Thirdeye Q

This site contains a collection of techniques for barbecuing, smoking and cooking over fire. The techniques shown here are not the only way or the best way to prepare a certain item. This site is just a starting point and these techniques are a guide to creating your own recipes. Recipes included here come not only from personal experiences, but from many knowledgeable folks kind enough to share their secrets. ~thirdeye~


Cold Smoked Cheese and Butter

Revised - 9/20/17

Cold smoking is defined as a process in which food is racked or hung in a low temp or unheated chamber, to which smoke enters and exits via a natural draft or is pumped in.  It's used for foods that do not require cooking, or foods that will be cooked following a short exposure to cold smoke.

Cold smoking is actually a flavor delivery process that is perfectly suited for things like cheese and butter, and the equipment you need to get started is very basic.  You need a smoke generator (discussed below), and some sort of chamber like your grill or smoker that has a grate or two.  

SMOKE GENERATORS - There are numerous methods for generating cold smoke.  Some of the oldest designs were a pit or barrel in the ground, and piping that carried smoke to a smoke-house that might be full of hams, bacon or even salmon.  My Grandpa had a old refrigerator with a hot plate and chip pan in the bottom.  In the late 70's I got my Little Chief box smoker (I also own a Big Chief),  both of which use a hot plate and chip pan... I've used them for years for both cold and hot smoking.  In a grill or a smoker, one can build a small fire with just a small amount of charcoal, then feed the coals enough chips to create a small amount of smoke; some folks put the charcoal in a metal coffee can. There are metal smoke boxes that hold pellets or fine chips which are burned, and there are sawdust trays and special tubes that burn pellets.  I've even seen folks use a soldering iron stuck into the bottom portion of a soup can which holds wood chips to generate cold smoke.  The object here is to think cold.  The last thing you want is heat.  I have even used a tray of ice between the chip pan and my cheese in my "Chief" smokers to keep the smoke cooler.

SMOKE CHAMBER - Cold smoking does not require a particular kind of cooker. In fact just about anything with a rack for holding food can be your smoke chamber.  It could be a wooden cabinet, a cardboard box, any of your smokers, or even your kettle grill.  For the remainder of this article I'm just going to refer to your cold smoking equipment as your "smoker".  Later I'll list some of the pros and cons of the equipment I've used for cold smoking.

SMOKE CHARACTERISTICS - The amount, quality and of course temperature of the smoke is extremely important.  Just how cold is "cold smoke"?  Well, you will get many answers to this question.  I think that smoking in which the food chamber does not exceed 90° F to 100° F is cold smoking.  A lot of my cold smoking of cheese and butter takes place at 40° to 50° F.  Remember, cheese starts to change texture at 75° F to 80° F, so don't let it get that warm.

The amount of smoke should be slight and very gentle.  You do NOT want white billowing smoke. The heat source and amount of flavor wood should be controlled in order to keep the smoke in the light gray to light blue range of color. And it should smell good when you stick your nose near the smokers vent. If it smells bitter, your cheese or butter will be bitter.  

Now that we've covered the technical end of cold smoking, let's get down to the business of cold smoking cheese and butter.

SELECTING  CHEESE AND BUTTER - I've tried numerous brands and varieties of cheese, and the best advice here is to experiment until you find some favorites. Soft cheeses take less time to smoke than harder (more dense) cheeses. My favorite brand is Tillamook.  My favorite varieties are their black label 
Extra Sharp aged cheddar (yellow), their regular Cheddar, their pepper jack and their Colby Jack. I have cold smoked brie and other soft cheeses for use in dips, and sense they are not as dense as other cheeses they will take smoke easier. When it comes to butter I really don't have a favorite brand, your only choice is salted or unsalted.  My uses are mostly on vegetables like corn-on-the-cob, on scrambled eggs or a pat atop a grilled steak or hamburger pattie.... so I use salted butter.  Also consider making a compound butter with your smoked butter, allow it to warm and mix in some supplementary flavors using herbs, spices or garlic... then re-form  and freeze in plastic wrap.

