Ask Sedimentality: Cheese rinds… edible or not?

Say "cheese"!!!!!!!!!!

For this being a website about wine (with a little food and travel), I sure do talk about cheese a lot. I guess it’s hard to hide your true loves?

Today’s post stems from a question one of our readers, Jamie, had:

OK Sedimentality, I have a question for you. Maybe you can research and let us readers know?…Speaking of fine wines and cuisines… topic and question is: Fine cheeses. How does the cheese lover differentiate between the type of cheeses where you must cut off or eat around the “wax” (I call it the skin) on the outside/edges of a good cheese, vs. the type of wax that’s okay to consume? Or do you EVER eat the “wax?” Thanks!

Jamie, as a fellow cheese lover (who has many times been laughed at for eating cheese rinds) I will happily answer your question!

The short answer is: most rinds can be eaten… although some don’t taste very good. And some, like wax, are so obviously not edible that the question of whether or not to eat them isn’t really much of a question.

But when is the rind a wax rind? And when it is edible? And why do some have them, and some don’t? That is all part of our long answer, which is: there are different types of rinds (or, as you called it, “skin”) on cheeses, and they all taste different. To understand cheeses better, thus understanding their rinds and which ones are edible, we need to first understand the classification system of cheeses and the process of making these different types of quesos.

Classification Systems of Cheeses

It turns out that there are many ways to classify cheeses. I have heard of cheeses being classified as soft/semi-soft, hard/semi-hard, cheddars, blue cheeses, and goat (which never made any sense to me, since they are classifying some of those cheese by their consistency, some by the molds used to make the blue veins, and others by the animal’s milk) and I know that in France they have a rather complicated, government-controlled classification system that ensures the quality of the cheeses. Cheese classification, it turns out, is a rather boring and extensive article all on its own!

So for the sake of clarity, (and because we are talking about rinds) we will follow the tradition of classifying cheeses by the rinds. The most common groups are “no rind”, “bloomy rind”, “washed rind”, “natural rind” and then an “obvious” rind. I will briefly break them all down for you.

No Rind: Fresh cheeses (that have not been aged and are soft) do not have rinds. These include ricotta, cream cheese, mozzarella, feta cheese, and crème fraiche. These cheeses tend to be mild (since they have not had time to age and develop complex–aka, “stinky”–flavors and aromas.

Bloomy Rind: Cheeses with a soft white “skin” on the outside are called bloomy rind cheeses. This rind (which is completely edible) forms because the cheese is purposely sprayed with a mold (penicillium candidum) before the aging process begins. The moisture in the room reacts with the mold so that it grows (or “blooms”) to form the rind. Bloomy rind cheeses have been slightly aged: the aging starts on the outside (thanks to the mold), forming that soft, velvety white crust, and works its way inward so that the middle of these cheeses are often very soft, fresh and runny. Common bloomy white cheeses include brie, Camembert, Cooleeney, Mt. Tam and aged goat cheeses.

Can you eat the rind? Absolutely. Although some cheese rinds will separate from the cheese or taste a bit gritty, in which case, you can just discard it.

(At this point, I should also mention blue cheese, which gets its blue streaks from a mold as well: Penicillium roqueforti. Blue cheeses obviously don’t have a rind, but they are a group of their own according to most cheese mongers, and an article about cheese groups wouldn’t be complete without mentioning them! Common cheeses of the blue cheese group include gorgonzola and Roquefort.)

Washed Rind: Washed rind cheeses are exactly what the name implies: the rinds have been “washed” in another substance–whether it be beer, wine, brandy, brine or anything else the cheese maker thinks will impart complex flavors into the cheese. Why wash the cheese? The process helps bacteria–which add depth and flavors into the cheese–grow. Since the liquid that the cheese is washed in varies, so does the color and texture of the rinds: they can be a range of colors from pink to red to brown. Some washed rind cheeses include Raclette, Taleggio, Cowgirl Creamery’s “Red Hawk” or my new personal favorite, Barick Obama.

Washed rind cheeses. Photo courtesy of nycblondieandbrownie

This is where my answer to your question get complicated. Some washed rind cheeses have appealing, tasty rinds whose flavors add to the “experience” of eating the cheese. Others have unappealing rinds (particularly those washed in brine) that should probably be discarded. Since there are so many cheese in the world, and so many washed rinds, the best answer that I can give is: decide for yourself. Sample a little of the rind, and if it doesn’t taste good; well, don’t eat it! You don’t have to. And if anyone makes fun of you for eating/not eating the rind: send ’em my way. 🙂

Natural Rind: Bloomy rind and washed rind cheeses get their rinds because the cheese maker chooses to add them, either by washing them or by adding penicillium mold. This next group, natural rinds, contains cheeses which have a naturally occurring rind that are formed by the cheese during ripening. How does this happen? Much like how there are ambient yeasts in a cellar and on grape skins which can activate the fermentation process, thus naturally changing grape juice into wine, there are naturally occurring molds in the cheese’s environment which will form a rind on the cheese.

As the molds that make the rinds will vary, so will the flavors: some that are aged for long periods of time can be quite strong! This is why although all of the natural rinds are edible, they are not all necessarily tasty to eat. Parmigiano-Reggiano, Stilton, and Mimolette are a few examples of natural rind cheeses.

The “Obvious”: Some cheeses are covered in rinds of a different substance: herbs, nuts, dried fruits, peppercorns, etc. One of my favorites, the Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog goat cheese, has a beautiful layer of vegetable ash (yes, ash!) in the middle of it (see the photo below). Pretty much all of these rinds are used to enhance the flavor of the cheese and are supposed to be eaten. Although, obvious rinds which use inedible ingredients, such as wax or cloth, should of course not be eaten.

Photo courtesy of Cypress Grove.

Overall, it seems that when it comes to cheese rinds, there really is not a straight-forward answer. That in itself is exciting since it is a reflection of just how many cheeses there are in this world, and how much they all vary. I guess in the end, we just have to trust our instincts, eat what tastes good, discard what doesn’t… and stay away from eating wax and twigs. Guess deciphering cheese rinds isn’t that complicated after all!

Thank you, Jamie, for your question. We hope that this answer helps!

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