How Parmegiano Regianno (Parmesan) Cheese is Made (video)

Did you know that each large wheel of Parmesan cheese uses a half a ton of milk? Like fine wine, this is a very carefully regulated Italian industry. Authentic Parmesan cheese is made in very select regions of Italy (the towns of Parma and Reggio Emelia) and each manufacturer runs at peak capacity to fulfill the enormous world-wide demand for this popular Italian product. True Parmegiano Reggiano cheese is produced with great care and allowed to age to perfection before being literally branded with a stamp of authenticity and sent out into the world. This video, from the folks at National Geographic, takes you inside a dairy in Montova, Italy to see exactly how this famous pasta topping is made.

Parmegiano Reggiano, AKA Parmesan cheese, uses a half a ton of milk for each block, or wheel, of cheese. The cheese is made in enormous copper vats that hold 990 liters, enough for 2 giant wheels. A hard cheese, the milk for Parmesan needs to be solidified at a precise 33 degrees. Rennet, an enzyme that comes from calves stomachs, is added to slowly harden the cheese.

Strick European laws allow this cheese to be made only in authorized facilities in a special region of Italy (the towns of Parma and Reggio Emelia). Due to the enormous popularity of this culinary specialty, all manufacturers work at peak capacity to keep up with the world-wide demand.

As the rennet works its magic, the head cheese maker carefully watches for noticeable changes in the consistency of the cheese. When the time is right, the workers use special custom-made cutters to slice through the yogurt-like substance, breaking it into lumps, helping to separate the curds from the whey. The temperature is raised and the two parts separate. The solid curds fall to the bottom and the liquid whey stays on the surface.

Photo of the heating the Milk for Parmesan cheese.

Using a custom-made knife, costing over 4000 pounds. ($6265.), the cheese master cuts the enormous block of cheese at the bottom of the vat in half.

Using both old school and modern technology, a big wooden paddle lifts the two halves to be hand-wrapped in cloth and hung on a pole to drain. The old whey is sucked out of the tank at this stage.

The cheese is then removed, wrapped up and a weight added to squeeze out any excess liquid.  The cheese is put into a special teflon mold for a full 8 hours. As the cheese spreads out, the name of the dairy imprints on the side of the each wheel.

A wheel of Parmesan cheese

After 24 hours, the teflon mold is replaced with a metal mold. As the cheese sinks down further, it takes on the characteristic wheel shape with a flat top and bottom and curved sides.

After a few days in the molds, the wheels are put through a brine bath which actually improves the cheesy smell. The wheels are left in the salty brine for a full month to enhance the flavor before being taken out and dried.

The wheels are then taken the ripening room.The contents of the enormous room are estimated to have a total value of over 17,000,000 pounds ($226, 220,000.) The freshly made wheels are left to ripen slowly for up to 2 years.

Wheels of Parmesan cheese in storage

To avoid growing mold, they must be turned at least once every two weeks. A continually working robotic turning machine does this task.

As the Parmesan matures, the workers keep a close eye on it. The head cheese maker taps on the wheel to check on the quality. He can tell just from the sound if the cheese is maturing correctly. A tiny slice is removed using a long, sharp corkscrew for the taste test.

If up to snuff, the wheel is finally branded with a quality seal and sent out into the world.

Grated Parmesan cheese on a board

NOTE: Authentic Parmesan cheese can be quite expensive. However, a very small amount of this freshly grated cheese adds such fabulous flavor that there really is no substitute. The dried product in the ubiquitous shaker can often has fillers in it which is why it requires more of it to add any flavor to a dish. Try a tiny wedge for yourself and discover why this cheese is in such high demand - and can make or break a pasta recipe. Like a good quality olive oil...it's worth it!

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