Washed Rind Cheese 101 aka Gateway Cheese™: Taleggio

A few years after I started working in cheese my phone rang. On the other end, somewhat confused, was my mother. “I bought that cheese you said you like. E-poss-ay? I think something’s wrong with it. It stinks. How do I scrape off all the orange slime?” It’s a testament to my mother that she didn’t just toss it. For me, it was a reminder of how bizarre, to burgeoning cheese explorers, this type of cheese really is.

By type I mean washed rind cheese. The telltale signs include a moist or sticky exterior, some variety of reddish-orange rind, and profound aromas reminiscent of often-unmentionable things (sweaty feet and barnyard animals figure prominently).

Technically, “washed rind” is a phrase that can be used to describe any cheese with a brine-washed (or moistened) rind. The introduction of mildly salted water fosters an environment hospitable to a variety of bacteria, often (though not always) including B. linens (brevibacterium linens). Many cheesemakers include b. linens directly in their brine, while others introduce it to the milk prior to cheesemaking. 

The bacteria that develop are responsible for the unique characteristics of the cheeses’ rind, the reddish color and pungent smell. High moisture washed rinds (those that are semisoft to squishy in texture) are also actively broken down by the bacteria so a creamy washed rind gets droopier over time while a hard, low moisture washed rind (like Gruyère and others traditionally made in the Swiss and French Alps), doesn’t.

The creamier examples are also called “monastic” cheeses, with recipe origins in the Franciscan monastaries of France and Belgium. Traditionally, meat-abstaining monks relied on cheese as a protein source as well as a critical revenue stream for the monastery. Additionally, monks were the medieval producers of alcohol, and in short order began lacing their cheese brine with booze for added flavor, complexity and likely, preservation power.

Like all cheese groupings, “washed-rind” is quite broad, and while its members share visual and flavor characteristics there is an incredible range of texture and intensity. In the States, the majority of washed rind cheeses available are made of pasteurized milk because they are often under the requisite sixty days mandated for raw milk cheeses. That said, raw milk options can be found.

Let’s start with a classic introduction to washed rinds: the northern Italian cows’ milk cheese, Taleggio. Many folks liken it to Brie, though the texture is stickier and less runny. I appreciate its mild, yeasty flavor—bready-- like undercooked pizza crust. The rind is sherbety orange but often adorned with concerning patches of grayish fur. This secondary mold growth won’t cause any harm but may taste bitter so rind eating is a matter of preference. Additionally, the brine washing leaves a fine, sugary crunch on the exterior that some people don’t care for.

From here, goose up a tasting with Limburger. The bark is far worse than the bite, though careful with your fingers because a residual footy smell will persevere through multiple handwashings. Limburger is enjoyed by the bold in slabs atop dark bread with slivers of raw onion. This being said, it’s got a remarkably approachable flavor, rich and buttery from whole cows’ milk, with lingering salt and an unsweetened fudginess that’s typical of many washed rinds. The classic is made by The Chalet Cheese Company in Wisconsin, but German and Belgian-made examples exist.

Perhaps the most luxurious example I can conjure is the seasonally produced Winnimere from The Cellars at Jasper Hill in northern Vermont. Winnimere can only be found between January and June, its wobbling interior so panna cotta-y that the cheese is contained by a layer of spruce bark, perfuming each bite with a Christmasy whiff. Its umami demands continued eating.

That which stymied my mother is actually called Epoisses de Bourgogne (ee-PWASS duh boar-GOAN-yuh), famed stinker of France’s Burgundy region, and washed in brandy- (Marc de Bourgogne) infused brine. It’s packaged in a little wooden box, and when ripe for eating appears to be swaddled in a Vaseline-smeared quilt.  It can and should be scooped and smeared and while it will fill a shopping bag with shockingly rude smells the cheese tastes like delicious meat butter.

Although the hard, aged examples are often overlooked when folks discuss washed rinds you’d be remiss to leave one out of a tasting. The classic is a well-aged Gruyère, such as 1655 or Emmi’s Kaltbach. The burnished, rust-tinged rind is your sign that washing occurred, in the cases of these cheeses over the course of a minimum of five months, but often far longer.  The pungent stink is absent, but the b. linens express themselves with intense savory flavors: beef broth or boullion, and stable impressions. Aged for 6-18 months, Gruyère is always produced from raw cows’ milk.

The Washed Rind Recap

  • Look for orange to red rind
  • Don’t fear a powerful (stinky) smell 
  • Soft washed rinds should be plump and moist; avoid brown or cracking pieces
  • Hard washed rinds will have an orange-brown crust on the outside, not recommended for eating
  • Expect yeasty/meaty/salty/animal flavors
  • Eat within 10 days
  • Pair with floral, honeyed, or fruity beverages (Riesling/Belgian Ale)