Perhaps one of the most-asked questions posed by cheese eaters everywhere is: "Do I eat the rind?" The answer to this question, like all good questions, is, "It depends."
Whether or not you choose to eat the rind on a cheese varies on the type of cheese, the type of rind, and the type of taste buds you possess. No two people, no two cheese types, and quite often, no two rinds, are the same.
For example, my husband eats every rind of every cheese, every time it is offered. Keep in mind this is also the man who eats lemon and lime wedges like they were candy, rind and all. Personally, I'm a bit pickier about which rinds I eat.
Rinds, simply put, are the outside layer that form on a cheese during the cheesemaking and aging process. Most rinds (except for wax, cloth or bark - which I have seen people actually eat, by the way) are naturally edible and will enhance a cheese's overall flavor. Some varieties, such as Brick and Colby, are ripened in plastic film or other protective coating to prevent rind formation. Colby and Cheddar may have a bandage or wax coating which needs to be removed prior to eating. Other cheese, such as Feta, are rindless because they are not allowed to ripen.
Most other types of cheeses will feature a rind. Depending on the type - whether it be bloomy, washed, or natural - I always recommend at least trying a small portion to see what flavor, if any, the rind adds. If the rind subtracts from the overall enjoyment of the cheese, stop immediately and just eat the paste. But if the rind changes the flavor, or improves the experience, go for it. Just remember, the cheese, not the rind, should take the spotlight.
Here are a few types of cheese rinds:
Bloomy Rinds are white and soft, sometimes even fuzzy - think Camembert or Brie. Cheesemakers spray a solution containing edible mold spores (Penicillium candidum, camemberti or glaucum) on the cheese. Humidity in the room where the cheese is ripened encourages this mold to grow, or bloom, and form a rind. The only reason you might not want to eat a bloomy rind is if the rind has separated from the cheese somewhat, has a gritty texture, has bloomed dark-colored mold, or sports an ammoniated flavor.
Washed Rinds are among the most unique and flavorful of artisan cheeses. The product of exacting science, skilled cheesemaking and labor-intensive affinage, these cheeses are bathed regularly during aging with a bacterial solution to promote ripening and flavor development. Big and bold, the category comprises Old World classics such as Gruyere, Limburger and Fontina, as well as Wisconsin originals like Brick, Pleasant Ridge Reserve, Benedictine and Canaria - cheeses that marry European techniques and American ingenuity. These are some of the most interesting rinds to try, and if you're my husband, you'll eat them all, every time.
Natural Rinds form with the least amount of intervention. In the temperature and humidity controlled rooms where cheeses are aged, air naturally dries out the outside of cheese. Over time, this forms a crust on the outside of the cheese which becomes its rind. Cheesemakers monitor this process and sometimes rub the rind with oil or other natural ingredients as it forms. The natural rinds of hard cheeses, especially Parmesan, are wonderful for flavoring soups and stocks, but are often too hard to just eat out of hand. Freeze your leftover rinds in resealable bags so you always have one handy.
Perhaps the best advice I've ever received about tasting cheese and eating rinds came from Daphne Zepos, who led a tasting seminar at the 2010 American Cheese Society conference. Daphne says no matter what type of cheese you're tasting, always "dig into the heel" - the portion between the rind and paste, which is any cheese's "most vulnerable spot." That one bite will lead you to discover the true taste of a cheese, and is like "going into the church through the trap door."
Happy cheese (and rind) eating!