A few weeks after going into lockdown in March, I initially struggled with the newfound isolation. We did the typical things of lockdown; a bit of gardening, played a few board games, walked the poor dog until she was arthritic, so like so many of us, I decided what I needed was a DIY project.
As a dad of a two-year-old and husband to an incredible wife who has worked tirelessly throughout the ongoing pandemic at the hospital, the amount of actual free time I had was unsurprisingly limited. Therefore, the project had to be simple. Unfortunately, my DIY abilities did not match my ambition, my dream plans for a two-story kitchen extension were quickly extinguished by my wife when I admitted that I thought black & decker was a chocolate bar. I was part way through my 6th packet of supermarket “smoked” bacon crisps, and the disappointment in the lack of smoky flavor, when the inspiration struck me, I decided to build myself a little smoke house. After a little research this is what I found.
People have been smoking food for years, centuries even. Unintentionally to begin with, of course, cooking over open flames would cause everything to taste smoky, like it or not. But it was the Romans who really build the road map smoking their food, they were smoking their food intentionally not just to preserve the food but also because they loved the flavour. They smoked everything; all types of cheese, pork, olives, beef, lemons, beetroot, turnips, peaches, medicine, flour and cosmetics to name just a few
There are two different method for smoking food: hot smoking and cold smoking. The difference between hot and cold smoking is simple- if the interior of the smoker is kept below 30C, it is cold smoking. If the temperature rises above 30C, it is hot smoking. I decided to go for cold smoking, as it is the most versatile method, and is the only appropriate way of smoking cheeses as they tend to melt in hotter environments.
I initially wanted to smoke meats, wanting to produce a really smoky pancetta. The pancetta available in our local supermarket, really isn’t smoky enough for me, as well as a complete lack of variety. There’s only so much smoky bacon a guy can handle, and so I wanted to smoke other things.
The focus of my smoking journey quickly changed from meats to cheese when I realised the curing process for meats was so much longer. Being impatient, I wanted something I could buy easily, smoke quickly and eat sooner rather than later. Plus, my wife is vegetarian, so I thought I could make it look like I was thinking about her and her feelings towards meat (I was love, honestly…). Supermarkets provide such an impressive variety of cheeses these days, so they couldn’t be more attainable. Brie, Camembert, a nice English Cheddar, the options just seemed endless.
I want to say I am not skilled at DIY, I genuinely believe the plasticine Bob the Builder model they use during filming could do a better job at putting up a shelf than me. We also had literally no budget for it, therefore, I would have to do it with as many recycled materials as I could get my hands on. But I was determined that this would not get in my way.
Once lockdown was lifted and families could mix again, I asked my ever-cantankerous father for help; who in truth, although he has almost 40 years of experience with plumbing is not the most coordinated of humans! But never-the-less he was genuinely made up when I’d asked him to help. After we found some examples of DIY smokers on YouTube, (Well Hung Food, Cook With Meat & Glen & Friends Cooking) we adapted the designs to suit our needs and we set about building a basic box out of untreated pallets in his garden using varying sizes of random screws we found in the garage, a saw and an electric screw driver
As we were building a cold smoker, we needed to ensure that there was enough air flow, so we could regulate the temperature and make sure to not over-smoke our ingredients. We screwed together a door with some old kitchen cupboard door handles and a hanging space made from chicken wire.
In all it was relatively easy to put together, being completed in a couple of hours, despite dad’s pleads for “just another tea break Jay”. In fairness to him, he only moaned for 119 minutes of construction, mainly about my shoddy workmanship- but I knew he wouldn’t be complaining when he was up to his eyes in oak-smoked brie.
Now the smoker was ready to go, this is where our only outlay came in, we needed to order some smoking wood chips. Rather creepily Siri had been listening to conversations I had been having and very helpfully (but a little intrusively) recommend a company called “Hot Smoked”. They offer a wide variety of wood chips for smoking food and drinks; their website offers help and advice for the amateur smoker. I wanted starter kit and was pleased to see they offered next day delivery. I paid and sat back, happy in the knowledge that my chips were on their way poste-haste and I would soon be smothering myself in smoked gouda or something else deliciously wonderful.
I was too impatient to wait seven days and took one block out after two days. I was completely deflated, as the smoked flavour was only on the cheese exterior and I feared my smoking days were over. I gave the other blocks the full 7 days, and when I came to open one of these, I was pleased to taste depth of flavour right in the centre of the cheese. Cheddar smoking- done! Now for something a bit harder.
Next was Brie and Camembert. I chose these cheeses to try next as it is rare to find smoked varieties of these and they are two of my favourites. Using the same principles I used for smoking the cheddar; I placed both cheeses on the perforated shelf and smoked them for 4 hours. Knowing the nature of Brie and Camembert, I wanted to avoid them becoming unstable and so was trying to keep the interior of the smoker below 25C. I also wanted to completely avoid the rind cracking and seeing the beautiful gooeyness spill all over the smoker but was finding this near impossible in the middle of a heatwave in August. Luckily, the Brie survived the full 4 hours, and I carefully lifted it using a palette knife into a food vacuum bag and straight into the fridge. Sadly, I was forced to mourn the loss of my French Camembert as it split on the final furlong with just 5 minutes to go. You were so close Felipe- I’m so sorry.
Safe to say Margo, my dog had a treat that afternoon! Feeling a bit disappointed about my Camembert, I consoled myself with the success of the Brie, and decided to marinade this too. I made a traditional Italian marinade (olive oil, black pepper, red bell peppers, Dijon mustard, lemon juice, oregano, basil and marjoram) and mixed this with the Brie once it was chilled and stable again, then vac-packed it securely for its 7 day infusion period.
With incredible will power and self-restraint, after 7 long days, the time finally came. I cut open the packet and prepared myself to be amazed. Which I was, but mainly by the flavour of the marinade. This, it appeared, had taken over the smoky flavour and as delicious as it was, it didn’t taste like a smoked cheese. I shared it with friends and family who were all impressed with the marinade though, but as a perfectionist I still felt a bit deflated.
After these initial test-runs, I decide to make some more smoked cheddar and try again with the smoked brie. I sent samples out to friends and family, all of which came back with positive comments (and some constructive criticism too!).
A few people even said it was the best smoked cheese they have ever had, and they loved the depth of flavour, which made me so happy and feel like the whole long-winded process was worth it after all.
Hard cheeses and meat are easier than gooey cheese. Now that I have the equipment and a little experience, I will change the way I work. Patience & timings are incredibly important as is the temperature, not only inside but outside the smoker; these are the most important things to take into account when smoking food, as every smoker is different and you need to adapt the way you use the smoker. Regular checks and more accurate temperature control is what I will be investing in.
My thoughts on future smoking exploits, I aim to keep experimenting with smoked cheeses and move on to some meats. I would like to eventually produce and smoke our own by using smoking liquors and marinades to produce different products. Alternatively, we could mix and match flavoured cheeses which could be tailored to people’s individual preferences. Whatever the future holds, I have definitely found a new hobby! So, stay tuned for future updates and I can’t wait to share the next stage of our smoky adventure……