When it comes to cheese, one of the most oft-asked and misunderstood queries is in regards to rind.
There are two basic schools of thought when it comes to the question of The Rind. The first argues that the true essence of a cheese lives within the bounty of its rind, and that it's therefore not to be skipped. The second supports the act of delving solely into the interior paste, and doing away with the disruptive complexity of its crust.
Neither theory is exclusively correct, really. So just how do you know when to eat it and when to leave it behind?
When evaluating whether or not to take the bite, consider this:
Is the rind more crust-like, like a thick or brittle entity looking like something entirely different than the interior, like a Parmigiano Reggiano (pictured above) or Tomme de Savoie?
Or does it look more skin-like, as if it were a soft sheath melding into the paste, like an Epoisses or, above, a La Tur? If it's the latter, it's probably tastier, because it's likely to be younger, spending less time in a cave or cellar developing a rough or even rock-hard exterior that's pungent, bitter, or astringent flavors that make some rinds taste unpleasant.
Another way of going about The Rind dilemma is to go ahead and taste. A rind will never kill you, or even make you sick, so experiment-away. Start from the middle of the wheel, or from the area of your slice that's furthest away from the rind. Since most cheeses mature from the outside in, their most developed, potentially off-putting flavors will be closer to the rind. Work your way out, and if you like its stronger flavors, keep on plowing, right through to the rind.
You can also determing rind edibility by knowing the cheese style of the cheese in question. As we see it, there are six families when it comes to rinds:
1. Fresh cheeses are rindless, so there's no question there.
2. Bloomy rinds, like brie or camembert, have a white fluffy rind that can have a pleasant, mushroomy essence or, in the worst cases, taste of ammonia and are chewy and thick. Goat cheeses with a bloomy rind, like Chevrot, above, have brainy, yielding rinds that can look frightening but which taste quite mild and pleasant.
3. Washed rinds, like Taleggio and Muenster, above, have pinkish, orangish, or reddish rinds, and can have a granular texture from residual salt crystals left behind from brine washing. They can taste bitter, but it depends on the cheese, so take a bite and see if it positively effects your experience.
4. Natural rinded cheeses have craggy, cavernous rinds that are brownish. They can resemble a packed plot of earth or the rind on a cantaloupe. Generally speaking, these aren't too tasty. They epitomize the "crust-like" descriptor.
5. Hard, super-aged cheeses like mountain cheeses, goudas, cheddars, and parms, are more "crust-like" examples, like the Mimolette above, and tend to have equally hard textured rinds that are there to keep moisture in and air and the elements out. Some of them devellop their rinds over years of aging, and are also washed in order ot maintain their exterior. The rinds act as a barrier and promote the aging potential of these long-shelf-lifers. Not too tasty, again generally speaking. This is where you'll find waxed-rinded goudas and manchegos, cloth-bound cheddars, and other obviously non-edible rinded cheeses.
6. Blues vary. Some are wrapped in foil, some in plastic, some are left to develop a rind naturally, and some are wrapped in foliage, like Cabrales, pictured above. If the rind looks edible, it very well may taste just fine. We'd leave behind those sycamore leaves, though. And the foil.
Related: The Cheesemonger Meets the Winemonger: A Wine and Cheese Pairing Primer
Related: The Cheesemonger's Seasonal Spotlight: Goat Cheese
Images, in order: Flickr users katiew and lacollinafiorita, 365cheeses.com, Flickr users These Days in French Life, jspace3, star5112, jp.puig, and maitrephilippe, SeppySills, licensed under Creative Commons.