I had a little inspiration last night from NWDave to smoke some cheese. I didn't have much on hand to work with, but, Co-Jack and Medium Cheddar seemed likely candidates, and being a small batch run, I decided to run with my Brinkmann Gourmet instead of my Smoke Vault 24, just in case I decide to toss something into the bigger rig for dinner tonight.
I'm shooting from the hip, so-to-speak, as I don't know what the melting temps of these cheeses are, both being Tillamook, so I'll keep my chamber temps below 100*F at all cost, including the use of block ice, if warranted. I have about 5lbs in the freezer, and some cube ice in the fridge dispenser as a last resort. I can see where this would be a project better suited for mid-spring or fall in my location, but, hey, I want some smoked cheese...NOW!!! LOL!!! So, here goes!
I started the smoke with one briquette (torch lit) to hold some heat under one chunk each of apple and pecan. After assembling the barrel to the fire pan, I added 1/2 gallon of fresh cold water to the pan to hold down temps. I may need to dump the water and add ice later...we'll see. Winds were calm (uncommon here), relative humidity was 49* and climbing (due to the heavy rain we recieved last night) with ambient temps of 79*F and slowly climbing, while holding 84-85* chamber temp an inch or so below the cheese. The smoker is located in the rear of my outdoor kitchen, which is the most protected from mother nature's whims, including sunlight, but it will hold alot of heat if cookers are rolling hot and heavy or the mid-day sun is hitting it hard.
My Brinkmann Gourmet charcoal smoker has several mods which I ran as follows: 1-1/4" lid vent hole, fully open; 1-1/4" lower intake draft control, fully open; 1-1/4" side fire pan intake, closed with fine mesh steel wool; foiled rope lid seal, raised to allow more ventilation from under the lip of the lid...all for reduced heat accumulation and increased flow of smoke throughout the chamber. The cast iron charcoal grate I added is in place to keep the briquette and smoke wood breathing nicely...it's about 6" below the water pan, and rests on the upper inside lip of the fire pan.
After trimming off some "character" from the aging cheeses and cubing into about 1" thick x 2" square pieces, we're ready to head into the uphill crawl towards smoky goodness @ 2:00 pm mountain time:
After 15 minutes, temps began to climb into the 88* range, so I installed a 1" 90* angled tube to my side fire pan intake to increase the draft just a tad. That's about all I can do to the smoker at this point, short of somehow using forced ventilation to keep temps down.
At 1 hour in: it was time for some kitchen ventilation or something, because the temp inside my kitchen had risen to 92* from the full sun beating down on the roof, along with humidity of 52* and a chamber temp of 93*. So, I put a stand fan about 3 feet away from the smoker on low speed, directed at the barrel to remove some of the heat...might work for awhile, then, I think it's time for ice in the water pan.
1 hour, 45 minutes in: chamber temps were 97*, abbient was 94* and 45% R/H, so, I dumped the water pan, added a quart of cold water and a 5lb block of ice, as my first briquette burned out, and upon adding a fresh burning briq, chamber temps hit 100* within less than 5 minutes. Heh-heh...I'm gonna be busy for awhile with this smoke...15 minute checks to keep things in line, but I may have it under control for a few hours now with the ice in the pan. Just keep starting another briquette very 90 minutes or less until I get some nice color after 4-6 hours. I also moved the stand fan away from the smoker and positioned it to draw air through my kitchen to heat reduce the radiant heat from the sun hitting the roof.
Here's a peek about 5 minutes after I added the block ice to cool it down and the fresh charcoal briq to keep the smoke woods going...cheese was starting to sweat a bit, and after comparing to the first pic, has taken on a nice coloring already, maybe a quick check every hour is in order:
Even the ice block is bathing in a slow moving column of smoke...hmm, smoked ice water, anyone? LOL!!!
2 hours, 45 minutes in: chamber temps back in the 87-88* range...the ice block is working out nicely, with 91* inside my kitchen now and 41% R/H.
The ice block is in there, somewhere, I think:
Aaaaah, there it is...a bit heavier smoke right now than I wanted, but, this may reduce the smoke time a bit as well. It still has that nice sweet apple smoke aroma, and the lightly pungeant and nuttiness of the pecan...it's got the potential to be some great eating cheese, as long as texture doesn't get fouled up somehow:
And, another color comparison to look at. Hmm, just had a thought (I know, scary thing..LOL!!!)...would the sweating be from rendering out of milk-fat, or just interior water? Maybe it's smoke chamber humidity forming condensation on the cheese?:
OK, time for a closer look at the Co-Jack vs Cheddar...if it's not sweating, or, is sweating less, then, it's the milk-fat of the cheddar...gotta take a quick close-up of that right now, just to satisfy my curiousity.
And, the results @ 4 hours, just before adding another hot briq to the smoke wood...that's why there's less smoke in the chamber, 'cause it's dying out now...
And, the Medium Cheddar:
My deduction of this observation: the Co-Jack has less pronounced (smaller) beads of moisture than the Cheddar, and they are side by side on the same grate with a centralized location of the smoke/heat and baffling/water pan, with the grate split in two by the two types of cheese, so the moisture beads must be rendered fat, as they don't have the same proportions of surface beaded moisture. Also, the Cheddar must have been made from a higher milk-fat content than the Co-Jack cheese. Lastly, I think it's safe to say that eating smoked cheese would be healthier for weight concious eaters (and, possibly for the cardio-cascular system as well) than non-smoked cheese due to the rendering out of the milk-fat during smoking. HA!!! Chaulk up another positive mark for the smokers!!! And, the benefits of smoking continues....LOL!!!
What a guy won't learn from a smoke with a little attention to details, huh?