PREPARATION – For smoked butter I usually buy packages of the 1/2 sticks, and often save the paper wrapper for re-packaging after smoking.  Depending on the packaging of cheese, you might have minimal slicing if you buy small blocks.  I usually buy 2 pound blocks and make 10 cuts to get 10 small sticks that are about the size of regular sticks of butter (five initial slices of the block, then slice each square in half).  Let the cheese warm on the counter for an hour or so to make slicing easier.

WEATHER - For cheese and butter it's best to smoke on a cool day and/or in the shade.  Even though cold smoking produces little or no heat, it's best to keep your smoker out of the sun especially if it's a metal smoker.

FLAVOR - Your goal here is to be able to taste the cheese (and butter), and also the smokey back flavor which compliments the cheese (and butter).  Butter has a subtle flavor… follow my guidelines for cheese, but pay close attention to the butter because you might wind up pulling it sooner. If the butter or cheese softens, just remove it to the fridge (I use a pre-chilled plate) for 30 to 40 minutes, then rotate it back to the smoker.  In one of the following sections I will discuss aging and mellowing your cheese but there is one misunderstanding about smoked cheese I want to get out of the way first.  Some folks think all smoked cheese comes out of the smoker too smokey to enjoy and it must be immediately packaged and mellowed for weeks before it is fit to eat. I've seen people refer to their finished cheese as "smelling like an ashtray" and "so strong I almost threw it away".  Well, the finished smoked cheese should be like anything else that comes off your smoker, it should have a savory, smokey scent that makes you want to try some, and initially it should have an acceptable flavor (although it will improve with some time). When I smoke cheese I sample it several times during the cold smoking, and my cheese is edible during the entire process.  My advice is to start with a mild fruit wood like apple, and experiment with flavor from there.  I'll cover my current equipment set-up at the end of the article, but it's interesting to note that as I improved my smoke generator and procedure I was able to utilize many other flavors of wood.

PROCESS - Okay, you have your smoker set-up, a gentle flow of good smelling smoke, and you place several sticks of cheese on the rack. Check back in 20 minutes and see what's going on.  Open the lid or top and check the cheese.  Don't worry about letting heat out, that's okay.... you're cold smoking remember?  Now.... What are you looking for?  

1. COLOR:  Is the cheese getting dark?  Darkening could indicate too much smoke.  Most smoked cheeses will only darken slightly by the end of the smoking process.
2.  FINGER TEST: Handle a couple of pieces, and then check your fingers.... if your fingers are oily your cheese is too warm... you are breaking down the cheese.   If your fingers smell like smoke, your smoke may be too heavy. 
3. MELTING:  If the cheese is leaning or worse, melting into the grate, your smoker is too warm. 

If you did not see any of the above issues, you are off to a good start!  Wait another 20 minutes and repeat the first 3 tests, but this time do an additional step:

4. TASTE: Do a taste test.  Take a piece out of the smoker and go back inside.  Wait a minute or two to clear any smoke from your nose, then sniff the block of cheese.  Next, make two thin slices, smell and taste them. Remember the end slice will have a stronger flavor than the second slice.  If you detect any bitterness or the cheese is very smokey, you are using too much smoke.  Sampling butter can be done with a thin slice, however I prefer to put my butter sample on something neutral like a small square of flour tortilla and sample it that way. 

If you get a nice light smoky flavor, return your "sampling block" to the smoker and check it again after 20 more minutes (one hour of smoke time so far).  At any time during this first hour you can stop the process by simply removing the cheese from the smoker and then make necessary adjustments (like letting the fire burn down a little, or chilling the cheese down in the fridge).  Now you should have a handle on fire/smoke management and should also have an understanding of how the flavor profile will develop over time. Monitor and sample your cheese a couple of more times and pull it when it tastes good to you.  While you are dialing in your equipment and personal tastes something to keep in mind is that you can always do a second smoke session on your cheese if you decide you want a stronger flavor.  I've even fired my smoker back up the next day and given cheese or butter another dose of smoke flavor. These sticks of butter have been smoked 4 hours, note they are not deformed or darkened.

It's safe to say that no two cold smokers will behave exactly the same, so I can't give you any information on smoking times. With different equipment my smoke times for the same brand and size of cheese might be anywhere from 2 hours to 6 hours.... this is why monitoring and sampling is so important.

