When my husband got home from work yesterday I told him “I am SO cool!” And to prove it, I showed him what I’d done.
Actually, I wasn’t quite this far along when he got home – the cheese was still in the smoker.
But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Yesterday morning I wrote the second post in my little series on making bacon, and after looking at all the pictures of meat smoking, I could practically smell it.
It made me hungry.
And at some point, somewhere between 11:30 and 12:00, I believe, I suddenly thought:
“I should try to make smoked mozzarella!”
So the first thing I did was make some mozzarella.
Pretty simple: A gallon of milk, 1 1/2 tsp citric acid dissolved in 1/2 cup water, 1/4 of a rennet tablet, crushed and dissolved in 1/4 cup water. I’d let the milk sit out because I’d been planning to make either ricotta or mozzarella that day, so it wasn’t refrigerator cold by the time I got started. I poured it in my pot, added the dissolved citric acid, stirred, and heated it to 90 degrees F. Then I gently stirred in the dissolved rennet and brought the temp up a little more (to 100F). Then I shut the heat off and let the pot sit for another five minutes or so while the curds and whey continued to separate.
I love how easy things become the more you do them. I know that sounds kind of “duh,” but sometimes we forget it. We’ll think something seems too difficult, too complicated, and we never try. Or we try once, have horrible results, and never try again.
I’ve made mozzarella a lot lately. And yes, it gets easier and easier. So much so that I cannot bring myself to buy fresh mozzarella in a store. I can make my own in about half an hour for less than half the cost.
There are a couple of moments in the process that are particularly satisfying. To me, anyway.
First – the stage above, after the rennet has gone in and you continue to heat the milk a bit more until the curds separate from the whey, and you can see that clear, definite break between the two. The curds all huddle together in the center of the pot, and around the edges the whey is totally clear and clean-looking.
Next step – to move the curds into a bowl. More separation will occur as you gently scoop curds, drain them, and add them to the bowl. Once I’ve got all my curds, I drain out as much of the whey as I can at that point.
And then I put the bowl in the microwave for a minute.
Next, I drain off more whey, and start kneading the curds to distribute the heat.
And doesn’t my hand look…weird? Like a bus ran over it or something? It’s probably because I am not left-handed, but for picture-taking-purposes, I have to work with the left hand so I can hold the camera and shoot with the right.
And it leads to disconcerting images of my mangled hand.
The curds went back in the microwave for another 35 seconds, then I sprinkled them with some Kosher salt and kneaded a bit more.
Another 35 seconds in the microwave, a bit more kneading, and the other really, really satisfying part of the process occurs.
The look and feel of the mass of curds changes. It goes from this rather shaggy, messy mass to smooth, shiny, stretchy cheese.
And a lot like making bread, really.
Kneading is relaxing. Even wrong-handed.
Next up, I took my lovely stretchy creation and formed little balls of cheese by squeezing some in my hand like this, and pinching the little satellite away from the mother ship.
Each mozzarella ball went into an ice bath.
I made little balls of mozzarella rather than one larger form because I didn’t know how long it would take to smoke, and I figured smaller = quicker, relatively speaking.
I also figured that if I started the cheese very cold, it would take a while for it to warm enough to melt, and maybe, if I was lucky (or incredibly clever and resourceful), the cheese wouldn’t melt at all.
I ended up with about two dozen little mozzarella balls. Okay, only 23. I ate one.
While the cheese chilled, I headed outside to set up the smoker.
Actually, first I looked for the little instruction booklet that had come with the smoker. It’s usually with the few grilling and smoking books we have, but it wasn’t there today. I wanted to know what temperature the inside of the smoker would go to. I figured the cheese shouldn’t get too hot, otherwise it would melt through the rack and make a horrible mess and – worst of all – I’d have to clean it.
Since I couldn’t find the book, I went online and read somewhere that most electric smokers used by regular ol’ folk like myself run about 170 degrees F.
Well, I figured if I allowed a lot of the heat to vent out an opening near the top of the smoker, that would (maybe) keep the temperature down. I was thinking around 90 degrees would be nice.
So at first I thought I’d just lean the door (actually it’s one whole side of the smoker, and you can remove it) against the smoker and leave an area about two inches wide at the top.
So I filled the little pan with cedar shavings (sawdust, really – from when we replaced shingles last year), and a couple of small pieces of mesquite. No idea if that was a desirable blend for cheese, but I didn’t really care, either. I was experimenting.
Those racks, though. They bothered me. I thought they might be too far apart…that if the cheese softened too much, it might just slide through. Yuck.
So I went inside, in search of something to put on top of the rack.
None of the cooling racks would really work…I thought about using one of my plastic cheese molds, but I didn’t want to risk damaging it OR having it smell like smoke forever…
I finally settled on several layers of cheesecloth. It would allow the air (and smoke) to circulate all around the little balls of cheese, but it wouldn’t allow any soft cheese to slip through to the tray below.
And then I unfolded the piece of cheesecloth and cut an end off and used just two layers rather than six. I thought the air would flow better.
Then I started laying out the little cold mozzarella balls. I wasn’t going for perfectly round here, as you can probably tell. This was an experiment! Time for pretty later.
