Jun 29, 2011

Cheese Man, can I eat the rind?

One question. Two answers! My cheese inquisitor gets bang for the buck, since this is actually 2 questions. So hot shot:

Part Une: Is it edible?
Part Deux: Would I want to eat it, just 'cos I can?

Before we go there, let's go HERE: what are rinds? They're the protective coating around the cheese. Put more accurately, "What goes around becomes a rind!" Sometimes the rind (protective coating) is simply there as a containment vessel - a holding tank, if you will. More often (thankfully), the rind adds greatly to the discernment of the cheese - aesthetics, or taste experience.

Some cheeses are matinee idols because of their rinds, while others are the harbingers of good taste, being exceedingly well-dressed. Mr Blackwell would approve.

There are many ways to classify cheese, and rind-type is one. I classify rind types as, "Holding Tank Rinds" (plastic and wax shells (paraffin or natural such as beeswax), "Surface-ripened Rinds," and lastly, "Inside-out Ripened Rinds." I'll take each in turn and answer Part Une, et Part Deux!

"Holding Tank Rinds"
Think shrink-wrapped cryovac (you put the cry in the vac!) plastic wrap. Then, quite rightly, shudder at the thought! Plastic can have its uses - it can seal in moisture, but it can also seal in other nasty things such as air if the seal is not a vaccum, and then your cheese breaks down. It moves itself. Some moist cheddars behave well in cryovacs, but it's not my favorite way to experience cheese. It's a trade-off: convenience over experience.

Another holding tank gives us some of our prettiest labeled cheeses: wax. Think Goudas (cow such as the Vintage Goudas, or goat such as Midnight Moon). The wax in these cases is a paraffin wax, dipped, or brushed onto the cheese. Often beeswax is used; we can hold onto the straetgic oil reserve, but the function is the same - the cheese is sealed for aging. Anaerobic (work without oxygen) bacteria are sealed inside to work their aging magic. While this type of rind gives us some of our sweetest, complex cheeses, they're the bane of cheesemongers and the cause of many a bandaged finger! Do not eat these rinds, nor eat the bandage should you find it when you get home!

"Surface-ripened Rinds"
These cheeses are mostly your flat, or disc-shaped wheels as opposed to your rectangular block, circular, or cylinder ("Truckle") shapes. The flat/disc-shape gives a larger surface area allowing the cheese an easier time of ripening toward the center. These are your, "Outside-in" ripening cheeses. Common to all three types of surface-ripened cheese is their soft texture, and thin skin-like rind. The rind is due to the activity of bacteria, yeast, mold, or all three, depending on type. This category of rinds breaks down into three types:
1. Washed Rind: This technique was created by Medieval Monks in Northern France. The meaty flavor was deliberately created for fasting periods when meat was forbidden. Washing the rind kept the texture of the cheese moist and supple as it ripened. Balance the pH, moisture, and salt in fresh cheese, store in the right aging environment (95% humidity and 54 degrees Farenheit), give the cheese a frequent wash in a 3-5% salt solution and you get stinky, colorful, washed rinds. Brevibacterium linens bacteria thrive in such environments, ripening the cheese from the outside in. Often the salt solution is mixed with wine, brandy, or local spirits to further characterize the rind. Examples are the colorful orange washed rind Italian Taleggio, or the super stinky English "Stinking Bishop" - washed with fermented pear juice. The rind part of a washed rind is typically the most stinky (and completely edible) part of the washed rind cheese. The pastes are more subtle.

2. Bloomy Rind: Lower the temperature and humidity a tad in your aging environment ("Cave"), forgo the wash, and you'll get a nice, thin fuzzy layer of mold develop on the surface of your cheese. A particular strain of yeast, Penicillium Candidum, is responsible for this mold - the cheese is sprayed with this yeast before being aged. When partially aged, Bloomy Rind cheeses have a squidgy creamy-yellow layer just inside the rind where the cheese is more aged, with a drier, chalky, younger center. When fully aged, the squidgy creamy-yellow layer extends to the center of the cheese. Such aged cheeses are best enjoyed with the top sliced off and dipped into as opposed to sliced. Examples of bloomy rind cheeses are the white bloomy rind Brie style Kunik.

