Parmesan Cheese, or Parmigiano-Reggiano as the Italians say, is known as the King of Cheeses and for good reason.
When you make your favorite Italian meal, there is no doubt that Parmesan cheese is either in the dish or will be shredded and sprinkled on top of the dish.
Think of spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna, garlic bread, or a fresh Caesar salad.
These popular ethnic faves just wouldn’t be complete without the aged, nutty, salty Parmesan goodness we love to sprinkle.
Why Is Parmesan Cheese So Expensive? (Top 10 Reasons)
1. Parmesan Cheese Is Made By Hand
Parmesan cheese is produced using raw milk straight from cows that graze on Northern Italy’s hillside grasses.
This region is extremely small, with only a few cities.
The land produces special bacteria so when the dairy cows eat the grass, it is digested and then passed on through their milk which is used to make the special Parmesan cheese.
Parmesan cheese is made by hand just as the monks did more than a thousand years ago.
This painstaking tradition has not changed throughout time.
This special Italian-made cheese also has a long aging period providing its distinct harder consistency which is popular for shredding and grating.
Italy reports a $2.5 billion Parmesan cheese industry.
Parmesan cheese is one of Italy’s largest exports.
That’s a whole lot of cheese that is beloved throughout the entire world.
2. Location, Location, Location
You might be familiar with the term location, location, location.
This is very true of Parmesan cheese production.
One main and important reason authentic Parmesan cheese is so expensive is location.
Parmigiano, the Italian name, is made in a special, very quaint location in northern Italy.
The area of Emilia Romania is very small and includes the cities of Parma and Reggio Emilia, hence the cheese’s name, Parmigiano Reggiano.
These lands grow grasses that feature special good bacteria that give the beloved Italian cheese its classic taste and texture.
Rumor has it that there are only 329 dairies in the entire world that are able to create Parmesan, thus making it a supply and demand issue, adding to the higher price.
It takes approximately 131 gallons of milk to create a single wheel of delicious Parmesan cheese.
3. Lengthy Crafting Time Frame
Parmesan cheese is made basically the same way today as it was made many years ago.
Traditional Parmesan has three basic ingredients: milk, salt, and rennet.
Rennet is a natural enzyme from the calf intestines.
Fresh whole milk and day-old skim milk are poured into copper kettles, the ingredients are combined to create a yogurt-like texture.
The cheese master, who is an expert at his craft, then takes the mixture, and using a special utensil, divides it into curds.
The curds are cooked to kill bad bacteria, which is a very important part of the cheese-making process.
Only the good bacteria will continue on the Parmesan journey.
Next, the mixture, which weighs more than 200 pounds, is put into a mold, and formed into a wheel.
A wheel of cheese is actually a block of cured cheese that is covered by a protective rind.
Just like Parmesan, most types of cheese are made in the shape of wheels.
This is a process that usually includes several people who use their hands, instead of a machine.
A very special soft linen cloth is used to lift all the liquid from the cheese.
The linen cloth is removed and replaced every two or three hours until all moisture is gone.
Then a special mark is stenciled onto the rind, so customers know it is truly a product of Italy and has been produced the same way the monks did it centuries ago.
4. Aging Process
Parmesan cheese requires a lengthy aging process before it is ready for the market.
This is one more reason that Parmesan cheese is so expensive and delicious.
After the wheels of cheese are ready, they are plunged into a special brine where they stay completely immersed for approximately 20 days.
Then the important aging process begins.
Wheels are put on special shelves and remain untouched for up to one year.
Some of the world’s most delicious and authentic wheels are aged anywhere from two to three years all the way up to 10 long, delicious years.
This creates a stronger, distinctive taste, authentic texture, and a much higher price tag!
Only wheels stamped with a classic “Parmigiano Reggiano” stencil create the classic “Parmigiano Reggiano” rind.
The aging process also provides a dryer, nuttier cheese that fans have come to love and adore.
Parm that has aged this long can cost up to $20 per pound.