THE FINISH - Remove your cheese to a tray on a rack and set out of the way on the kitchen counter or other cool location.  You want to allow its temperature to equalize.  Notes on wrapping: If you wrap your cheese too soon, moisture can be trapped inside the packaging, and among other things you risk getting white specs or even mold on your cheese. If you vacuum package your cheese you may force moisture and oils out of the cheese which will damage it. Many folks will leave the freshly smoked cheese on the counter most of the day (maybe covered in cheese cloth only), I prefer to rest it on the counter for several hours, then blot each side with a clean paper towel, then transfer it to a zipper bag that contains a new paper towel. Do not completely seal the zipper bag because at this point you do NOT want to risk the formation of condensation.  After a few more hours I'll change the paper towel and move my partially un-sealed zipper bag of cheese to the fridge. The next day I will wrap the blocks individually in waxed paper and store in a zipper bag or plastic container in the lower area of my refrigerator.  I don't freeze my smoked cheese.

AGING - This process is common to many cheeses.  Some cheese is aged before it goes to market, and some cheese is aged by the consumer after purchase.  Cheese can age when it is in waxed wheels or rounds as well as when it's in a sealed package.  Cheese ages faster at higher temperatures. Check out a cheese shop sometime and look at the selection (and price range) of aged cheeses. Ask for samples.  The extra sharp Tillimook cheddar I like is aged 15 months.  I've smoked several cheddars with more aging, but there is a noticeable jump in price.  Generally speaking, most smoked cheese is consumed within a month or two, so for this article I'm going to stick with mellowing your cheese. If you want to further age your smoked cheese you can explore methods like oiling and waxing to prepare it for long term aging. 

MELLOWING - This step improves (or refines) the taste of your cold smoked cheese.  For a short time after you seal your zipper bag, or wrap your cheese the smoke flavor will dissipate or equalize making the flavor smoother.  Mellowing cheese can take a few days to a few weeks. It's a good idea to experiment with mellowing the different varieties you smoke. Many things are improved with a short mellowing.... meat stocks, chili, home made wine and beer just to name a few.  But remember:  Mellowing is an enhancement of your product.... if your cheese is too bitter or so heavily smoked that it needs mellowing you need to modify your process.  

MY COLD SMOKING EQUIPMENT - For many years my cold smoker was a Little Chief box smoker that uses a hot plate and chip pan for a smoke generator.  The only heat control is ON/OFF, and venting is controlled by positioning of the lid.  Variations in the standard set-up are positioning a box atop the smoker (raising the smoke chamber), or using a pan of ice to cool the smoke.  One method I used was to unplug the smoker for 15 or 20 minutes at a time so it would not build up heat. A Little Chief works great in cool weather for smoking cheese.  I have used an A-Maze-N sawdust smoke generator tray in my Chiefs in lieu of the hot plate.

My Big Green Egg can be used as a cold smoker.  I have a small charcoal basket I use to hold a few pieces of lump charcoal.  I use a raised indirect set-up with an aluminum pan as my heat shield.  I can slide it out of the way and sprinkle chips into the charcoal basket. 

I use the same small charcoal basket in my Big Drum Smokers for cold smoking.  The BDS has more volume than my Egg, and when the vents are dialed in, it does not build up much heat at all.

My Smokey Joe Silver Tallboy (aka mini-WSM) is my current smoker of choice for cold smoking cheese. It's highly portable, will easily hold 4 pounds of cheese, and has near perfect draft when using my A-Maze-N sawdust tray smoke generator.  This set-up produces such a small amount of  heat, it's hard to measure.  Here is my Smokey Joe Tallboy with 4 pounds of cheese and below is my A-Maze-N sawdust smoke generator, I can get about 4 hours of smoke from one row of sawdust.

The quality and amount of smoke is such that I will smoke my cheese from 4 to 6 hours using a hickory or hickory blend of sawdust.  This set-up is also the most hands free of any of my smokers because the smoke generator tray only need to be filled once at the beginning of the smoke.  It delivers a constant amount of smoke, approximately equal to a couple of cigarettes burning in an ashtray.  I have used an 18" WSM with the A-Maze-N tray and had similar results.  I have tried the A-Maze-N pellet tray, but prefer the sawdust tray.