My youngest daughter and myself were the only ones at home when I started this endevour, and she's been asking about the cheese smoke...when will your cheese be ready? I'm sticking around 'til it's done! Enthusiasm gallore...she's one of a couple of my kid's who ocassionally spends time with me preparing meats, dry rubs, etc, indoors, or in my kitchen when a smoker or grill is fired up. But, she had this weird look on her face when I mentioned I was smoking cheese today...it'll be first for her (and most of my kids, I suspect). Smoked cheese? Are you serious? I said I'd had smoked cheese before (store bought), really liked it, but hadn't had any for a few years, so today, I was going to change things around and possibly make it a regular item for our snacking pleasures. She took an immediate interest from that point on. Maybe I can smoke it often enough to rank up there with beef jerky, chicken salami, beef salami, and pastrami for snacking? It would surely be fun trying!
Overall, the smoke tending was a fairly constant process, due mostly to the smoke wood burning away from the briquette and lossing it's heat because of that, as well as adding a freshly lit briquette roughly every hour and re-setting the wood chunks over it, then giving it all a quick blast of the torch to re-iginte the wood so that the briquette would just help it hold it's heat to continue smoldering. Simple process, it just required more attention than I accustomed to. I may be able to go with a side fire box smoke next time around, and that would allow me to use 2 -3 briquettes for a longer burn with reduced air intake to control the heat source, but that's getting dicey on temp control, with having 2-3 times as much potential for heat output.
As the sun got lower around 6:00 pm, temps were no longer an issue at all. Towards the 5th hour, the ice block had melt down to about 1lb or so, but chamber temps were still below 90*...nice.
This smoke does have me already thinking about upgrading my aging 12 cubic foot upright freezer I have outdoors to a newer model, and converting the old one to a cold smoker with a side fire box/smoke generator. Maybe just a small output propane heat source for smoke. Hmm, cold smoked cheese, cold smoked/semi-dried sausage..........definitely worth the investment of time and money for what I've been smoking lately.
I decided to try some samples @ 4.25 hours...one chunk of each cheese, cut into quarters...right out of the smoker, the aromas are fantastic:
I was trying to capture the slight rind which formed on the surface here...very difficult to see, but it's there, if you look for color change near the cross-cuts on the edges...just a bit darker:
From my daughter:
I have always loved the way that my dad cooks. and this is definitley one of the best things he has made. on a scale from one to ten, I would give this an 11. you guys have all inspired him I am sure. thank u for that because it has given me a thousand really good things to eat. Thank u dad. this is the best cheeses that i have ever tasted. You are an amazing cook. I love u and thanks so much for making my stomache a happy camper. I absoloutley LOVE THIS FRICKEN CHEESE. :) :)
Jeez, I walked back out to check the smoker after we sampled the 4.25 hour smoke results to find the above. I better get started planning the next cheese smoke...soon.
Anyway, my take so far is that the apple/pecan is a great combination for the Co-Jack, but just a tad weak for the Medium Cheddar. I think cherry/peacn would do it more justice, and would also be a good match for sharp cheddar along with a hint of hickory. Extra sharp cheddar's flavor would definitely benefit very well from hickory/cherry. Don't take it the wrong way, though, as the apple/pecan is very good with the medium cheddar, it's just not quite the balance for the somewhat stronger natural flavors that I would be looking for.
As good as this is right now, I want to hold out for another couple hours before I pull it all out for the rest of the family and few friends. Now, I'm already wishing I had just gone all out and dropped about 10lbs of cheese into my bigger smoker!
I'm already considering other cheeses and smoke woods, as you probably gathered by reading the above...this isn't by any means the end of my cheese smoking...this much I know for fact.
The final remains after a piece of each removed for sampling earlier...I let these ride for 7 hours total smoke time:
Flavor, aromas and textures of the two cheeses: Texture was even better than I expected, with the rind having a soft but pliable surface. The interior was very nice, and slicing was a breeze with a sharp knife...no crumbling at all...held together like it was meant to be smoked. Aromas from the pecan are definitely the dominent factor, being it has that pungeant, nutty odor...very nice compliment to what follows when you take a bite. The flavors of both cheeses are very good. As I mentioned above, the cheddar could use a stronger smoke wood to make for the best match-up, but very good as is, too. The Co-Jack seemed to be our favorite, probably due to the better smoke matching for the lighter flavor combination of the cheese. I'd do it again the same way if all I had were apple and pecan...no complaints from me.
The wife said "too smoky", but otherwise, good. What she doesn't realize is that (1) these just came out and haven't aired much yet, and (2) smoked cheese is best as a condiment to other items, or as a thin sliced topper on a cracker with a cold cut meat, etc. The smoke flavor will mellow and weaken when you use it in that manner.
The rest of the kids and few of their friends went nuts over the stuff. My oldest hasn't returned home from his job yet...works 'til 10:00, then drives 3/4 hour to get home, but I'm sure he'll enjoy these cheeses as well.
I'm sitting here at my desk, plate of smoke cheese chunks just a few feet away airing, and the aromas were even stronger than the smoked and seared chops I just finished eating for dinner. I could smell the cheese while I was eating, no joke...and yes, I loved it!
That was a fun, brought on some new challenges to me (which I really, really enjoyed), and made for a very delicious eating pair of smoked cheeses. And, now that I have my first under my belt (at least in this smoker), they'll get easier as I continue down the cheesy road of smoke...er...smoky road of cheese...anyway, a must redo, very soon.
I can't believe I finally jumped into smoked cheese! That took some sub-liminal prodding, 'cause I've been an SMF'r going on 3 years, so it's not like I didn't know about the basics of how to make it all come together....I just needed a little something to push me off the fence.
Thanks, Dave, for getting me off my duff...it was a great experience, from start to finish!