5. Importing Parmesan Cheese Is Extremely Expensive Due To Tariffs
Importing products like Parmesan cheese from Italy into the United States is expensive.
Many American gourmet cheese suppliers have been importing cheese for many years.
They know a good, no, a great product when they have it, so they stay committed to their Italian Parmesan cheese suppliers and will not shop around for a lower price.
The quality of their Parmesan cheese is imperative to them and their customers.
Throughout the years, importing cheese has become more and more expensive due to tariffs and other financial requirements for bringing food into the United States.
A tariff is an expensive tax imposed by one country on the goods and services imported from another country.
This includes Parmesan cheese.
Some suppliers order and receive more than 40,000 pounds of cheese from Italy on a weekly or even a bi-weekly basis.
It arrives at airports via jets and shipyards via container ships via the ocean.
Then it is loaded on semi-trucks and makes its way over land to distributors, restaurants, superstores, and specialty markets.
This is quite impressive and expensive for one supplier, but it’s the tariffs that are passed on to the consumer via increased cheese prices.
Suppliers have no other choice if they don’t want to lose money.
They know their customers will pay whatever the price is for their authentic Italian-produced Parmesan cheese.
6. Tariffs And Taxes Is Passed On To Consumers
As we mentioned before, the costs of tariffs and special food licenses that are required are passed onto the consumer, so the price of Parmesan Cheese gets more expensive.
The tariffs could raise the price up to 15 percent!
To protect the rights of the dairy and cheese farmers, there is a Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese Consortium, which considers all the additional tariffs an attack that could threaten the Italian dairy industry.
Parmesan cheese isn’t the only food import that has high tariffs.
More than 800 products including apples, artichokes, wine, bourbon, peanut butter, salmon, soybeans, sausage casings, and sorghum are also hit with extra fees.
Parmesan is in good company and not alone in the tariff world.
7. Not All Parmesan Cheese Is Created Equal
Not all Parmesan cheese, known as the King of Cheese, is created equal.
This makes the real Parmesan more expensive than others which include cellulose powder, sorbate, and other preservatives and unhealthy ingredients to help extend the shelf life and enhance the flavor.
Cellulose is a common anti-clumping ingredient made from wood pulp.
That’s called food fraud and not being transparent—a no-no when trying to inspire good customer loyalty.
Let the buyer and cheese lover beware.
Pay attention to the label because you don’t want to be fooled by a cheesy imposter.
Brands like Kraft, among others, whose label reads 100 percent Grated Parmesan Cheese include these additional ingredients.
Could the label possibly mean 100 percent grated?
We’re not totally sure, but if you are looking for the real Parmesan experience, look for products with no added preservatives.
If you need to, get your magnifying glasses.
Sometimes the label’s fine print gives you the bigger picture.
Kraft is not the only company that packages its so-called Parmesan cheese as authentic.
Imitations from other cheese suppliers are produced in the United States, Argentina, and South America, too.
The law is involved in some cases where labels are misleading to the innocent customer.
Thousands of dollars in legal fees to protect the true Parmesan suppliers have been paid.
Some cases have been won, others have not. It’s a slippery slope in packaging and labeling laws.
Remember, true Parmesan cheese only contains three ingredients that are from a specific Italian region.
Read the labels and check for the right ingredients.
You’ll be glad you did.
8. Imposter Cheese
A wheel of Parmesan cheese can cost more than $1,000!
A quality Parmigiano-Reggiano can cost up to $11 per pound, and cheese that is aged up to 10 years can cost up to $15 per pound.
To some cheese lovers and foodies, this is totally worth every single penny, but to put it into perspective, Parmesan cheese costs twice as much as cheddar cheese, another tasty, salty cheese.
Italy has struggled for years to prevent imposters from ruining its reputation.
As a matter of fact, the black market for cheese is so large, it has become an industry of its own that is valued at 13 billion dollars!
Some countries have laws against fakes, but others do not, making it very difficult to fight.
This is another reason Parmesan cheese is so expensive.
As a matter of fact, Parmigiano-Reggiano is a trademarked term, but Parmesan is not.
