What is the difference between chicken parmigiana and parmesan?

Quick Answer

Chicken parmigiana and parmesan are two different Italian-inspired dishes that are often confused. Parmigiana refers to a dish made with breaded meat or eggplant that is baked with tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese. Parmesan refers to a hard Italian cheese made from cow’s milk.

What is Chicken Parmigiana?

Chicken parmigiana, often referred to simply as “chicken parm,” is a classic Italian-American dish made from breaded chicken cutlets that are baked with tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese.

The name “parmigiana” implies the dish contains parmesan cheese, but traditional chicken parmigiana recipes do not actually contain parmesan cheese. Instead, the name refers to the method of preparation, which involves breading and baking the chicken to create a golden, crispy coating similar to eggplant parmigiana.

Here are some key features of classic chicken parmigiana:

  • Chicken breast pounded thin and dredged in flour, egg, and breadcrumbs to form crispy cutlets
  • Cutlets baked with tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese
  • Does not contain parmesan cheese, despite the name
  • Garnished with parsley and additional Parmesan or Romano cheese
  • Served over pasta and topped with extra sauce

The crisp, cheesy chicken cutlets and rich tomato sauce make chicken parmigiana a comfort food favorite. It likely originated from Southern Italy, where eggplant parmigiana is a traditional dish. Italian immigrants brought chicken parmigiana to America, where it became popular across Italian-American restaurants and households in the 20th century.

How is Chicken Parmigiana Made?

Making chicken parmigiana is a multi-step process, but each step builds flavor. Here is an overview:

Bread and flatten the chicken

The chicken breast is sliced horizontally to create two thin cutlets that will cook quickly and become crispy. The chicken cutlets are seasoned, dredged in flour, dipped in egg wash, then coated with breadcrumbs. Panko or Italian-style breadcrumbs work best for creating a crispy crust.

Pan fry the cutlets

The breaded cutlets are pan fried in olive oil or vegetable oil on both sides until golden brown and cooked through. Pan frying achieves an initial crispiness.

Top with sauce and cheese

The fried cutlets are layered in a baking dish and topped with tomato sauce and sliced mozzarella cheese. Parmesan cheese is often sprinkled between the layers too.


The cooking is finished by baking the sauced chicken in the oven. This melts the cheese and further crisps the crust. Fresh parsley is sprinkled on top when serving.

Key Ingredients in Chicken Parmigiana

These core ingredients are used to make classic chicken parmigiana:

  • Chicken breast – Typically split breasts pounded into thin cutlets
  • Flour – For dredging the chicken before breading
  • Eggs – Whisked to make the egg wash adherence coating
  • Breadcrumbs – Panko or Italian-style for crispy texture
  • Olive oil – For pan frying the cutlets
  • Tomato sauce – Smooth, rich marinara sauce
  • Mozzarella cheese – Fresh mozzarella, sliced or shredded
  • Parsley – Chopped fresh parsley for garnish

Recipes may also include grated Parmesan cheese sprinkled between the layers or dashes of Italian seasoning in the breading.

What is Parmesan Cheese?

Parmesan cheese is a hard Italian cheese named after the Parma region of Italy, where it originally was produced. Authentic Parmesan comes from this designated origin; Parmesan produced elsewhere is called “Parmesan-style” or “Parmesan-type” cheese.

Here are the characteristics of real Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese:

  • Made from cow’s milk
  • Aged 1 to over 3 years
  • Hard, gritty texture
  • Pale yellow color
  • Sharp, complex flavor
  • Granular when grated

True Parmesan has a distinct salty, nutty, umami flavor. It crumbles when grated due to its low moisture content. The long aging process allows the cheese to develop its signature taste.

Parmesan is frequently used grated as a seasoning for pastas, pizzas, risottos, and other Italian dishes. It also can be eaten in chunks or flakes. Because it is hard and low in moisture, Parmesan has a long shelf life, lasting several months when properly stored.

Key Differences Between Chicken Parmigiana and Parmesan

Chicken parmigiana and Parmesan cheese may sound similar, but they are very different ingredients:

Chicken Parmigiana

  • A breaded chicken dish
  • Contains chicken cutlets, tomato sauce, cheese
  • Baked to melt cheese and make coating crispy
  • Served as an entree
  • Originates from Southern Italy

Parmesan Cheese

  • A type of hard cheese
  • Made from cow’s milk
  • Aged 1 year or more to develop flavor
  • Used grated as a seasoning
  • Originated in Parma, Italy

The main similarities are that they both come from Italian cuisine traditions, but they are completely different foods with distinct uses.

Does Chicken Parmigiana Contain Parmesan?

Chicken parmigiana recipes traditionally do not contain Parmesan cheese, which often causes confusion due to the name. Chicken parmigiana is made with mozzarella cheese instead.

However, many modern recipes call for sprinkling Parmesan on top of the chicken parmigiana. The grated Parmesan adds another layer of cheesy flavor and texture.

