Cheese is probably my most favorite food, next to bread. I know, it’s more like an ingredient but I grew up on cheese and carbs, whether it was mac ‘n cheese, cheesy pasta, pizza, grilled cheese sandwiches or some other type of sandwich that had meat and cheese- there had to be cheese or it didn’t feel like a complete meal to me. I’m the same way to this day.
Which can be sort of a problem.
Especially since my tastes have long outgrown the processed cheese blocks of my childhood.
Having traveled extensively throughout France and Italy, I’ve tried so many different and exotic fresh and hard cheeses, it’s difficult to imagine never having them again, especially since they’re so readily available at international markets in the Chicagoland area where I live and in places like Whole Foods Markets where they take great pride in announcing the country of origin in their cheese displays, which makes it a lot of fun to shop for them.
Here’s the problem more so than anything else commonly talked about: the rind.
Yes, the outer part of the cheese, which is edible. In the world of gourmet cooking, this is some of the best part of the cheese to use because it can be thrown into soups and stews for added flavor rather than throwing out parts of it that are too difficult to shred for pasta.
Aside from the issue of rennet and whey, which I address here regarding the overall cheese issue as it relates to halal, the rind can possibly have either lard (pork fat) or wine, which might be used as a ‘wash’ for the rind once the cheese wheel is made.
Are you stunned?
I was. I first learned about this when I spoke at Cornell University last year in April for the Language of Food Conference. After my presentation, we stayed on to listen to local artisans talk about cheese qualities. The topic of lard or wine washes were mentioned very casually, but to me it was a “HOLD ON” moment.
So, I asked, just to make sure I had heard correctly. Basically, it was true- some cheeses are washed with lard or wine in order to carefully cultivate mold in the drying rooms. This is done so that mold will only occur on the rind and is done mostly with ‘natural‘ rinds or ‘surface-ripened‘ rinds.
The takeaway? If you’re concerned about the content of your cheese and are looking for something made without animal rennet or whey, it’s best to look for microbial rennet and enzymes, unless you can find halal-certified cheeses. Then, the next step would be to ask about the rind when choosing hard cheeses, although this can be quite difficult as it’s not often listed on the ingredient lists in most packaging. In that case, you might have to ask the cheese monger and he/she would have to be knowledgeable enough about the specific type of cheese or resourceful enough to find out for you whether or not the rind was washed with lard or wine.
Here is some exact text and below that a few links to pages where you can get fuller, more detailed explanations. (Source: RealCaliforniaMilk.com)
- “Natural Rinds are created by wiping the surface of the cheese with lard, vegetable oil, or olive oil so molds carefully cultivated in the aging room will develop only on the rind.”
- “Surface-ripened Rinds fall into two categories. Washed Rind: created by washing the surface of the rind with whey, brine, or a beverage such as beer to encourage moisture-loving bacteria, yeasts and molds to colonize on the surface. White or Bloomy Rind: created by adding white mold strains to the curd or wiping the surface.”
RealCaliforniaMilk.com- Cheesemaking Terms
SpecialtyFood.com- Cheese Rinds 101