Friday, May 14, 2010

Smoking Your Cheese

Do I smoke it or add smoke to it?

There are basically 3 ways to smoke your cheese:

1.  Most cheesemakers expose their cheese to smoke caused by burning anything they choose, including hardwoods (apple, cherry, maple, pecan and hickory), sawdust, corn cobs, mesquite, etc.  Rogue Creamery in Oregon makes their famous "Smokey Blue" over local hazelnut shells!

2.Some cheesemakers spray or dip their cheese with liquid smoke (or add it to their curds) before they smoke their cheese.  As long as it is exposed to real smoke after that, it may still be called smoked cheese (and the liquid smoke does not have to be added to the list of ingredients.)

3.  Sometimes liquid smoke or smoke flavoring is added to the curds or the cheese is marinated in the flavoring, but the cheese is not actually exposed to smoke.  This cheese has to be labeled "natural smoke flavor" or "hickory smoked flavor."  In this case, the flavor has to be added to the list of ingredients, according to USDA regulations.

What kind of cheese can I smoke?

Any cheese may be smoked if the temperature is kept cool enough.  The primary reason for this is the melting point of the butterfat, which is 98.6F (the body temperature of  cows).  The butterfat actually begins to ooze from the cheese when it reaches the mid 60's.  Since we do not want to strip the butterfat from the cheese during smoking, there is a need to keep the smoking process as cold as possible.

Traditionally, the hard cheeses like Cheddar or Gouda are smoked.  Other popular ones include Mozzarella, Provolone, Scamorza, Swiss and Pepper Jack.

Increasingly, cheesemakers are smoking their fresh cheeses, as well.  Westfield Farm's "Hickory Smoked Capri" is a small goat's milk log with intense flavor.  River's Edge makes "Up in Smoke," a smoked chevre wrapped in maple leaves which are previously smoked themselves and then dampened with Bourbon!

At what point is the cheese smoked?

It is usually completely ripened before it is smoked.  Otherwise, the smoking may interfere with the aging process.  Liquid smoke is usually added to the curds before pressing.  There are no real "hard and fast" recipes for this because there are too many variables.  You have to experiment and take good notes while you do it.

Many folks who are not cheesemakers purchase their cheese at stores, unwrap it and smoke it to their own specifications.  You might try this first before deciding what kind of cheese to make and smoke.  You'll want to make the kind you like best, of course.

How do I do it?

There are many great YouTube videos about how to smoke your cheese and even more good articles (many of them on the websites of the companies which sell smokers).  There are also many good forums and blogs with ongoing discussions about smoking cheese.

You will want to make or buy a cold smoker for your cheese.  The goal is to keep the temp below 95F.

Many folks smoke their cheese in their hot smoker by placing it away from the heat source.  However, if the temp is very low, you can smoke your cheese longer and the flavor will be smoother.

Ideally, the container in which you place your cheese is separated from the heat source by a flexible pipe.  The smoke travels through the pipe to the chamber where the cheese sits on racks.  With this kind of set-up, the cheese can be smoked for many hours, giving it a good flavor and a light brown color.
Some smokers have optional attachments for cold smoking (below).

Many Artisinal cheesemakers buy used equipment and convert it to a cold smoker or build their own from wood.

What are some tips?

Before smoking your cheese, let it sit at room temperature for a few hours.  It will develop a very thin skin to protect it.

Soak your wood chips in water for an hour.

Smoke your cheese in small pieces, up to a pound.

If your cheese perspires (oils off) in the smoker, wrap it in cheesecloth while it smokes.

After smoking it, wrap it and put it in the refrigerator for a few hours or overnight to allow the flavor to settle in.

Keep good records of what you do so you can duplicate your successes.

Send us pictures of the way you smoke your cheese!


Diana said...

Hate to be a nitpicker, but the body temp of HUMANS is 98.6 F. Almost nobody else is. The body temp of COWS is actually 101.5. Also dogs & cats. Pigs & sheep 102. Birds 104. Horses 99.5. So there must be some other reason for that temp being used as the cut-off for smoking?

JSH said...

I have a smoker very similar to the red one on the rolling cart in the picture above. I make mozzarella on a weekly basis, and usually smoke it. I have had excellent results without having to do an offset smoker setup by using minimal fire in the firebox and a big bowl of ice on the bottom rack. The temp stays very low, but the smoke is sufficient. For my smoker I use four charcoal briquettes. When they are white, I put a small block of hickory on and the smoke begins! I put a big bowl of ice on the bottom rack and my cheese on the top rack and shut the lid. An hour later the fire is about dead, and the cheese is thoroughly smoked, and I usually still have some ice left in the bowl. I put the smoked cheese in the fridge overnight to let the flavor mellow and enjoy the next day. Hope this helps others do some home smoking without a difficult apparatus.
- Stephen