To eat the rind or not eat the rind, that is the question everyone wonders before diving into a sumptuous cheese plate. The rind is the outside layer that is part of the cheese’s aging process. It’s sort of like the crust on bread—it’s part of the cheese so you can in fact, and absolutely should (depending how adventurous your palate is), eat it. Well, that is unless of course the rind is made out of wax, bark, or cheesecloth. Yuck.

The rind is where the ripening starts, which is why a cheese’s most complex and often most pungent tastes (and smells) live there.

There are four major kinds of edible rinds: bloomy, washed, natural, and dry. Within each of these categories are oodles of fascinating subcategories. The rind can tell you the story of how the cheese was made and a great deal about the flavor profile before you even bite into it.

Bloomy Rinds

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These are the soft, sometimes fuzzy rinds that grow on the outside of familiar cheeses like Brie and Bucheron. Cheesemakers add a solution of bacteria, like Penicillium candidum, to the outside of the cheese which causes mold to then bloom and grow until it hardens all around the cheese. The bacteria breaks down the fat and gives the cheese a beautiful creamy texture. Depending on the type of milk, you may get notes that are buttery and Chardonnay-like (cow), tangy and peppery (goat), or citric and sweet (sheep).

Bloomy rinds are some of the most approachable rinds out there...even if they can sometimes look a little funky. The fuzz is totally fine so long as it’s not yellow, orange, red, or dark blue/black. If it gives off a strong ammonia-like smell, then step away from the cheese. If the rind looks like a brain...eat it. That’s just the Geotrichum fungus doing its job, and it’s delicious. Mmmm...braaaaaains. Or rather, mmmmm…Chabichou.

Washed Rind

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These bad boys are exactly what they sound like...cheese that’s been washed. The affineur (cheese master who works on the ripening process) bathes the cheese in a solution that ages and forms the thick orange skin and it results in a strong, meaty flavor. The solution varies and depends on what kind of flavor the cheesemaker is going for. Classics like Taleggio and Limburger are washed in a simple saline brine and though their smell is quite strong on the outside, their inner texture and taste is often smooth. Usually the longer they sit, the funkier they get (hello, Epoisse). Many artisan cheesemakers go wild with washed rinds and can lovingly cover their cheese with wine or beer. Now that’s a rind worth tasting.

Natural Rinds

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These are the rinds that grow with much less human interaction than bloomy or washed rinds. These kinds can be sharp and firm (Cabot’s Clothbound Cheddar) or creamy and crumbly (Gorwydd Caerphilly, Stilton). Their rind is formed simply by the natural process of aging and depends on the humidity and temperature of the cave in which they’re sitting. Air and a little bit of moisture often do the trick, though sometimes cheesecloth or leaves are wrapped around the wheel and mold tends to grow there—remove those before eating! These rinds are dry, earthy, and surprisingly complex.

Dry Rinds

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Hello Parmigiano Reggiano, my old friend. These firm, natural rinds are meant to keep mold out and simply let the cheese age into its hard, sharp perfection. These rinds aren’t the most palatable, but they make great additions to soup stock, stews, or slow-cooked pasta sauces to add some creaminess.