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You Might Be Buying Fake "Parmesan" (Here's How to Tell)

Don't get duped.

<p>Dotdash Meredith/Adobe Stock</p>

Dotdash Meredith/Adobe Stock

Designer knockoffs, especially handbags, have plagued the fashion industry for years, but it turns out that counterfeits plague the food world as well—the cheese world, to be more specific. Italy’s most praised and well-known cheese, Parmigiano Reggiano, is one of the most counterfeited cheeses in the world, with about $2 billion worth of fakes accounted for in just one year, according to the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium. That’s a lot of cheese duping going on.

What’s Up With the Fake Parm?

It all begins with classification— and perhaps popularity. Parmigiano Reggiano, that nutty, pungent, salty Champagne of cheeses with a history dating back to the Middle Ages, was awarded the European Union's prestigious protected designation of origin (PDO) status in 1996. What this means: Under the terms of this designation, only cheese produced in the small region of northern Italy, including the provinces of Parma and Reggio Emilia, and aged a minimum of two years, can be called Parmigiano Reggiano within Europe. There are around 300 dairies in the PDO production areas of the region and that’s it—anything outside of this area is not a true Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.

In the United States, asking for Parmesan could possibly get you a beautiful slice of Parmigiano Reggiano, straight from Parma, Italy, or a plastic shaker of “parmesan” to dust atop pizza—and everything in between. While the full name, Parmigiano Reggiano DPO (protected denomination of origin), is protected stateside, the problem lies in the loose translation, “parmesan,” and this is where it gets tricky. In the United States, to be labeled as “parmesan,” the cheese must be gratable and brittle, contain certain levels of fat and moisture, and age for at least 10 months. There are laws but the laws don’t keep us from getting counterfeit cheeses, unfortunately.

When it comes to fake cheeses, a cheesemonger knows best, says Stevie Lee Webb, co-founder and head cheesemonger of The Cheese Shop in Carrboro, North Carolina. “A great cheesemonger and cheese shop will have a trusted list of suppliers who they work very closely with to source the genuine article,” he says. “Personally, I don’t know of any shops buying fake Parmesan and the community is very tight.”

If you’re confused by the fraudulent world of Parmigiano Reggiano, you’re not alone. Here are several expert tips and tricks for identifying the good stuff next time you’re in the market for the real deal.

Learn To Read the Rind–Literally!

After 12 months of aging, every wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano is meticulously checked with a needle and hammer by the Consortium via experts, known as Cheese Masters, who assess the cheese by tapping it with a hammer to listen for imperfections like air pockets and bubbles, cracks, and more. Only those wheels that pass this test receive an oval mark on the outer rind with the caption, “Parmigiano-Reggiano Consorzio di Tutela,” so its crust will tell you everything you need to know. Sadly, the cheese that doesn’t make it through this test, while perfectly tasty and edible, often makes it onto the market as fake Parmigiano Reggiano.

As a result, some producers have started microchipping each wheel for further protection to ensure that the real cheese is distinguished as the real cheese to consumers. The best thing to do to decide the real vs. the fake, Webb says, is to look for the DOP label (the red circle with yellow lettering). “I haven’t seen it copied and to sell it in any shop would be highly illegal and not worth the trouble,”he adds. The ingredients list is another quick way to detect a faux. “The ingredients should just read ‘raw cow’s milk, salt, rennet, and cultures’; anything else and it’s not the real deal.”

Want more assurance? When shopping for cheese in a market or grocery store and you see a wheel on display, look for unique numbers in pin-dot writing that read, “Parmigiano Reggiano,” and “D.O.P.”  “Each wheel will be dotted with inscriptions with the month and year of making but also an identification number for the dairy it was made at,” says Webb. “These days, you might even see an alphanumeric casein disc, entirely edible, with a unique traceability code.”

What About Buying by the Slice?

If there’s no trace of the aforementioned on a slice of something labeled Parmigiano Reggiano by the store, Webb notes it’s most likely not authentic. How to avoid this bait and switch, whether intentional or not? A quality cheese shop or cheese program in a market will offer wheel slices that keep the rind/crust on so that you can easily identify, even if part of it is sliced off. Other shops may cut a slice for you out of a wheel you can look at in advance. Be wary of cheese chunks, as there’s no way to tell where they’re from, and check the price as a red flag: If it seems too good to be true, just like that Gucci bag for $40 in New York City’s Chinatown, it probably is just that. Expect to pay around $20 per pound for a wheel slice–or nearly $1,000 for an entire, 72-pound wheel at Costco

And Don’t Even Think About Shakers and Grated “Parmesan”

If the ingredients listed on your "parmesan" read “pasteurized part-skim milk, cheese culture, salt, enzymes, cellulose powder, potassium sorbate to protect flavor” it is simply not real Parmesan. Not even close. Parmigiano Reggiano is only made with milk, salt and rennet—and the milk must come from the region in less than 20 hours from cow to cheese. “Back home in Britain,” Webb says, “all the Parmesan makers, by law, had to change the names on their cheese shakers to a unique new name that sounded a bit like Parmesan,” he says.

“My favorites included Pamesan, Pasgrasan, Parmasan and the horrifically named Rapesan,” he laughingly says. But in the United States, no such protection exists. “Parmesan is not Parmigiano Reggiano,” he says;  adding that pre-grated cheese labels might have “Italian style hard cheese” in the fine print. “That’s the giveaway that it ain’t the real deal.” The best bet is to buy real Parmigiano Reggiano and grate it yourself. 

Get a Favorite (and Trusted) Cheesemaker

“My personal favorite way to look for the highest quality Parmigiano Reggiano, though, is to look for one with a specific producer attached to it—not just ‘Parmigiano Reggiano,’” says Webb. “Sometimes it will just carry the number, like Farm # 509.” Cravero Parmigiano Reggiano is one of his personal favorites: Fifth-generation affineur Giorgio Cravero ages the cheese at a higher elevation in a cave, so it contains more moisture, resulting in a wonderful, buttery quality. Vacche Rosse is another one of Webb’s go-tos, made from the milk of a rare heritage breed of cow (Rossa Reggiana) that was saved from the brink of extinction. Use suggestions like Webb’s and talk to a cheesemonger that you trust for similar recommendations. Then stick to what you know.

Read the original article on All Recipes.