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Rinds and Reason

Bloomy. Washed.  Waxed. Bandaged. From white to orange, wax to fabric, no two cheese rinds are the same. And they puzzle people – one of the most common questions I hear at a cheese tasting is, “What about the rind? Can I eat it?”

I refrain from making jokes like, “You wouldn’t if you knew what goes on in the depths of the cheese cave” or “No! It’s poison!” People will believe anything when it comes to food and eating – just look at the breadth of the diet section in a Barnes and Noble.

Sure, you can eat the rind. You won’t get sick. But I think of it in terms of a very basic question: Do I want this to be my last taste?

There’s no universal rule for cheese rind consumption. If I had to point to one person who could definitively answer the question, it would be the cheesemaker who created the wheel in question. But without the cheesemaker at our dinner table – alas! – I’ve learned, after eating a heck of a lot of cheese, some basic principles about what to eat.

Let’s start with an easy win: mozzarella. It has no rind at all! Same with ricotta, burrata, feta, cotija … no question there, enjoy them in their milky entirety.

Some of my favorite cheese is the huge wheels of mountain-style cheeses like Comté or Bitto. I find these rinds to be the mildest in flavor, practically bland by the time you eat to their edge. Munch away – why not?

Then there’s Parmigiano-Reggiano, and its two cousins in the grana family, Trentingrana and Grana Padano. They’ve been soaked in brine before they’re aged in massive caves across the Po River Valley in Italy, where robots wipe and flip each 40kg wheel weekly. I love these hard rinds – not just to nibble but also to flavor soup stock. Thrown into a pot to simmer for hours, they bring a second life to your piece of Parmigiano. And I’ll admit, I sometimes toss one to my dog; he gnaws on it like a marrowbone with contented sighs.

For bloomy rind cheeses, there tends to be some variability in rind flavor. For triple-crème cheeses such as St. André or Kunik, the rind is thinner, harder to separate from the cheese, and by design I end up eating some of it. For a truly ripe Brie de Meaux and Brie de Melun, the rind can take on bit of an ammonia quality – it’s not my first choice for my last bite. I am always surprised when people plow through an entire Brie, rind and all.

I saved the best for last: the pungent, bright orange ends of washed rind cheeses. Washed in brandy, beer or other beverages, these cheeses take on a reddish color and a striking odor. Inside, they tend to be the most buttery and savory, and are often soft. For softer cheeses on the stickier side like Époisses or Taleggio, I like to stick with their creamy centers. For wheels on the firmer crunchier side like Raclette or Fontina whose rinds are harder, I nibble with abandon.

And of course, if a wax-dipped cheddar or clothbound chedder roles my way, I’ll peel the inedible substance back before cutting the cheese.

So the golden rule of eating cheese rind is “It depends.” And that’s a good thing – because it depends on you and your taste buds, not rules.

Follow my epicurean adventures on Twitter @KathrynAndersen

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