I used to work behind a cheese counter, and the most common question I received (after What’s your favorite one?) was: Can I eat the outside? It’s a valid concern. The outside of cheese can appear rippled and fuzzy, waxy, oddly colored, and sometimes even printed on—a far cry from the creamy uniformity of the inside. Customers gladly nibbled away at the paste but were unsure about the crunchier outside. A few dared to down the whole affair while others tossed the outer edges, but the curious bunch always asked. The response, unlike the spots on a dairy cow, is not black and white.
So, can you eat the rind? The shortest answer is: well, yes and no. To better explain, I called the folks at Bedford Cheese Shop, the New York cheese counter where I used to work. I spoke to a monger named Emily, and here’s what she had to say:
“You can totally eat the rind as long as it’s not man-made, like wax on Goudas. Natural and bloomy rinds you should eat, because they enhance the flavor of the cheese. As for Parmesan, you can technically eat the rind, because it’s natural, but it doesn’t really add much to the flavor of the cheese.” Thanks, Emily. So, what exactly is she getting at here?
There are many ways you can cut the cake when it comes to cheese varietals (goat, sheep, cow; hard, soft; Spanish, Italian, French; pasteurized, unpasteurized), but Emily was homing in on the differences between cheese with natural rinds and ones with nonnatural, man-made ones. The kooky thing about cheese exteriors is that they often form on their own. That stiffer outside you may be avoiding (or eating!) is actually just the result of exposure to air. Those outsides, like the milky one on your Brie or the brittle one on that manchego, form during the cheeses’ aging process. The reason they all look and feel different has to do with the type of milk used, the humidity of the cave in which they were aged, and whether the cheese wheel was washed with something special (beer! wine! coffee!). All these factors figure into the texture and taste of a cheese, both inside and out. Many consider a cheese rind too bitter to consume (kinda like the pith of an orange) while others swear by it. It’s totally a personal choice, but definitely not dangerous.
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On the flip side are cheeses that are encased with something that doesn’t naturally occur. Take, for example, a Gouda. Those sweet and grassy Dutch wheels are wrapped in wax that—speaking from experience—is not edible. I once had to advise a customer to spit out the wax after mistakenly telling her she could eat it. I mean, you wouldn’t eat the outside of a Mini Babybel would you? Same thing.
And lastly we have Parmesan, that trusty table cheese. As Emily said, go for it, but proceed with caution. Parmesan rind is often chewy and tough and doesn’t add much to the overall flavor experience. If you’re left with a Parmesan rind, why not toss it into a stock, or let its salty goodness brighten a tomato sauce. Just because you don’t want to eat it doesn’t mean you can’t use it.
When it comes to rinds, are you an eater or a tosser? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.