If you're like me, you’ll agree that few sights are more beautiful than a fully loaded charcuterie board, complete with every variety of cheese from smoked Gouda to Taleggio. But if you're also like me, you might look at a wedge of Parmesan, admiring the dark yellow exterior, and think, "wait, can I eat that part?" And wanting to keep up the appearance that you are well-versed in the world of cheese consumption, you do not dare to ask.
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Well, wonder silently no more. Although an off-colored rind might look suspicious, many cheese rinds are perfectly suitable for eating. Edible rinds fall into 3 categories: bloomy rinds, washed rinds, and natural rinds. Once you know what to look for, you can determine whether or not the rind is edible even if you don’t recognize the exact cheese on your plate. In fact, there’s a lot you can tell about the flavor profile of the cheese itself just by looking at the rind.
Now, just because a rind is edible doesn’t mean is it flavorful or will enhance your cheese-eating experience. Some can be tough, bitter, or overly pungent. Whether you want to eat them or not, well, that’s completely up to you. But if you do find yourself leaving the rind behind, toss that cheese shell into a soup or try out this cheese stock recipe rather than letting it go to waste.
The soft, almost velvety rinds that you see on soft cheeses like Brie and Camembert are made from yeast, fungus, or mold spores that bloom when the cheese is in a humid environment. Once it finishes blooming, a soft skin forms on the exterior. The live rind then breaks down the fat inside to yield a soft, beautiful cheese. As unpleasant as that may sound, these rinds are crucial in forming the creamy cheeses we love, as well as providing a mild, pleasant flavor and a bit of structure to the soft cheese inside (especially after it’s been oven-baked). As a general rule, if the rind is soft and creamy, you’re good to go.
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The rinds you’ll find on Fontina and Gruyere are not only some of the most flavorful, but they also require the most effort and close attention. These rinds form when the artisan cheese is continually bathed in a solution (like a salt water brine), creating an environment on the outside of the cheese where a variety of controlled bacteria can thrive. That bacteria is responsible for the reddish color and “funky” smells of the rind, but it also promotes ripening and flavor development. Washed rind cheeses can be hard or soft, but both varieties have a distinguished red-orange outer hue.
Requiring the least amount of human interaction, natural rinds form when cheeses are left to dry in humidity and temperature-controlled environments. Essentially, they’re the result of a cheese’s exposure to air. With hard cheeses, the rinds are usually tough, chewy, and not incredibly tasty, but it has been said that the best pieces of cheese you’ll find in a wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano are the ones closest to the rind.
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The same way you wouldn’t eat the outside of a Mini Babybel, look out for inedible rinds made of wax, plastic, cloth, etc. Synthetic rinds are used to prevent a natural rind from forming in the cheese-making process, giving you cheeses like cheddar or Gouda that have a consistent texture throughout. If the rind looks suspicious, try peeling it off. If you can remove it easily, it’s man-made and probably not too tasty.
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