Plus, former Vermont Cheese Council executive director Tom Bivins answers the age-old question, "Can you eat them?"
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So you're putting together a cheese plate for your party. Or you're standing at the grocery store cheese counter, tasting some samples from the display case. You bite into a lush wedge of Brie, but when you get down to the rind, you stop. Should you eat around it? Toss the rind and sacrifice the remaining cheese clinging to it? Or should you just go right ahead and take a nibble? Tom Bivins, former executive director of the Vermont Cheese Council, thinks you should take a deep breath, face your fears, and eat the rind. He spoke with Food & Wine about why eating the rind will help you appreciate the cheese, plus some varieties worth adding to your next cheese board.

Yes, the rind is generally safe to eat

Unless there is wax, cheesecloth, or paper on the rind, Bivins says you don't need to worry about getting sick if you eat it, which Food & Wine has pointed out before.

"Just taste a little bit, you'll be fine. The cultures are good for your gut health and they aren't going to hurt you," he says. "No cheesemaker would put anything on the cheese that would be harmful."

Not only is the rind safe to eat, but trying it out will actually aid your appreciation of the cheese. Bivins says that when he's tasting cheese with people less familiar with cheese than he is (which is most people), he always encourages them to sample a little bit of the rind in order to better understand what the cheesemaker was trying to accomplish with the flavors of the final product.

There are four types of cheese rinds

The first type is, of course, the non-edible variety, made from wax, bark, or paper. Every other type of rind is safe to eat.

The second is the bloomy rind, which you'll find on cheeses like Brie or Camembert. Bivins says a bloomy rind is generally snowy white.

The third type is the washed rind, which usually takes on a sticky texture and a reddish-orange color, and most commonly appears on what people think of as the "stinky" cheeses. In Bivins' experience, this type of rind often "freaks people out," but rest assured that it's simply created by secondary culture — introduced by the cheesemaker — working on top of the cheese.

Finally, there is the natural rind. This forms naturally on cheese during the aging process, and is typically found on cheddar and Parmesan cheeses.

Each rind has a different flavor

With a bloomy rind, expect to taste mushroomy, woodsy flavors.

Washed rinds, on the other hand, are created not just with bacteria, but with a salt brine as well.

"[The cheese makers] take the cheese off the shelf, and they wash it with a brine made with salt. If they want to flavor it, they add that flavor to the brine," explains Bivins. This process only happens once the cheese is set. It's dipped into the brine, and then returned to the shelf, where the bacteria continues to grow. Washed rinds can be flavored "with all kinds of things, including cider, cognac, beer, and wine," he adds. The result is often a salty bite from the rind, followed by the creamy cheese.

Conversely, a natural rind tends to have a more bitter taste. During the aging process, Bivins says that bitterness has an effect on the overall flavor of the finished product, often imparting the cheese with woodsy, smoky, or meaty flavors.

It's OK to be adventurous with your cheese selection

"I've found that people who shy away from those stinky cheeses are hooked once they taste them," Bivins reveals. He especially encourages people to be adventurous with their cheese choices during the holidays. "We avoid indulging all year long, and this is the one time we can enjoy rich and intensely flavored cheese," he says.

One of the best ways to impress your guests is to add a funky cheese to the cheese board at your next party, Bivins advises. He suggests one he affectionately calls "milk pudding," the Jasper Hill Farm Harbison, a soft cheese with a bloomy rind.

He also recommends trying a clothbound bandaged cheddar cheese, as well as varieties with a washed rind. Some of his favorite washed-rind cheeses come from Consider Bardwell Farm in Vermont, and another from Jasper Hill Farm, the Willoughby.

Uplands Cheese Company's Reserve cheeses are also worth a try. According to Bivins, when Uplands presented its products at a recent competition in Italy, the judges were shocked to find that such tasty cheeses were being produced in America. "There are some amazing cheeses being produced here. Even the French are beginning to realize this," Bivins quips.

With that in mind, now is the time to create that dreamy cheese board you've been fantasizing about. For your next gathering, go forth and serve the smelliest, creamiest cheese you can find. And when you're finished, eat all the rinds. Go ahead, you have permission from an expert.