinly shaved onto salad, just to name a few uses. Remember: A little goes a long way. To keep it fresh for next time, wrap it tightly in plastic to keep it moist and store it in your refrigerator. There, it can last four to six weeks. If your cheese came with a rind (the hard, waxy exterior on the outside edge), don't throw it out! Instead, add it to a pot of soup and let it simmer to add more depth of flavor-and to get even more bang for your buck out of that block of Parm. Just remember to remove it before serving.

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