Did you make cheese with me this month? Maybe you couldn’t find the time or didn’t track down the supplies. Maybe you’re nervous about making that first batch without my personal help. Or maybe, like me, you eat way too much cheese to rely solely on a homemade supply. That last reason is why I began upgrading mass-market cheese with a simple trick: smoke it.
Home-smoked cheese can easily start with a store-bought block that’s affordable but one-dimensional in flavor. I typically buy store-brand cheese or even giant deli loaves for smoking. It takes just a couple of hours with minimal involvement to impress family and friends. I smoke many types of cheese (usually pairing them with pickles, of course) to serve at parties, gift at holidays, and keep in constant supply in the fridge.
The key to smoking cheese is to keep the temperature really low: below 90°F. Any higher, and the cheese will melt. We use a charcoal kettle grill and just enough briquettes to keep the wood chips smoldering. If you own a smoker, check the manufacturer’s instructions to find out just how low it can go.
A few other tricks can help you smoke, not melt, cheese:
- Check the weather. A cold day makes it easier to keep the smoker cool. We love smoking cheese when we have to shovel a path through the snow to the grill. In summer, we usually grab headlamps to check the cheese during a midnight smoking session.
- Prep the cheese. Fridge-cold cheese will drip with condensation if you place it straight on the smoker. Smaller blocks have more surface area, so they dry out and absorb smoke better than giant loaves. So take the time to cut down the cheese and let it come to room temperature before you start smoking.
- Add a temperature buffer. Set a metal pie plate or other container on the charcoal grate below the cheese, and then fill it with ice (or handfuls of snow). This can help moderate the temperature even on shirt-sleeve days.
- Track the temperature. We set an old but accurate dial oven thermometer in the grill whenever we’re smoking to monitor the unit’s temperature. Its lowest mark is 100°F, so if the needle doesn’t register, the cheese usually doesn’t melt. To be doubly sure, I like to check the cheese temp with my favorite instant-read thermometer whenever I open the grill to add more wood chips.
- Keep on smoking! To keep the temperature low, I recommend only 4 briquettes when smoking cheese. They burn out in about 90 minutes, giving a light smoke to any cheese. Once they do, another round of briquettes can be prepped to give more flavor, especially with hard cheeses like Parmesan.
- Wait to taste. The finished cheese will smell smoky, so we typically let it cool in the mudroom instead of the kitchen. Resist the urge to sample it straightaway; it will have a sharp, caustic flavor on just the outer surface. As it chills in the fridge a few days, the sharpness will mellow and the smokiness will penetrate the cheese block.
Ready to give it a try? Full details are in the recipe below, but here are the basics:
You just need several pounds of cheese and your cold-smoking setup.
1. Cut and dry out the cheese.
2. Prep the briquettes and wood chips.
3. Smoke the cheese, monitoring the temperature.
4. Wrap, let mellow, and then enjoy.
Up to 10 pounds of cheese, such as Cheddar, mozzarella, and Parmesan
Remove the cheese from its packaging and cut it into 8- to 12-ounce blocks, removing any rind or waxy coating. Space the blocks on their narrow edge on a grill topper or other rack and leave it for about 1 hour at room temperature, until you can’t feel condensation.
Prepare your charcoal grill or other smoking device (see the opening note). Place a piece of wire mesh screening on one edge of the grill’s charcoal grate. Soak about 2-1/2 cups of wood chips in water for at least 10 minutes. Light 4 briquettes; when coated in gray ash, lay them on the mesh screen. Top the briquettes with about 1/3 cup of soaked wood chips, and then slide the cooking grate in place over them, leaving the hinged part open for access to the fuel source. Set the grill topper loaded with cheese on the cooking grate. Cover the grill with its lid, with the vent on the opposite side from the mesh screen of fuel. Leave this vent open just enough for the smoke to curl through it.
After about 10 minutes, check that the temperature is less than 90°F, adding ice if it’s warmer. Check again after another 10 minutes. If the wood is no longer smoking, open the lid and add another handful of soaked wood chips; replace the lid. Let smoke for another 25 minutes, adding a similar amount of wood chips whenever they stop smoking, and then flip the cheese. Continue smoking, checking the temperature, and adding wood chips for an additional 45 minutes, until the briquettes have burned out. Remove the cheese from the grill and let it cool to room temperature. Wrap each brick in parchment paper, and then pack the bricks into several zip-close bags, labeling each cheese type. Refrigerate for at least 3 days before eating. The cheese will keep several months in the fridge. Makes about 10 pounds.
Tips & Tricks
- Our 18-inch grill topper comfortably holds about 10 pounds of cheese, so that’s what we aim to smoke in each batch. You can always smoke less and perhaps more depending on your grill size. Just be sure to leave space around each block so that the smoke can circulate.
- We choose our smoking day based on weather: the colder the day, the easier it is to keep the cheese intact. It also helps to add a temperature buffer, like ice cubes or our favorite—handfuls of snow.
- After 90 minutes, the cheese will be lightly infused with the smoky flavor. For even more flavor, light 2–4 additional briquettes and continue smoking the cheese for a total of 2–3 hours.
- Smoked cheese keeps months in the refrigerator, but you can also freeze it. I recommend grating the cheese first; otherwise, it will be crumbly when you defrost it and tend to mold quickly. I use a large-hole grater and then sprinkle the cheese straight from the freezer onto sourdough pizza.
Twice as Tasty
Once you start smoking cheese, you won’t want to eat cheap store-bought blocks any other way. We smoke many types: Cheddar, mozzarella, Parmesan, Romano, gouda, halloumi, and more. It should go without saying, but avoid process American cheese (which is blended with other ingredients), along with any store-bought cheeses that are presliced. Spreadable soft cheeses are also hard to smoke.
Many homemade cheeses can handle the smoking process. We often gobble them up before they make it to the smoker, but smoking adds another dimension to their flavor. Smoke homemade cheeses like Quick Homemade Mozzarella and Dry-Salted Feta once they are fully finished and ready to eat.
Wood chips impart some flavor notes from their original tree variety, so experimenting with those can give the same cheese new overtones. Apple, maple, and hickory are popular choices for cheese, but cherry and oak chips and even ones salvaged from broken-down wine or whiskey barrels impart subtle flavors.
After you dial in your cold-smoking setup, you can use it for plenty of other foods that are more forgiving to temperature swings than cheese. You can smoke many vegetables that work well on the grill, from broccoli to eggplant to corn. These are some of my favorites and their uses:
- Smoked Chilies for Home-Smoked Chili Paste
- Smoked Cherries for Bourbon-Infused Smoked Cherries and Smoky Sour Cherry–Tequila Salsa
- Roasted and Smoked Beets for Vegetarian Smoked-Beet Reuben
- Smoked eggplant for Baba Ghanouj
What goes well with smoked cheese? Pickles! Get a signed copy of The Complete Guide to Pickling to fill your shelves and fridge with vinegar and fermented pickles, chutneys, hot sauces, salsa, and more. At the same time, pick up the The Pickled Picnic to learn how to use pickles and leftover brine in a range of recipes. Click here to order.