Parmigiano Reggiano® cheese is aged longer than other hard grating cheeses. Aged Parmesan is known for its complex flavor and granular texture.
In the producer’s aging room, the Parmesan wheels are arranged on wooden shelves. They are tended carefully by workers, who wipe, brush and turn them every 10 days. The outsides of the wheels gradually dry to form a natural (and completely edible) rind.
Testers of Aged Parmesan Arrive
After one year, an independent expert (battitore) evaluates each wheel. Tapping each one with a special hammer, the tester listens for tones indicating whether the cheese has aged in the way it should. As another quality test, thin probes may also be inserted and sniffed.
Parmigiano Reggiano wheels that pass inspection—and nearly all do—are fire branded with the oval Consorzio Tutela Parmigiano Reggiano certification mark.
The cheese tester then determines whether further aging is desirable for a particular Parmesan wheel. Some wheels are best enjoyed young, between 12 and 18 months. The rinds of these so-called Mezzano (medium aged) wheels are grooved with horizontal rings that allow the Parmigiano Reggiano pin dots to show through.
Most wheels, however, are aged for a total of 18 to 36 months—24 months, on average. Additional aging permits full development of the cheese’s flavor potential.
“Top of Class” Aged Parmesan Cheese
At the request of a cheese house, an expert tester will inspect a particular Parmigiano Reggiano wheel for the second time. If it meets the standards for top-of-class characteristics, the wheel is branded with the “Extra” certification mark. (In some cases, the word “Export” is used instead—this older descriptor, which is being phased out, also indicates the exceptional quality of an aged Parmesan wheel.
Cheeses that Fail to Make the Grade
What about wheels that don’t pass inspection? A rare occurrence, but it does happen. These wheels go to a special facility where they are declassified—that is, the distinctive pin-dot certification pattern is completely erased from the rind. In most cases, the wheel is then sold as a hard cheese for commercial use in food products.
Aged Parmesan’s Unique Texture
Parmigiano Reggiano possesses a granular texture that becomes more pronounced as the cheese ages. Try placing a small piece of Parmesan in your mouth. As you bite down, it shatters. This quality, called friability, accounts for the fact that Parmigiano Reggiano is a superb grating cheese.
You’ll also encounter delightfully crunchy white crystals as you chew. These are free amino acids that have broken down during the Parmesan aging process. They testify to the digestibility of aged Parmesan cheese.
The cheese quickly begins to dissolve, giving a creamy sensation in the mouth. This quality, called solubility, makes aged Parmesan versatile in the kitchen because it blends so readily with other ingredients.
Long Aging: Parmesan’s Flavor Secret
Patient aging gives Parmigiano Reggiano cheese its rich and distinctive flavor. Longer-aged cheeses develop subtle flavor notes that connoisseurs describe in much the same way as wines. Dried fruit, tropical fruit, cooked milk, melted butter: These are some of the adjectives used to describe the aromas and flavors of aged Parmesan.
Tasting Chart for Aged Parmesan
To see what happens as Parmesan ages, check out this circular tasting chart, offering a sensory analysis of Parmigiano Reggiano at 18, 22+ and 30+ months.