Simply put, think about how Scotch Tape and Kleenex and Band-Aid are brand names which have become the generic names for all products of their types.
This is what is happening with the term Parmesan cheese.
9. The Parmesan Black Market Is Why Parmesan Cheese Is So Expensive
You’ve heard of bootleggers, right?
Now, how about cheese-leggers?
You have to love that ironic term, but not what these thieves and wrongdoers are doing.
Yes, the cheese-legger black market is truly a real thing!
The black market is growing each and every day for many industries, including Parmesan cheese, and all cheeses.
It is put into the same group as other companies producing imposters.
These black-market thieves work hard to make consumers think they are on the up and up.
Two ways you can tell if your Parmesan is legitimate is to look for the Parmigiano-Reggiano stencil, a label with the Parmigiano-Reggiano official logo, and the use protected designation of origin label.
Otherwise, your cheese might be an imposter and include additional ingredients, unlike the real deal.
That said, since cheese is so popular and such a lucrative business, it is a target for thieves and the underground black market.
It is much bigger than a few shoplifters hiding cheese in their pockets and walking out the door without paying.
This happens, too, but only at the retail level.
The black market is huge!
It is estimated that the entire cheese industry grew to the tune of more than $114 billion in 2019 and is steadily growing.
It is also estimated and reported that four percent of cheese produced is stolen, so it tops the list of stolen foods.
Other products topping the most stolen list with cheese are fresh meat, alcohol, chocolate, and baby formula.
Cheese is in really good company.
10. Pandemic Fallout
The COVID-19 pandemic is causing the prices of groceries, including Parmesan cheese, to soar.
Parmesan is a hard cheese that has to age, and it takes time to produce.
Plus, it has to be shipped across the ocean to reach its destination.
This takes time, money, and access, all of which have been affected in 2020 and 2021.
This activity has been extremely difficult due to all the restrictions on travel and international business during the shutdown.
Parmesan cheese has skyrocketed in price to the tune of between 40 and 60 percent since Spring 2020!
Since cheese lovers appreciate the authentic origin and taste of the real Italian Parmesan cheese, the market will accept the price hike and just might use a little less than they did before the pandemic hit our world, or they will continue to use the same amount as before and ignore the price increase.
The bottom line is the cost of producing Parmesan cheese must be passed on to the consumer as always, and if they want to enjoy it, they will pay more for it.
The local gourmet specialty cheese shops that had a difficult time getting any products during the pandemic are now beginning to stock their shelves again with imported cheeses and other favorite products.
If they are still in business, they will appreciate the support from their best customers who will decide to shop small instead of buying from big box stores and online suppliers.
Prices will also increase significantly at restaurants where Parmesan cheese is used in recipes and specialty items.
Hopefully, the establishments won’t settle for imposter or black market Parmesan cheese and stay true to authentic quality cheese.
Whether the Parmesan is used as a special ingredient in a popular Italian menu item or shaved, shredded, or melted on top of a dish, the prices will be more expensive than before.
Customers dining at a favorite restaurant who are used to asking for additional Parmesan cheese without paying extra might see it added to the bill.
This is happening to salad dressings, too.
Before the pandemic, extra salad dressing was provided at no cost.
Now there may be a 75-cent line item added to the bill.
It was a very difficult year for restaurants and specialty retail shops, and now they must do whatever it takes to recover from their losses.
There are many factors that answer the question, “Why is Parmesan cheese so expensive?”
We have provided the top 10 reasons, including the hike in prices due to COVID-19 supply and demand.
First, authentic Parmigiano Reggiano is produced exclusively with raw milk from cattle grazing on the local grasslands and hillsides of a small area in northern Italy.
It is a hard block of cheese that features an unparalleled aged flavor and texture beloved for its significant nuttiness.
The longer it ages, the better it tastes, and the more expensive it becomes.
Parmesan fans will pay the price to enjoy this must-have ingredient in special recipes, Charcuterie boards, and shredded on top of Italian favorites.