Smoke This

One of things I love about cheese is that there’s often a practical reason why a certain cheese is the way it is. Different recipes have evolved over thousands of years in specific geographic and cultural conditions and while those conditions may not exist in today’s modern cheesemaking world, each piece of cheese has one foot firmly anchored in the past. 

Smoked cheese is no exception. Today, cheese is smoked purely for reasons of taste but the discovery that smoky flavor might be desirable came about because smoke and fire were once critical tools of cheese preservation and aging. Hanging or stacking rounds of cheese near fire helped dry the cheese, removing moisture, curing it and helping to produce a more durable and longer-aging food. A key benefit of drying with exposure to fire was that the smoke acted as a preservative, keeping insects and undesirable molds at bay until a cheese’s rind was impenetrable to protect the interior paste. 

Many European countries have a signature smoked cheese with close resemblance to numerous unsmoked examples. It’s likely that several hundred years ago all of these cheeses relied on smoke for curing but over time smoky flavor became the signature of one recipe while others adopted more modern curing and preservation methods. 

In southern Italy, for example, scamorza is made both plain and affumicato (smoked) and bears a strong resemblance to the larger cheese Caciocavallo which resembles a waxen, milky white six pound gourd and has a smooth, firm, elastic texture. Both cheeses are made like mozzarella but have far less moisture. Caciocavallo was traditionally aged hanging from ropes that dangled from wooden rafters above open fires but today is no longer smoked. Scamorza, however, holds place as the regional smoked cheese of this region.

Spain proffers the cheese Idiazabal, which is made in both smoked and unsmoked versions although only the smoked is exported to the U.S. It closely resembles a lightly smoked Manchego, made of sheep milk, with a firm, buttery paste and delicate smoky finish. 

Understanding the pragmatic origins of cheese smoking, the reality of today’s market is that most basic styles of cheese are available in smoked form, and this is exclusively about taste. Mozzarella, Gouda and Cheddar are the most common smoky cheeses but nearly every major style has a smoked version if you look hard enough, from fresh goat cheese to Provolone to Swiss. If taste is what we’re talking about, it’s worth noting that not all smoked cheese tastes the same. The method of smoking and the base recipe both influence the final product in significant ways.

I’ll tell you that the most popular and ubiquitous smoked cheese is also the one I think is the worst. Here’s why. The vast majority of smoked Gouda sold in the U.S. arrives to you as a plastic-wrapped round with a deep brown skin around the perimeter. This is pasteurized processed cheese duded up with liquid smoke flavoring. It is neither actual cheese nor is it actually smoked. But it is smooth and smoky tasting and melts like a dream so I totally get why people love it. Even I must admit it is an amazing addition to a mac and cheese blend. 

As a cheesehead, I judge the merits of smoked cheese by a few things. I want to taste the actual cheese, and I want the smoke flavor to come from real live smoke which imparts a subtler, more complex finish like a whiff of camp fire instead of a hot-doggy flavor. Smaller, more artisanal cheesemakers often look to regional wood to impart distinctive smokiness. Apple, oak, hickory and chestnut woods are the most commonly used by Texas cheesemaker The Mozzarella Company smokes their mozzarella over pecan chips; Oregon’s Rogue Creamery uses hazelnut shells. 

You may associate deep, smoky flavor with cool nights and dropping leaves but summer is an amazing time to branch into the world of smoky cheese. First, smoked cheese melted on a burger is a revelation. For anyone out there who likes to throw a few strips of bacon on, try smoked cheese. Heating (and melting) this style amps up the smoke flavor, enrobing every bite with buttery, smoky goodness.

For the experimental types out there, now is also an ideal time to get experimental and try smoking your own cheese. Then you have the option of smoking any kind of cheese you like! Just remember that cheese needs to be cold smoked, so you’ll want to keep temperatures no higher than 80-90 degrees and you may need to play around with sealing it in the refrigerator for 1-2 weeks let the intense, sometimes acrid smoke flavor mellow out into the nutty, meatiness you want.

Another vote for smoked cheese in summer is that, while it’s good with many beverages, there is no better drinking buddy for smoky cheese than beer. You can go smoke with smoke and try a Stout or Porter; I’m partial to rich, higher alcohol Belgian Dubbel which compliments the fruity notes of, particularly, applewood. But let’s be real. An easy-drinking lager and a hunk of smoked cheese is such an endlessly pleasing back and forth you may skip the burger altogether.