Here is the challenge – get all of the delicious flavors of a perfectly smoked brisket into a block of cheese. At first, it seems like an easy task. Just toss some cheese in the smoker, and everything will probably work out.
It’s not that simple, but if your goal is to be the master of the smoker, learning to make smoked cheese is an essential skill. Today, we’ll talk about cold smoking and how you can do it with what you’ve already got at home.
Think about the best cheeseburger you’ve ever had. Put a thick slice of perfectly hickory smoked sharp cheddar cheese on that burger and spice it up with a spicy barbecue sauce and flavorful smoked bacon and you’ll have a winner.
Mixing smoked jack cheese into your next smoker mac and cheese will amp up the flavor and incorporate a smoky depth that is hardly even imaginable. The trick is keeping the cheese from getting so smoky that it tastes acrid. You can even smoke parmesan cheese to give pasta and pizza a smoky flavor.
When you really want to show off your smoker skills, we’ve got a recipe for cinnamon smoked mascarpone that is decadent and rich – perfect for a churro-inspired Summer dessert or as a filling for your next Yule log cake.
Smoking Cheese: Basics
The first thing you need to master in order to smoke cheese is the temperature of your smoker. Smoking cheese is actually easier on an offset smoker or even a Brinkman-style upright smoker than it is on a pellet smoker.
The main goal you’ll have is to produce even, consistent smoke and almost no heat. Most cheeses will melt beyond about 140 degrees, and soft cheeses are even lower than that. You’ll want to keep your smoker around 100 degrees with plenty of thin, blue smoke to get the best results.
How to Get Smoke and No Fire
There are a number of handy gadgets on the market these days that make it simple to use almost any smoker to smoke cheese. The most basic design is called a Smoker Tube. This is a short tube of stainless steel that you load pellets or wood chips into. It can be used on pellet smokers to add wood smoke, or on charcoal smokers to add pellet smoke. In this case, we will use pellets to create smoke in a charcoal smoker.
The trick is simple. You just load the tube with pellets and use a propane torch lighter to ignite one end of the tube of pellets. Once it starts to burn, extinguish the flames. Place the tube in your firebox and give it 100-percent bottom vent airflow. If it ignites, dial back the air. The pellets should smolder, creating smoke, but very little heat.
In an offset smoker, you can accomplish the same thing using chunks of hardwood. We will usually light the chunks in a chimney, then add them to the box just after they have ignited and are smoldering. Pellets work great, but there is no substitute for old-school wood chunk smoking for getting the most unique flavors possible. One or two big chunks at a time and plenty of bottom airflow will keep the temperature down, particularly if you are using an offset smoker with a mid-level vent door.
What is Clean Smoke?
There are a ton of articles about GOOD smoke versus BAD smoke, and honestly, when you are smoking a Boston butt roast or even a prime rib, you can get away with a little bad smoke. When you smoke cheese, you must have good, clean smoke. Even a little dirty smoke will cause the flavor of the cheese to become acrid and it won’t taste good.
Here is the trick: constantly monitor the color and amount of smoke, along with how fast the smoke is exiting the smoker. You want colorless or light blue smoke that moves very fast. Thick, gray, or white smoke that poofs from your smoker is bad, dirty smoke.
The way to make that happen is to keep plenty of air moving in through the bottom, but don’t let the wood or pellets ignite. They need to smolder, but also need to stay hot enough not to make sooty white smoke. It’s a delicate balance that takes practice, but once you nail the right way to do it with your equipment, you’ll start using the technique on chicken, fish, pork, and even that precious prime rib.
If you start noticing slow, heavy, gray or white smoke, open the fire box and the smoker lid to evacuate the smoke. This might mean you are starting over with your smoking wood, but at least you aren’t ruining your cheese. Temperature is less important than smoke quality, unlike smoking meat.
Choosing Wood for Smoking
If you are one of those folks that love mixing and experimenting with different types of wood, cheese is going to be a lot of fun for you. Cheese takes a lot of flavors when smoked, so there is plenty of room to experiment.
The Best Types of Cheese for Smoking
When you start to smoke cheese, you might be tempted to grab a hard cheese like cheddar or gouda, but you’ll get a better learning experience using a cheese with a robust rind. Brie is one of our favorites anyways, and it also makes for an excellent opportunity to play with smoking with a lower risk of failure. The heavy rind absorbs most of the flavor and prevents the cheese from leaking everywhere if it gets melted. Think baked brie at the holidays with fresh berries.
Soft cheeses are great for smoking because they absorb the complex smoke flavors quickly. The general rule is that you need to keep temperatures low and provide plenty of clean smoke. Soft cheeses are most likely to have a high moisture level and many are lower in sodium content, giving you an opportunity to experiment with lots of unique flavors.
One of our favorite smoking cheeses is brie cheese. It’s sold in rounds with a heavy rind and isn’t overly expensive. Look for a natural brie cheese to have great smoker results. Brie can handle higher temperatures and longer smoke times because of the rind. We usually smoke brie at 140 degrees for about two hours. You can also use stronger smoke flavors with brie cheese such as hickory.
Mozzarella is another soft, high moisture cheese that smokes remarkably well. Look for fresh mozzarella for the best results. Since there is no rind on this cheese, you’ll need to keep temperatures low and smoke consistent to get ideal results. One drawback of mozzarella is that if your smoke is too thick and dirty, you’ll end up with a bitter, acrid finished product. It melts at 130 degrees, so keep your smoker temp below 100 degrees.
