BRATTLEBORO—According to the qualitative research I have (inadvertently) conducted during my many years of cheesemongery, the second-scariest aspect of cheese is its exterior.
Other than, “If I don’t refrigerate this cheese within the next 20 minutes, will it instantly kill me upon contact?” the most anxiety-inducing question people have asked me is, “Can I eat the rind?”
Would that they asked me in a neutral, inquisitive tone.
The query is always accompanied with a sense of dread suggesting cheesemakers coat their product with an irresistible combination of arsenic, botulism, and radioactive isotopes, promoting instant death, or at least a bad case of agita.
So, perhaps this missive will set the record straight and offer comfort to the paranoid cheese-lover, and a needed respite for the ’mongers.
To get some expertise beyond my experiential knowledge on the topic, I spoke with Dane Huebner, microbiologist and director of research and development for Brattleboro’s own Grafton Village Cheese Company. I figured a skilled cheesemaker could help us learn a thing or two about cheese rinds.
So, let’s begin with the least-edible of the rinds: wax.
Most people are smart enough to avoid the wax coating found surrounding cheeses like Plymouth’s delicious cheddar-like products and Taylor Farm Gouda. Huebner assures us that eating the wax “won’t kill you,” so even if you chew through the packaging rather than remove it, you’ll live to buy more cheese.
Paracoat, wax’s thin-skinned cousin, confuses some. This non-toxic, copolymer-based coating is painted onto the surface of rindless cheeses to protect against moisture loss and unwanted molds.
Yellow Paracoat covers Grafton Village Cheese Company’s Vermont Leyden, the buttery, cumin seed-infused, cows’ milk cheese; many Dutch Goudas are encased in Paracoat, as well.
Huebner says: “You can eat Paracoat, but you probably shouldn’t. It’s like eating gum.” He reminds readers that Paracoat peels away easily from the cheese, so you really have no excuse.
Should you forget and shred the Paracoat along with the cheese for melting or making into a sauce, your folly will become evident when the Paracoat binds together and becomes a tough, stringy mess. Bon appetit!
One class of rind that elicits regular queries is what many cheesemongers refer to as “natural rinds.” They look like stone and are found on many aged cheeses, from semi-soft tommes like Parish Hill’s Humble Herdsman to harder cheeses like Major Farm’s Vermont Shepherd and Grafton’s Clothbound Cheddar and Shepsog.
The rinds look to be integral components of the cheese. They are generally quite thin and don’t separate easily from the paste. So, one can be forgiven for thinking they are simply part of the experience.
Can we eat this?
Should we eat this?
The technical name for this type of rind, Huebner reports, is “biofilm,” and he describes it as “a matrix of different organisms forming a network that we see as a rind.” Those different organisms include molds, yeasts, and bacteria.
While he says biofilm is edible, there’s no requirement one must consume it, contrary to any misinformed bullying you may receive.
“It’s a matter of taste,” Huebner declares. “On the harder cheeses, the rind will be too dried out” for most people to enjoy, but there’s no reason to throw the rind in the compost bin or chuck it to the dog. (Sorry, pooch.)
“You can cook with the rinds of the harder cheeses. The rind is thin,” so you won’t lose much of the cheese, Huebner says, suggesting folks “add it to your shred mix.”
But, these harder biofilm rinds taste musty, like the way a dirt-floor basement smells, so unless that’s your preferred flavor, make sure the cheese-to-rind ratio in your shred mix favors the former.
“The washed-rinds’ rinds taste better,” Huebner reports, and this cheesemonger agrees. While the exterior on harder washed-rind cheeses, such as Springbrook Farm’s Reading, or Grafton’s Bear Hill, might be too gritty and musty for some (myself included), the softer, younger cheeses in this category have more velvety rinds that enhance the experience.
I’m specifically thinking of Jasper Hill’s Winnimere and Spoonwood Cabin Creamery’s St. Em.
Like the softer washed-rinds, the bloomy-rinds such as Spoonwood’s Cabinbert and Blue Ledge Farm’s Lake’s Edge have an exterior that’s perfectly edible.
Huebner’s stance is that eating the rind with these cheeses completes the experience: “If you eat them without the rind, you’re not getting the full flavor profile. You’re missing the mushroom notes.”
You’re also missing out on real estate if you trim away the rind, because, according to Huebner, the exterior makes up about 20 percent of the cheese. Why lose that much of such a precious commodity?
The reason may be that the rinds are often in rough shape by the time you get them. The cheeses have aged out too far, they’ve been subjected to all sorts of mishandling in terms of temperature fluctuation, and the packaging might have prematurely aged them beyond optimal conditions.
Those rinds will taste terrible. Bitter, ammoniated, and with a texture either of slime-covered shoe leather or medium-grit sandpaper.
For novices, here are the basics: look for things like slimy surfaces, bloomy rinds that appear more gray than white, and if you have the chance to smell the cheese, if you get a big nose-full of ammonia, move along.
But, there are times when the rind might look a little funky but the cheese tastes great. Just like all other aspects of cheese-selection, experience provides knowledge.
And the best way to gain that experience is to keep eating cheese. There’s your mission, should you choose to accept it.