I’m confused about cheese rinds. Are they safe to eat? Is it rude to leave them on my plate?
Rattled by Rinds
You’re not alone: This is the question most frequently asked of cheese professionals. The short answer is, unless a cheese is waxed or bandaged, the rind is safe to eat and it’s a matter of personal preference.
It helps to understand what the rind is and what purpose it serves. Think of the rind as the skin of the cheese. Its function is to keep the surface of the cheese from being exposed to air, which also serves to protect the interior, or paste. Rind formation happens organically as part of the aging process (this is why fresh cheeses, like our chevre, don’t have rinds- they’re not aged), but the much of the art of cheesemaking lies in controlling the rind development and aging process with the right combination of bacteria (molds, yeasts, etc.), temperature and humidity.
If the rind cracks, unwanted microorganisms can enter the cheese, causing off flavors or spoilage. The style or type of rind on a cheese can reflect the climate, region or simply the cheesemaker’s personal preference. It also contributes to a cheese’s final taste and texture, to varying degrees.
Note that the cheese industry doesn’t have regulatory terms when it comes to classifying styles of cheese or rinds, so depending upon who you talk to or what you read, terminology may vary. Some cheeses also fit into more than one category (say, a washed rind that also has a mold like Geotrichum added to it, like the French cheese Langres). Read on for a crash course on rinds, so you can hold court at your next cocktail party.
Also known as surface-ripened or bloomy-rind cheeses, these are ripened from the outside surface inward, because of the molds used in their production- primarily Penicillum candidum or Geotrichum candidum. These molds what give these cheeses their distinctive white to pale-yellow, beige, or grayish rinds, which may be velvety, chalky, or wrinkly (this last is a characteristic of Geotrichum) in texture, and earthy, mushroomy or floral in flavor. The most well-known soft-ripened cheeses are Brie and Camembert; our Haystack Peak and Snowdrop are soft-ripened.
Exposure to air- and the ambient microorganisms that exist in a given environment- are what contributes to the formation of these cheeses; they don’t have additional bacteria or mold added to the milk or curd. Sometimes, natural rind cheeses are rubbed with fat, like olive oil or lard, or bound with cloth (see final entry, below) to prevent cracking. Our Queso de Mano is a natural rind cheese.
These are your “stinky” cheeses. Their rinds- which may be orange, pinkish, yellow, or reddish- are the result of a bacteria called Brevibacterium linens. B. linens can be naturally occurring, but it’s usually added to the brine or other liquid (beer, wine, spirits, et al.) used to “wash” the cheese as it ages. Washed rinds usually smell stronger than they taste, and they’re particularly compatible with beer (just sayin’). Fun fact: B. linens is the same bacteria that flourishes on human feet, which is why some washed rind cheeses smell like…you get the picture.
The most famous washed rind cheeses include Epoisses, Livarot and Pont l’Eveque. Our Red Cloud and Funkmeister are washed with brine, and A Cheese Named Sue is washed with Oskar Blues G’Knight Imperial Red IPA.
Bandaged/Clothbound, waxed, or coated
Bandaging, waxing or coating cheese (with olive oil or other fats, or spices) prevents cracking and inhibits the growth of unwanted microorganisms; the addition of spices and other ground aromatics also enhance the flavor of cheese. Waxed cheeses like our Vaquero Jack or Buttercup– are encased in a food-grade coating that should be removed for consumption (most bandaged cheeses have their wrappings removed before purchase).
One final tip: When confronted with a cheese plate at a party or dinner, resist the impulse to excavate the paste from the rind (the result is not pretty). If you’d prefer not to eat the rind, simply discard it on your plate.