One of the most versatile cheese products out there, cream cheese is a key ingredient in cheese balls, frosting, and is excellent spread on a fresh bagel. Smoking cream cheese is an excellent way to add flavor to this staple. It has a low 130-degree melting point and the milk fats begin to liquefy at 90 degrees, so you’ll want to keep your smoker below 100 degrees for the best results. A drip pan is recommended to prevent making a mess.
The number of hard cheeses that are ideal for smoking is extensive, so we’re going to just hit a few of our favorites. Hard cheeses tend to have higher sodium levels which are added during the cheese-making process to help preserve the cheese. They also have lower moisture than soft cheese, so you’ll want to keep your smoke times shorter to prevent drying the cheese out.
This is one of the top cheeses for smoking. Cheddar has a delicious, creamy taste and texture that is seriously enhanced with a little smoke flavor. It is good for bold flavors like hickory and oak, but is just as delicious with softer flavors like applewood. Cheddar melts at around 150 degrees, so keeping the smoker temp around 130 degrees will give great results.
Jack cheese is a softer cheese that has an intense, creamy texture and a rich taste. Adding smoke flavor to a block of jack cheese can add layers of flavor. It reacts well with fruitwoods and nut woods. Peppery, spicy wood like mesquite is also an interesting option. Milk fats begin to break down at 90 degrees, while full melting occurs at 150 degrees, so keeping the smoker temperature around 100 degrees is your best bet.
Swiss cheese is an interesting smoking cheese option. The natural, nutty flavor lends itself well to almond wood, pecan, and other nut woods. It melts at 150 degrees, so you’ll shoot for a smoker temperature of 120 degrees.
Beyond the cheeses that we melt or slice, the grating cheeses are extra-hard, dry, and have a moderately high sodium content. Smoking these types of cheeses has the least effect on overall flavor, but can enhance the cheese for use in special recipes or as a unique topping for pasta, pizza, or anything else you grate cheese on.
Probably the most common grating cheese you’ll find is parmesan. It’s a staple at pizza shops and is ideally suited to salads and other dishes that need a pop of flavor. Parmesan has a very high melting point of about 180 degrees, so you can run the smoker temp all the way up to about 140 degrees. Smooth flavors like applewood and cherrywood are good choices, as are nut woods. Some of the stronger flavors like hickory can overpower the cheese.
Another cheese that is typically grated onto a finished dish, asiago has an earthy, tangy flavor and a very dry texture. Asiago will usually melt around 180 degrees, with aged varieties having an even higher melting point. Popular choices for wood smoke include fruitwood and nut wood that enhance the slightly sweet, tangy flavor.
Gruyere isn’t the most common cheese you’ll find, but the smooth, nutty flavor is the perfect compliment to a five-star mac and cheese recipe. Gruyere smokes well and develops interesting, unique flavors when using oak or softer flavors like cherrywood. Its high melting point of 180 degrees means you can crank the smoker up to about 140 degrees.
Getting the Best Results
Soft cheeses are typically ready-to-use right after smoking. With the harder cheeses like cheddar and the grating cheeses, you’ll get better results by refrigerating the cheese for about a week before serving. A vacuum sealer is the ideal way to store smoked cheese in the refrigerator and allows the flavors to absorb and mellow, creating a more delicious finished product.
Smoked Cinnamon Apple Cream Cheese Recipe
This is one of our favorite ways to amp up cream cheese for spreading on plain bagels and to use as a filling for cake rolls. It uses commonly-available ingredients and is fast and simple to make.
- 1 block of cream cheese, 14-16 oz, cold
- Bearded Butcher Blend Seasoning Cinnamon Swirl
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- Parchment paper or pink butcher paper
- Apple wood chips, chunks, or pellets
- Unwrap the cold cream cheese and remove it from the packaging.
- Carefully wipe the surface of the cheese with olive oil.
- Make a series of diagonal slashes in the block of cream cheese with a sharp knife.
- Sprinkle the cheese liberally with the cinnamon seasoning, then return to the refrigerator until ready to smoke.
- Preheat the smoker, aiming for a temperature of no more than 100 degrees. You should use a water tray to help regulate temperatures. If your smoker wants to get hotter, you can put ice in the water tray to help reduce temperatures. A pellet tube or wood chip box is a good choice for producing smoke without excess heat.
- Place the cream cheese on the parchment paper and put it directly on the rack in the smoker.
- Continue to check the pellet tube, wood chip box, or chunks of wood to ensure they continue to make smoke and don’t ignite fully.
- Remove the cream cheese from the smoker after two hours.
- Serve warm or chilled.
Smoking cheese is a challenge because many smoker designs want to run at hotter temperatures. Being able to precisely reduce the temperature and maintain a low temp requires that you play with your air vents. You’ll probably find that you are doing things differently in order to get the right temperature without it getting too hot or burning out, but with a little practice, it’ll be just as easy as it is when you are targeting a 225-degree temp for smoking tri-tip.
Smoking cheese opens up a whole new world of flavors. Whether you are topping an amazing bacon cheeseburger with smoked cheddar, grating smoked parmesan on grilled shrimp and pasta, or spreading smoked cream cheese on your favorite New York-style bagel, the added smoke flavor gives complexity and a uniqueness that is hard to forget.
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