One of the things I love about cheese is its seemingly endless variety. It turns out that, often, these variations result from practical challenges to making and storing cheese. Different recipes have evolved over thousands of years in specific geographic and cultural conditions. 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 for cheese preservation and aging. Hanging or stacking rounds of cheese near a 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 enough that the interior paste was protected.
Many European countries have a signature smoked cheese resembling 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.
For example, in southern Italy, 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 kinds of cheese 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 is no longer smoked today. Scamorza holds its place as the smoked cheese of this region.
Spain proffers 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’s milk, with a firm, buttery flavor 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 style has a smoked version if you look hard enough, from fresh goat cheese to provolone to Swiss. If flavor is what we’re talking about, it’s worth noting that not all smoked cheeses taste the same. The smoking method and the base recipe both influence the final product in significant ways.
The vast majority of smoked Gouda sold in the U.S. is pasteurized processed cheese duded up with liquid smoke flavoring. It is smooth and smoky-tasting and melts like a dream, so I get why people love it. It is a fantastic 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 campfire 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 cheesemakers. The Mozzarella Company smokes their mozzarella over pecan chips; Oregon’s Rogue Creamery uses hazelnut shells.
You may associate the 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 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 to let the intense, sometimes acrid smoke flavor mellow out into the nutty, meatiness you want.
Another point for smoked cheese as a summertime treat 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 apple wood. But let’s be real: An easy-drinking lager and a hunk of smoked cheese is such an endlessly pleasing back and forth that you may skip the burger altogether.