Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Who cut the cheese?

This normally pre-adolescent phrase is routinely bellowed from my lungs at all hours of the day. And I know what you're thinking.........but you're wrong. When you live in a house where you do your own smoked foods, sometimes phrases take on a totally different meaning. This is one of those phrases.

I usually know the answer to this question prior to me yelling it out for the entire house (and sometimes, county) to hear. My 8 year old daughter, Kennadee, could teach a thing or two to mice. She's stolen more cheese from my stash than an army of mice could do in a year. I usually try to make her feel bad about it, but only because it makes her hug me and tell me how sorry she is. If for nothing else, it's a way for me to hold on to those few precious moments before she becomes a teenager and discovers there are other men out there besides her dad. But enough of the mushy stuff, this post is about cheese and more to the point, smoking cheese.

I believe that cheese was one of mankind's greatest discoveries. Do you think they knew when they stored their milk in the stomach of goats and sheep that they would turn milk into one of the greatest comfort foods man has ever known? I think not. I also think that out of great tragedy (curdled milk) comes a great discovery (cheese). Sometimes, I think for all of human intelligence, it's good to have something great come out of failure. It keeps us humble. Sometimes, however, it's hard to be humble when you're family adores you for your smoked cheese. I'd love to be known as the type of father who is adored because of who he is and what he's done. However, I'm not that guy. As much as I try, I'll never win the father of the year award for my lovely disposition. Sometimes, you've got to forget about your weaknesses and play to your strengths. It's even better when your strengths (smoked cheese) play to other's weaknesses (smoked cheese). And that, in my opinion, is one of the greatest equalizing factors of life. My wife says I ramble on a lot and maybe I do. However, sometimes the greatest things in life are not the destination but the journey that got you there. If you haven't figured it out yet or are reading my ramblings for the first time, I'm more into the journey than the destination. Smoking cheese is about both the journey and the destination.

So, you want to smoke some cheese? I try to do this at least 10 times per year as the cheese usually doesn't last very long in the house and it's also a great gift to give or to bring along for a party. The type of cheese usually doesn't matter. Cheese, in and of itself, is a wonderful comfort food. Add smoke to the equation and you take cheese to the next level. Smoking cheese is a very simple task to accomplish (assuming you have a smoker or access to a smoker). Your greatest enemy in meeting this goal, however, is the ambient temperature. If you live in an area conducive to high heat versus an area that is colder in nature, it can still be done but with a little more planning. I live in northern Indiana which is an area that is pretty decent for smoking cheese. Ideally, I like the ambient temperature to be around 60F or less when smoking. The reason for this is rather obvious. If the temperatures inside your smoking chamber get above 90F, you won't have smoked cheese, you'll have smoked cheese soup. I try to do everything I can to keep the temperature in my smoking chamber at or below 80F. At this temp, I do not have to worry about melting or even sweating the cheese. Sweating the cheese is when the natural oils in the cheese are released due to the temps of the cheese getting too high. It is a precursor to melting. Additionally, I believe that when the cheese sweats too much, it affects the taste as well as the consistency. I, however, am not an expert on cheese. That's simply from my observations of being a life-long admirer of cheese.

So, you've got a smoker and the ambient temperatures are perfect for smoking. The next logical question is "What type of cheese works best?" The answer to that is all of them. In my opinion, if it's cheese, it can be smoked. Now, I've never tried to smoke ricotta, but it can also be done. But, I've run the gamut of cheeses through my smoker and there's really only one rule I follow when selecting cheese. If I don't like the type of cheese unsmoked, I will not like it simply by adding smoke to it. That is my only guideline when choosing cheese. If I like it unsmoked, I like it smoked (and I like it more smoked).

If you live in an area that is blessed with an abundance of cheese (Vermont or Wisconsin, for example), you usually have a run of great cheeses available to you. Living in Indiana (which is not known for its cheeses) can be somewhat of a challenge in finding good quality cheeses and even more of a challenge finding them at an economical price. I'm a little lucky that I live by one of the largest indoor farmer's market in the Midwest (it's actually the world's largest wood peg structure) and it has an abundance of fresh Amish cheese available at all times of the year.