Using Parmesan is an acceptable adaptation, though not mandatory for classic chicken parmigiana. The important point is that parmesan is never a core ingredient – only an optional topping.

Can You Substitute Parmesan for Mozzarella in Chicken Parm?

Mozzarella is the classic cheese paired with chicken parmigiana because it melts smoothly when baked. Fresh mozzarella gives the best results in terms of texture and flavor.

However, Parmesan can be substituted if you don’t have fresh mozzarella on hand. Here are some tips for using Parmesan as the cheese:

  • Use shredded or grated Parmesan so it melts easier.
  • Mix Parmesan with some shredded provolone or Italian blend to improve melting.
  • Scatter extra Parmesan on top of the sauced chicken before baking.
  • Increase oven temperature slightly to help melt the Parmesan.

Parmesan will give chicken parmigiana a sharper, more pungent cheese flavor. Melting may be uneven compared to mozzarella, but the dish will still be tasty. Combining Parmesan with other shredded cheese helps counteract any issues.

What Cheese Can I Use If I Don’t Have Parmesan?

If you want to sprinkle cheese on top of chicken parmigiana but don’t have Parmesan, here are some suitable alternatives:

  • Pecorino Romano – Sharp sheep’s milk cheese from Italy. Similar salty flavor.
  • Grana Padano – Hard Italian cheese with sweet, nutty taste.
  • Asiago – Firm Italian cheese with tangy flavor.
  • Romano – Strong, crumbly cheese from Italy.
  • Manchego – Nutty, buttery Spanish cheese.

Any hard, grated Italian cheese can be used instead of Parmesan to top chicken parm. Experiment to find your favorite flavor.

Can I Make Chicken Parmesan Without Parmesan Cheese?

It is absolutely possible to make chicken parmesan without any Parmesan cheese at all. Simply prepare it with:

  • Breaded chicken cutlets
  • Tomato sauce
  • Mozzarella cheese

Skip topping the chicken with grated Parmesan or any substitute cheeses. You’ll still end up with the recognizable flavors and textures of chicken parmigiana without Parmesan.

Some benefits of making chicken parm this way include:

  • More authentic Italian-American recipe
  • Allows the fresh mozzarella flavor to shine
  • One fewer ingredient to buy
  • Easier recipe for those with Parmesan allergies

The cheese-topped breaded chicken bakes up crispy and saucy regardless of whether Parmesan is included or not. Feel free to tailor recipes to your taste preferences.

Do Italians Actually Eat Chicken Parmesan?

Chicken parmesan is considered an Italian-American dish rather than true Italian cuisine. It evolved from traditional Italian eggplant parmigiana to become popular in the United States.

Chicken parmesan as we know it today is not widely eaten in Italy. However, Italy does have some similar breaded, baked meat dishes such as cotoletta alla Milanese (breaded veal cutlets).

There are a few key reasons chicken parmigiana is not authentic to Italy:

  • Light breading is not typical – Italians bread cutlets thinner for crunch
  • Tomato sauce is served under, not over, cutlets
  • Mozzarella is less common than Parmesan or Pecorino cheese

That said, some restaurants in Italy have started serving more Americanized dishes like chicken parmesan to appeal to tourists. It may not originate from Italy, but it certainly borrows the flavors of Italian cuisine.

Other Common Questions

Is it chicken parmesan or chicken parmigiana?

Both names are acceptable. In Italian, the dish is called pollo alla parmigiana, so parmigiana is technically correct. But the shorthand “parmesan” is very common.

Is chicken parmesan healthy?

Chicken parm contains healthy ingredients like chicken and tomatoes, but it is high in calories from being breaded and fried. Going light on sauce and enjoying it occasionally can keep it as part of a balanced diet.

Can I make chicken parmesan ahead of time?

Yes, assemble the dish then refrigerate up to a day in advance. When ready to eat, bake until hot and bubbly. The chicken may lose some crispiness when baked twice, but it still tastes great.

Can I freeze chicken parmesan?

You can freeze assembled, uncooked chicken parm dishes for 1-3 months. Thaw in the refrigerator before baking until heated through. It may lose texture but works well for quick meals.

What wine pairs well with chicken parmesan?

Chicken parmesan pairs nicely with Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Chianti, or Sangiovese wines. Avoid heavy reds that will clash with the tomato sauce.


Chicken parmigiana and Parmesan cheese are two staples of Italian cooking that share a name but have distinct identities. Chicken parm originated from Southern Italy then became popular in the United States, featuring breaded cutlets baked with tomato sauce and mozzarella. Parmesan is a hard aged cheese from the Parma region, used grated to add rich, nutty flavor. While chicken parmigiana recipes don’t require Parmesan, the cheeses can be used together for a flavorful Italian-inspired meal. Both ingredients have secured their place in Italian-American cuisine yet remain unique.

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