It was a dark and stormy night (well, for about 10 minutes) when I made my first attempt at smoking cheese. A sudden wind/rain blitz hit just as I was anxiously awaiting the sweet smell of smouldering applewood. I grabbed my Weber Kettle and rolled it into our garage, extension cord trailing behind me. As the rain battered the roof, I felt like a mad scientist, but, finally, I was smoking.
The Spring 2012 issue of Culture magazine featured an article on home-smoking cheese and I had to try it. Traditionally, smoked cheeses are flavoured using a cold-smoking process, wherein the smoke passes from the smoke generator into a separate chamber allowing it to cool before it hits the cheese. The temperature is kept under 90°F to prevent melting. Many smoked cheeses today are more likely to be flavoured with liquid smoke (smoke vapours captured in water) rather than actually being exposed to smoke.
Cheese flavoured with liquid smoke can promise uniform flavour (and less mess and labour on a large scale) but DIY smoked cheese allows you to ramp up (or down) the smoky wallop. Plus, it's easy. This technique is a fun way to enter the home-smoking club and embrace your inner MacGyver. Other than a barbecue, you need a tin can (I used a 19 oz. can of chick peas), a 30W soldering iron (The Source has them. Buy new as you don't want solder residue on it) and hardwood chips meant for smoking (Home Hardware carries a variety). Fruitwood is a good choice because it gives a sweeter, milder note (mesquite chips can be overpowering for cheese).
Step 1: Remove the label from your can. Now open the top with a can-opener about 2/3 of the way around. Bend back the lid and remove the contents (save for later). Rinse out the can. Using a triangular can opener, make a hole in the centre of the opened lid of the can (where it's still attached). It can be hard to get the right leverage so I put a pen under the open part of the lid to prop it up. Make a hole (vent) in the bottom, too.
Step 2: Fill the can with wood chips.
Step 3: Insert the soldering iron all the way into the triangular hole in the top, where the lid is hinged. (I had to make the hole bigger.) Place the can with the soldering iron at the bottom of your grill (where the coals or flame would usually be). You want the iron lying on the bottom of the grill – so the chips in the can fall on top of it. Replace the top grate, close the lid. Plug in the soldering iron (you may need an extension cord). Its heat will cause the chips to smoulder but not catch fire. The barbecue should be filling with smoke in about 15 minutes.
Step 4: Lay a piece on foil on the grill and lay your cheese on top. Close the grill. I used three cheeses: Balderson 3-year-old cheddar, Pecorino Romano and half a ball of mozzarella (regular, not fresh). Check after 30 minutes to gauge how much smoke flavour you like; bigger hunks of cheese will take longer. Flip the cheese half way through to expose all surfaces.
Remove the cheese and let it come to room temperature. If moisture has beaded up on the surface, dab it with paper towel. Wrap the cheese and refrigerate overnight (or at least a few hours) to let the flavours settle. The cheese will be slightly golden but not intensely dark.
After a bit of troubleshooting, the results were amazing. The cheddar was flavoured with the sweet, fruity smoke (I will be melting it on nachos). The Pecorino was also satisfying – the smoke was a nice match to the sweet/salty notes of the cheese. The m ozzarella, which had a denser exterior, took on the mildest flavour, but would add perfect, subtle smoky notes to a pizza.
I tried the process using a gas barbecue and also a Weber Kettle grill. Both worked well. Most importantly, the beautiful smell of the smoking wood carried down through our neighbours' adjoining backyards, inviting the much anticipated question, "what are doing in there?" Oh, you know – just smoking some cheese.
Tips for smoking cheese:
Use a soldering iron with a cord. I bought a cordless version that stayed on only while your finger was pressing the button – back to the store for me.
When you lift the lid to check your cheese, try to stand to the side. A single billowing whoosh of smoke managed to make me smell like a human campfire.
Sue Riedl blogs about cheese and other edibles at cheeseandtoast.com.