Wholly Smoke: Use your backyard grill to make your own wood-smoked cheese
Smoked cheese lovers are often surprised to find out that most of the commercial smoked wedges they buy are never actually exposed to smoldering wood. Instead they’re seasoned by being soaked in a solution containing liquid smoke, a natural flavoring. While the result is certainly tasty, I’m a fan of using the real thing to infuse foods with that campfire character. Especially after I discovered how easy it is to build your own smoker and create home-smoked cheese.
The first step in the process is to understand that the environment for smoking your cheese should never get hotter than 80°F (27°C). Otherwise, the milk fat in the cheese may liquefy and come to the surface, causing it to “sweat.” This low-temperature method is known as cold smoking. You can buy a commercial cold smoker that does a great job, but I prefer to build my own out of a simple tin can, a soldering iron, and my backyard grill. The heat source, a 15-watt soldering iron (normally used to fuse electrical wire), can be purchased from Radio Shack for less than $10. Buy a new one for this purpose since residues of solder often contain lead, which you do not want near your food. Once you’ve got your tools and cheese in hand, here’s what you do:
Step 1. With a can opener, partially open the top of a 14- to 28-ounce can, about two-thirds of the way around the lid. Bend back this part of the lid, remove the contents (saving or using them, of course), then rinse out the can and remove any exterior labels. Using a triangular can opener, punch a hole in the center of the part of the lid that you did not open. I also like to put an extra ventilation hole in the bottom of the can with the can opener.
Step 2. Fill the can with hardwood chips or pellets meant for smoking, which can be found online and where smokers are sold. Always use hardwood for smoking, because other types of wood produce foul resins. I prefer alder, cherry, apple, or another fruitwood.
Step 3. Insert the soldering iron into the triangular hole. This low-wattage heating iron makes the wood chips smolder instead of burn. Place this inside an
outdoor grill where the coals or fire normally would be, orienting it so the iron is at the lowest part of the can. Replace the grate.
Step 4. Plug in the iron and close the grill lid. Smoke should fill the grill within 15 to 25 minutes.
Step 5. Place the cheese on a clean sheet of aluminum foil that has been crumpled slightly so that smoke can circulate between the gaps and reach the bottom of the cheese.
Place this on the grill grate— not directly over the smoldering can—and close the lid again.
Step 6. It takes a little experimentation to find out how long it takes to get the smoke flavor you like for a particular cheese. Try 30 minutes as a starting point; some cheese may need an hour or more. After smoking, for best results wrap the smoked cheese in plastic and refrigerate for at least a day to allow the flavors to mellow.
Finally, here’s a cool smoker’s tip: If you have extra room on the grill, place a dish of kosher salt, dried herbs, and/or peeled garlic inside the smoky grill. These ingredients can then be used to add subtle smoke flavor to other dishes or as condiments. Wrap the smoked garlic in foil and roast in your home oven at 350°F for 20 minutes to create a delicious smoked garlic spread!
Written and photographed by David Bleckmann