Oh, yeah, and then I realized that to get the rack in the smoker I always have to tilt it slightly to slide it in, and if I left the cheese on there I was just asking for little rolling balls of trouble.
So I dumped the cheese back in the ice water, took all my stuff outside, put the rack in the smoker, and arranged the little cheese balls so none were touching.
Then I leaned the door thing against the open side, and realized that that wouldn’t work because of all the open space behind the door now. You know, it forms a triangle on each side and lots of air (and smoke) would probably escape that way.
So I set the door aside and came up with another plan.
I wrapped foil around the smoker and left some space at the top for some of the heat to escape.
The cheese was on a rack in the middle of the smoker, and the heating element and the little pan of shavings and smoking wood were at the very bottom.
The smoke and heat would rise, traveling up through the balls of cheese, and escape through the little hole on top of the smoker AND the larger vent I’d just created.
I peeked inside, just to make sure the mozzarella was okay…
Peeked one more time through the little hole in the top of the smoker…
And then I went inside and started on the dishes.
At first I was sort of new-motherish about the cheese…scurrying out to make sure nothing bad was happening inside the smoker.
But – happy me – nothing bad was happening.
I wondered if I was letting too much heat escape, or too little…and it bugged me enough that I dug out the thermometer we sometimes use on smoked pork butt to monitor the internal temperature without having to open the smoker over and over.
I dangled the probe in through the hole in the top of the smoker and left the display part on the edge of the deck rail.
About ten minutes later I checked on things.
Hm…124. A bit higher than I’d wanted, but nothing bad seemed to be happening – the cheese had not melted – so I just let it go.
I added a little more cedar shavings to the pan to create some more smoke, and then told myself to leave it alone for a longer stretch of time.
Stop babying the cheese, Jayne! It’ll be fine! Just fine!
I’ve got pellicle! Well, maybe not exactly, but it’s a lot like it.
What’s pellicle? Well, when you’re smoking cured fish or meat, it’s a kind of dryish, tacky layer that develops on the surface of the cured, rinsed, dried meat (or fish). The smoke kind of clings to it as it passes by, and where there’s pellicle, you get that dark, smoky look.
I hadn’t cured the mozzarella, but there was certainly a smoky look appearing.
It’s not so easy to see in the picture immediately below, but I liked the image so I included it. If you want to see the smoky look, move down the the next shot.
The one right below. Look at the cheese in the back to the left.
See the tan color? YAY! SMOKE!
I left the cheese in the smoker for roughly two hours. I noticed that the balls of cheese toward the back of the smoker were darker than the ones in front. Mental note – rotate the rack halfway through.
Next step – tasting!
Only here I ran into a smidgen of a problem.
The cheese hadn’t melted, per se, but it was definitely soft on the inside. The outer “skin” that had developed was holding the melty part in, and when I tried to liberate one cheese ball from the cheesecloth, I had problems. The bottom skin of the cheese stuck to the cheesecloth. Hm. Not good.
I still needed to taste the cheese, and since I’d already kind of destroyed this one ball, I figured I’d just go ahead and eat it.
I carefully removed the rack from the smoker and set it on a platform on our deck. Here’s a view from beneath the rack, in case you were wondering how it looked. I know I was. Really. See – nothing melted through. I figure the skin formed first, before the cheese (which had been in an ice water bath prior to smoking), had a chance to completely soften. Perfect.
But there’s still the problem of the cheese sticking to the cloth. Hm. More thinking required.
But first, I finished pulling off that little already-torn mozzarella ball.
Here it is.
Fyi – yum. I shared it with Bill and Julia.
“Mom, it tastes like ham!”
Yes! That’s the smoke, my little taste-tester!
So here’s what I thought. If the cheese was breaking while it was warm and soft inside, then perhaps if I put it in the fridge for a while and let the insides firm up again, it would be easier to peel the cheese off of the cheesecloth.
So I put the cheesecloth and cheese in the fridge for a few hours. (This worked out well, because Alex had a Little League playoff game AND Julia had her end-of-the-year gymnastics recital/demonstration, and we all had to leave the house anyway.)
And – it worked. The cheese still stuck a tiny bit, but it was much easier to peel apart and none of the skin remained stuck to the cheesecloth. (A few little bits of cotton fluff stuck to the cheese here and there, but…cotton’s a vegetable, right?
In the picture below, I’ve got a few of the little mozzarella balls, including one upside-down so you can see how the bottom turned out. You can see a darker smoky area and the indentations from the rack.
Here are a few slices – you can definitely see the smoky skin!
I love experiments that work out nicely like this!
My heart swells, and I take way more pictures than I need.
But, you know, you can never have too many pictures of smoked mozzarella, can you?
Didn’t think so.
So then what?
Well, nothing. After snacking on the slices, I put the cheese back in the fridge. Tonight, however, I’ll be making something with it.
Not sure yet what that will be.
Maybe I’ll just dice it and add it to a warm pasta salad.
Or maybe I’ll get some really good crackers and we’ll just eat it sliced.
Or I could make a smoky lasagna.
Whatever I end up doing, I’ll let you know.
Yay, smoked mozzarella!