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New Year, New Cheese

I don’t do new year’s resolutions.  I’ve written before about it, but the short version is that I see New Year’s Day as an accident of chronology.  We are roughly in the same place, relative to the sun, we were 365¼ days ago.  Not the most rational reason to embark on potentially life-altering projects.  Besides, if it is important enough to make a resolution, to commit to doing or not doing something, why wait until January 1st?  Why not just do it when you think of it?

So, here I sit in the living room riding herd on another batch of smoked cheese.  A number of people have asked me how I do it, so I thought I would lay out what I know.  When I first decided to smoke cheese, I did some research on the internet.  I’ve lost the link and forgotten the site where I got most of my usable information.  I remember that the guy used one of those smokers, like a Weber kettle, where the heat source is directly below the material to be smoked.  He put a pan of water between the fire and the cheese.

I use one of those barrel smoker/grills.  It lets me put the fire on one end and the cheese on the other.  I use charcoal to get a heat source and have used, almost exclusively, a chunk of hickory as the smoke source.

The real problem with smoking cheese is that it is a cold weather sport.  It simply can’t be done in hot weather.  Cheese melts at around 90°.  The closer it is to 90º, the less heat you can have in the smoker.  I’ve tried smoking cheese when it was in the low 60’s, but never had a good result.  When the ambient temperature gets to the low 50’s, cheese smoking becomes reasonably successful.

To smoke cheese you need enough heat to get the wood to smoke, but too much heat, or if the wood starts burning full out, the temperature in the smoker can get above 90º very fast. (Obviously, I don’t soak the wood.  Plopping wet wood on charcoal briquettes just seems like a bad idea to me.) In the spring and fall I use 4 charcoal briquettes.  I douse them in a bit of lighter fluid and let them soak for a couple of minutes, the arrange them in a square pattern in the smoker.  I light them and let them burn until I can no longer smell the lighter fluid.  Trust me, the cheese/lighter fluid taste is not good.  Usually, by the time the lighter fluid smell is gone I have gray ash all the way around each briquette.  At that point I put one chunk of hickory on top of the charcoal and wait for it to start smoking, then add the cheese on a metal rack on the far end of the smoker.

I always cut the cheese in slices and spread it out over the rack.  I really love the smoke flavor, so I’m trying to maximize the surface area exposed to the smoke.  Once arranged, I close the lid on the smoker and leave it alone.  The only time I open the lid is if it gets too hot inside (I have a thermometer on the lid of the smoker) or if I stop getting smoke.

As the internal temperature of the smoker approaches 90º, the cheese will start to sweat.  Personally, I like that.  The smoke gets absorbed into the liquid and when you eventually put the cheese in the refrigerator, the liquid gets absorbed back into the cheese.  It the temperature goes over 90, you either pull the cheese to keep it from melting or find a way to cool it off.  Quick.

When the temperature is in the 50’s I can usually get 30-60 minutes of smoke, depending on how good I did setting the charcoal, the particular piece of wood, how windy it is, and probably a dozen other factors I’m not aware of.

In colder weather (like today, for example, where it is currently 30º) I can often get away with using 6 charcoal briquettes and adding hickory chips to the chunk to ensure more burning surface.  In below zero weather I’ve used piles of hickory chips, which generates big clouds of smoke, but the main effect is, frankly that it puzzles and annoys the neighbors.

Generally speaking, I try to get at least 90 minutes of good smoke, after which it appears to me that you pass the point of diminishing returns.  Somewhere between 30 and 60 minutes the smoke usually stops and I usually have to add some chips and/or turn the chunk of wood over.

Tonight, I’ve had the smoke going for about an hour.  I just had to go add chips, as it had pretty much quit smoking.  I’ll keep at it for about another half hour and then cut the smoked cheese slices into strips.  (It seems to last longer that way.  Hand a person a chunk of smoked cheese and it is gone in no time.  Hand them the same quantity of cheese strips or juliennes or whatever you want to call them and they seem to last a lot longer.)

This batch of cheese was done as follows:

Charcoal:  6 briquettes

Wood:  1 hickory chunk and a couple of handfuls of hickory chips

Temperature:  30º

Wind:  Calm (more or less – it is Kansas, after all)

Cheese: Tillamook Sharp Cheddar (I could get other sharp cheddars a bit cheaper, but I’m sentimental.  I’ve actually been to Tillamook.  No other real reason.)  White Cheddar Chipotle.  These are our regular, every-time cheeses.  Tonight’s new attempts are Gruyere and Havarti Dill.

Update: The sharp cheddar and chipotle cheddar turned out good, as usual.  I probably should have saved an unsmoked piece of the Gruyere and the Havarti Dill, as I don’t buy either on a regular basis and have nothing to compare them to.  The Gruyere seems kind of bland.  I’m not sure whether the smoke helped or hurt, and I might try it again.  The Havarti Dill sounded like a good idea, but I won’t do it again.

I can fit the sharp cheddar, the chipotle cheddar, and one or two other cheeses (depending on the size) on my rack.  If I’m going to experiment, it’s usually just one new cheese per batch.  We regularly smoke Gouda and Edam and like both very much.  I’ve tried Jarlsberg and Muenster, both of which are just OK.  When it is really cold, I smoke Mozzarella, which we use on top of chicken breasts, smothered in pasta sauce and baked.  I’ve tried a few others, but I wasn’t impressed enough to remember their names.  I know cheese snobs will turn up their noses, but we also like to smoke Velveeta.  Melting isn’t an issue, as I put it in a bread pan.  I often do it in the summer when I’m smoking meat.  An hour of good smoke on melted Velveeta mixed with a can of Rotel tomatoes and jalapenos makes a queso dip with an extra layer of flavor that is really, really good.

Also, as for wood, I use hickory.  I tried mesquite once, and didn’t like it.  However, in the stores I’ve seen “applewood smoked gouda” and some other applewood smoked cheeses.  As it happens, I am supposed to be pruning back an apple tree very severely this winter to get it out of my folks’ electric lines, so one of these days I may try smoking with apple wood.

{ 1 } Comments

  1. Rat Jr.No Gravatar | January 3, 2011 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

    I liked the Dill.

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