Cheese 101: The Stinky World of Washed Rind Cheese

A few years after I started working in the cheese business, 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.

I'm talking washed rind cheese, a broad but distinctive category of gloriously stinky curd. 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). Some washed rind cheese is soft and oozy; others are solid enough to grate.

What's In a Rind?

Technically, "washed rind" is a phrase that can be used to describe any cheese with a brine-washed (or moistened) rind. Adding mildly salted water to a cheese's exterior 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' rinds, the reddish color, and pungent smell. Washed rind cheese with a high moisture content gets broken down by these bacteria, resulting in a creamy cheese that becomes oozier with age. By comparison, low moisture washed rind cheese (like Gruyère and others traditionally made in the Swiss and French Alps) become firmer and drier as they age.

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 source of protein, and the profits they made from selling cheese became critical for running their monasteries. Many monks in the Medieval age were brewers and distillers as well, so some began lacing their cheese brines with booze for added flavor, complexity and preservation power.

The cheeses most famous as washed rinds (aka soft and rank) are these runny high moisture varieties, which are only aged for a few months. In the U.S., that means they'll likely be made from pasteurized milk, as FDA law dictates that any raw milk cheese made of raw milk must be ripened for at least 60 days. If you're specifically looking for raw washed rind cheese, search for the firmer, more aged varieties, ones that come from (or are inspired by) the French and Swiss Alps.

Common Washed Rind Cheese

Let's start with the gateway 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 patches of grayish fur. That mold is harmless, but it can turn the rind bitter, so eating this rind is a matter of preference. (The brine also 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 you should be careful with your fingers, as Limburger's footy stench will survive multiple hand washings. The bold enjoy it in thick slabs atop dark bread with shaved raw onion, but don't worry: its flavor is remarkably approachable, rich and buttery from whole-fat cows' milk, and its texture is akin to cooled hot fudge. The classic is made by the Chalet Cheese Company in Wisconsin, but German and Belgian producers make the cheese as well.

Perhaps the most luxurious (and rarely made out of raw cows' milk!) is the seasonal Winnimere from the Cellars at Jasper Hill in northern Vermont. Winnimere, which can only be found between January and June, has a wobbly panna cotta-like interior encased in a layer of spruce bark. The tree's Christmas-y aroma balances the cheese's intense savoriness.

That cheese that 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-infused (Marc de Bourgogne) brine. It's packaged in a little wooden box, and when it's ripe, the cheese appears to be swaddled in a Vaseline-smeared quilt. It can—and should—be scooped and smeared like butter. Though it stinks up their air with shockingly rude odors, the flavor is deliciously meaty.

As for hard, aged washed rind cheese, the classiest is Gruyère, such as 1655 or Emmi's Kaltbach. The burnished, rust-tinged rind is evidence that the cheese was washed with brine, in the case of this cheese for a minimum of five months. It trades in pungent stink for intense savory flavors: beef broth and horse stables. Gruyère is typically aged between six and 18 months and it's always made from raw cows' milk.

The Washed Rind Recap

  • Washed rind cheese can be identified by its red or orange rind. It can be creamy and oozy or hard and grate-able.
  • Don't fear stinky aromas—they lead to big, meaty flavors.
  • Soft washed rind cheese 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 your cheese within 10 days of purchasing.
  • Pair it with floral, honeyed, or fruity beverages like Riesling or Belgian ale.