I'll usually grab some Horseradish, Jalapeno Cheddar, Habanero Cheddar, Farmers Cheese, Havarti Dill, Onion and anything else that strikes my fancy. This is how my lineup usually looks when I've selected the cheese and am about to get to smoking it.

At this point, with my Bradley Smoker, I have the smoke generator on and heating so that when the bisquettes hit the burner, the smoke will start rolling. There is no heat in the tower at that time with the exception of what is being generated by the smoke generator. When I smoked this cheese, the ambient temps at the time was in the single digits, so there was no need to set up the Bradley for a cold smoke. My next post will be centered around the Bradley, so this may make more sense after I post it.

Now that I've got the cheese and my smoke generator is running, I like to slice the cheese for a couple of reasons. First, I believe that you'll get a more thorough some adhesion with smaller pieces (thus a much better smoke flavor throughout) and it also makes slicing the cheese for consumption much easier and a much nicer presentation.

I've got it sliced up now (I left some pieces whole as I was going to shred these pieces and use for cooking) and ready for the smoke. Additionally, if you've got extra room in the smoker, I like to throw some garlic in and smoke it as well and use the smoked garlic for recipes calling for fresh garlic. I simply strip down most of the paper covering the garlic and brush lightly with olive oil to help with the smoke adhesion.

Because I wasn't using a cold smoke setup (I didn't separate the smoke generator from the smoke tower), I simply added ice to the water bowl. The spent bisquettes from the Bradley are extinguished in the water bowl. The ice helps keep the temps inside the tower down in the quest to keep the temperature from rising above 80F.

Now, the question for amount of smoke needed arises at this point. As the Bradley produces smoke differently than a traditional smokeburner, the time of smoke is much less than the traditional way of smoking. However, I've found that smoke taste is truly a personal preference. I like a lot of smoke flavor with just about anything I do, so I tend to go with longer smoke times. What I've found is that on average, I will do 3 hours of smoke on the cheese and usually use a lighter type of wood (primarily I use apple or cherry or a combination of the two flavors). I've also found that harder cheeses will have much more smoke adhesion quicker than soft cheeses. So, if I'm doing a combination of hard cheeses and soft cheeses, I'll pull the hard cheese out prior to pulling the soft cheese. Usually after 2 hours and 40 minutes of smoke, I'll pull the hard cheeses and after 3 hours and 40 minutes of smoke, I'll pull the soft cheeses.

Here are some more pics of the cheese while it's smoking:

The wire you see running down in the first picture is my Maverick ET-73 remote thermometer. It simply reads the temperature inside my smoker and transmits the temps to the receiver inside the house so that I can monitor the temperatures from the comforts of my home. It truly is a great way to make the smoking process more user friendly and keeps you a lot warmer while smoking in colder temperatures.

This is what it will look like when the smoking process has completed:

The first thing you'll notice when smoking with the Bradley is that the cheese doesn't necessarily develop that really dark smoke skin that you would normally see with smoked cheese. However, that is simply due to the way the Bradley produces smoke. The flavor is the same; you just don't get the same visual effects on the cheese that you would with traditional stickburner smoking.

Now that the cheese is done smoking, it's time to package and then let the cheese rest. I always use a vacuum sealer when packaging the cheese for it's rest period. If you don't have a vacuum sealer, you can simply wrap tightly in a plastic wrap (usually a double wrap works well). You don't want to taste the cheese when it comes right out of the smoker. Because of the great concentration of smoke adhesion to the surfaces of the cheese, the cheese at this point will taste like an ash tray at this point. This is kind of like telling a kid not to put their tongue on the frozen flagpole. I know someone will do this because I said not to but do so at the risk of your own taste buds. I let the cheese age for a minimum of 10 days and like to go 2 weeks before I open up a package of smoked cheese. During this rest time (in a refrigerator, of course), the smoke flavor will infuse throughout the cheese and also mellow a bit. The taste is worth the wait. I've even gone two months before opening the package and believe the longer the wait, the better the flavor. However, the only way I can keep it that long is by hiding the cheese from the family in the refrigerator in the garage. If you haven't tried to smoke cheese before, give it a try. It's very easy and makes cheese even better.

Now you know why I'm yelling "Who cut the cheese?" That googootz 8 year old is always sneaking into my cheese stash. Oh well, they're only young once and if I can pass the tradition on to my children, it's worth the loss of lots of cheese to do so.

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