The rind of a cheese, and whether or not it even has one, can offer significant clues about the character of the cheese itself. The rind — and its visual and olfactory characteristics — may communicate a basic idea of texture, taste, age, and freshness or lack thereof. It is therefore wise to get to know the various types of cheese rinds, and to be able to recognize whether eating them is advisable or, for that matter, desirable.
There are many ways to categorize cheese: by country, by flavor, by texture, even by degree of odor. Yet another way is to classify by cheese rinds, as follows:
No Rind: Fresh cheeses have no rind at all. Classed among these are the whey cheeses, the lactic cheeses, and the stretched curd cheeses. Examples of fresh cheese include ricotta, cream cheese, mozzarella, feta cheese, and crème fraiche. These moist, mild cheeses are generally lower in fat than other cheeses. They are favorite cheeses for use in cooking and baking. The presence of mold on a fresh cheese indicates that it is past its prime, and its flavor and aroma will reflect this.
Bloomy Rind: These soft-ripened cheeses have a velvety white rind sometimes colored with flecks of red or brown. They ripen from the outside to the inside, and the texture of the paste ranges from supple and dense to custardy. This edible rind is formed by spraying the cheese with penicillium candidum mold before the brief aging process begins. Examples of cheese rinds characterized as bloomy white may be observed on Brie, Camembert, Cooleeney, and Capricorn Goat cheeses.
Washed Rind: The rinds of these usually semi-soft cheeses are pungent, sometimes sticky or gritty, and uniquely colorful, ranging from pinkish red to orange to brown. Surface-ripened, these cheeses are bathed, or washed, in beer, wine, brandy, brine, or other liquid at several points during the maturation process. The washing of these cheese rinds facilitates the growth of certain beneficial bacteria, which help to ripen and flavor the cheese.
Some versions of washed cheese rinds are flavorful and contribute to the overall experience of eating the cheese. Others, however, are distinctly unappetizing in taste or texture. Taste a bit. If the flavor of the rind enhances the cheese, eat it. If it takes away from the pleasure of eating the cheese, just cut the rind away. Examples of washed cheese rinds may be found on Oka, Epoisses, Raclette, and Taleggio.
Natural Rind: These rinds are formed by the cheese itself during the ripening process. Neither washed nor enhanced by the deliberate application of mold, whatever spores take root on the natural rind originate from the environment. Many of these natural cheese rinds may be quite strongly flavored, as the cheeses they form on tend to be those varieties that are aged for relatively lengthy periods. Natural cheese rinds—other than those that incorporate cloth—are edible but not necessarily palatable. Again, taste a bit. Avoid eating the rind if the texture or taste is unsatisfactory. Examples of cheeses that form natural rinds include St. Nectaire, Testun, Stilton, and Mimolette.
The Obvious: Cheese rinds that are coated or made up entirely of edible substances like herbs, peppercorns, or nuts are made to be eaten. Ashy rinds such as those encountered on many goat cheeses are made from vegetable ash and are considered safe for consumption as well.
On the other hand, cheese rinds made from twigs, cloth, or wax — such as can be found on Edam or Gouda — are inedible and should, of course, be discarded.