3. Natural Rind: Not as common as the prior two categories, but worth the hunt! The precise mix of bacteria, yeast, and mold is much more diverse and allowed to develop at will, resulting in cheeses that are earthy, musty, and complex. Such rinds are left to develop 'naturally' in the specific micro-environments of each cheese type's cave, instead of having a very particular strain of microorganism applied. These are rinds that while edible, you mostly do not want to eat either due to texture, or due to the odd flavor of the bacteria, yeast, or mold. Because most natural rind cheeses are aged for many months, they are made from raw milk. Examples of natural rind cheeses are Garroxta, Colston Basset Stilton, and Mimolette.

"Inside-out Ripened Rinds"
These cheeses are generally longer aged, drier cheeses with a crustier, less-palatable rind that is much slower to develop. The rind is there to protect the cheese from drying out, and from contamination as it matures. Ripening enzymes are still doing their magic - breaking down proteins in the cheese to make flavor, only they are working anaerobically (without oxygen), deep within the paste. Such cheeses are the big Mommas of the cheese world, with a greater ratio of paste to rind. The rinds are edible, sometimes you want to eat them, sometimes you most definitely do not! I break them into four types:

1. Clothbound: think huge wheels (actually cylinders called, "Truckles") of English Cheddars. The wheels are wrapped with a layer of cheesecloth (linen), then rubbed with lard to seal the cloth. Such cheddars are much drier than "Holding Tank Rind" cheddars since more moisture can get through the cloth/lard border crossing. A great example is Beecher's Flagship Reserve - an American cheddar made in the traditional English style. I don't know about you, but I don't find a combo of lard and cloth to be particularly edible, nor tempting, so I say pass on eating this rind, just listen to the tearing sound as the Cheesemonger slices into it, and look at the satisfaction on his face!

2. Washed Alpine: again - huge wheels, huge! This cheese style was invented by the creative herdsmen of Alpine pastures and one such famous type: Gruyere gives the name of origin for this category of cheeses. You see Alpine cheeses were traditionally made in remote regions of the mountains in eastern France, where large collective herds were moved to the alpage (mountain pastures) in May/June and remained through the middle of September each year. The cheeses needed to be large enough to accommodate the large amount of milk produced in remote areas, as well as sturdy enough to withstand the rigors of travel to the valley markets. Each region developed it's own unique style due to herd sizes, remoteness and local preferences. The cheeses were designed to keep for long months in mountainous regions. Also when such cheeses are transported down valley, is it not easier to transport fewer, large wheels, than many more little wheels? The naturally-developing rinds are washed periodically with brine to inhibit as opposed to promote the development of mold. Brevibacterium linens bacteria thrive on the washed surface of the cheese contributing to the rind. The cheeses were collectively referred to as Gruyere. The Gruyere of old being the assigned person who monitored the grazing activity and assessed the taxes for these Alpage areas. Other examples of Washed Alpine cheeses are Comte, Morbier, and Fontina. Such cheeses are fruity, sweet, grassy, earthy, and floral all at once. These complex flavors are due to specific  flora and fauna of high Alpine pastures. These are also your fondue cheeses - sweet and easily melted. These rinds, while edible are not advisable to eat!

3. Brushed RindsParmesan Reggiano is the classic example of this type of rinded cheese: naked and straw-colored. The cheeses are frequently washed and brushed during the long aging process in order to eliminate all types of surface culture development. This causes a casing (the rind) of dehydrated cheese to develop on the surface, thickening over time. At the two year aging, the rind of Parmesan Reggiano is about 3/4 inch thick! Such rinds are edible and yes you want to eat them. Save the rinds of Reggiano for use in broths, soups, stocks, and casseroles. They add much umami flavor. Who's umami now?

4. Dressed Rinds: My name for a group of cheeses, fresh, and aged, that have a natural rind which has been wrapped with leaves (think Valdeon), rubbed with herbs (think Manchego Anejo with Rosemary), or rubbed with seasonings (think Barely Buzzed rubbed with Espresso and Lavender). Voila - instant protective rind, that adds a pretty designer coat and a lovely flavor enhancement to boot! Sometimes edible and you should eat them. Sometimes inedible and don't eat them.

So, to sum up and to return to your question, Part Une, et Part Deux:

  • Sum rinds are inedible and I don't know about you, but I don't want to eat them. 
  • Sum rinds are edible but you don't want to eat them.
  • Sum rinds are edible and you want to eat them.
If in any doubt, find a good cheese store who know their stuff (online or on your street), ask, taste, ask, don't taste!

See you arind town cowboys...


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