The exterior, or rind, defines a cheese. Most cheeses have a coat of some type, and cheesemakers rarely leave that aspect to chance. By manipulating surface moisture, salt content and pH, cheesemakers can influence, if not entirely control, the rind.
The rind largely determines the lifespan and flavor potential of a wheel of cheese. Let's look at those that do not have a rind and the 3 types of cheeses with a rind.
Rindless cheeses include fresh products like spreadable chèvres, foil-wrapped wheels like Roquefort and Point Reyes Blue, and vacuum-packed cheeses like block Cheddars. They have no rind either because they are fresh and unripened or because they aren’t exposed to air during ripening.
These cheeses rely on microorganisms on the outside of the wheel to contribute to ripening. The active organisms can be molds, bacteria, yeasts or some combination. Their mission: to produce enzymes that break down the cheese’s protein and fat, thereby softening the paste and generating aroma.
- Mold-ripened cheeses include those with bloomy rinds, such as Camembert. The ideal bloomy rind is evenly thin—as thin as possible—and edible. The more mold you have, the more potential there is to raise a healthy crop of cheese mites. Vacuuming the wheels keeps the mites in check but at high labor cost.
- Powdered vegetable ash helps neutralize the cheese surface, so molds can proliferate. French goat cheeses like Sainte-Maure and Valençay exploit the ability of ash to create a stable mold rind.
- Bacteria-ripened cheeses, often called washed-rind or smear-ripened cheeses, include varieties such as Munster, Taleggio and Grayson. Alpine and alpine-style cheeses also belong to this group. Washing the wheel frequently with brine creates a moist, salty surface that molds can’t tolerate but that desirable bacteria like. The rind on a bacteria-ripened cheese is edible and, some would argue, part of the cheese’s appeal.
Parmigiano-Reggiano and Gouda cheeses have dry rinds. This process helped cheesemakers of earlier times respond to a dry climate. If they could seal the wheel with olive oil or wax, they could slow moisture loss. Today, cheesemakers use vinegar or a brush to keep molds from establishing on these rinds. Rinds with these mold-retardant coatings are not edible and should be cut away before consumption.
For these cheeses, the wild or natural rind happens without outside influence - just as nature intended. Whatever is in the environment grows on the cheese.
Vermont Shepherd and traditional Cheddars fit into this category. Although a wild or natural rind may sound like the easy way out, it is anything but. The wheels need to be brushed periodically to keep mold growth under control and turned frequently so the rind develops evenly.
A healthy wild rind should be dry and intact, with no cracks that allow blue mold to enter. The blue mold isn’t harmful, but it does create wastage for retailers who have to cut it away. In general, this kind of rind is hard to eat and does not add to the pleasure of the cheese.