Woods & Fuels

How to Choose the Best Wood for Smoking Cheese at Home

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Smoking cheese at home is so easy and you get to eat the most delicious and flavorful cheese when you’re done! Smoking cheese is all about pairing the right wood with the right cheese. Any of the harder cheeses are great for smoking and can each pick up a new flavor depending on the wood you choose.

Apple and maple woods leave cheese lightly smoked, while hickory, pecan, and oak woods give the cheese a hearty, strong flavor. Cherry wood leaves a note of sweetness in smoked cheese. There is a wood for every desired flavor of smoked cheese, but you need to avoid melting it in the process.

While you might have a personal favorite wood for smoking, it’s important to understand the flavor profiles of both wood and cheese in greater depth when deciding which pairing to go with.

Important Tips for Smoking Cheese

Before we get into what kind of smoke wood goes with what cheese, it is important to understand the fundamentals of smoking cheese.

Easy vs Difficult

Like meat, some cheeses are easier to smoke than others, but overall they are more difficult than meat. Because of the general softness of cheese, it has the added danger of melting during the smoking process. Hard cheeses like cheddar and Parmesan are much easier to smoke than semi-soft ones like provolone and Gorgonzola. As a beginner, choose hard cheeses to work with. Hard cheeses also don’t get over-smoked as easily as soft cheeses do.

Cold Smoke

Those two words seem contradictory, but they will help keep your cheese in one piece. Cheese, as expected, cannot get too warm when being smoked, or it will melt. A cold smoke is required to keep the cheese from melting onto your wood of choice. The key to a successful cold smoke is to do it on a day no warmer than 60 degrees Fahrenheit and to barely ignite the wood. The internal temperature of the grill should stay below 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

A good trick is to put a tray of ice under the cheese to help regulate the temperature in your smoker. If the cheese begins to sweat, you need to lower the temperature as your cheese is in danger of melting!

Timing

Cheese should be smoked for a shorter amount of time than meat

Cheese is a lot more delicate than meat and is much more prone to being over-smoked and becoming unbearably bitter. Cheese should be smoked for a shorter amount of time than meat, but not too short that it doesn’t absorb the smoky flavors. This timing depends on the heaviness of the wood’s smoke and the softness of the cheese.

A cheese like provolone over a medium smoke is prone to over-smoking because it is so soft. Parmesan on the other hand would be okay for longer on a medium smoke.

Pairing Cheese with Wood

It is important to understand some of the popular woods used for smoking cheese before you go and buy just any smoke wood. Applewood, maple, cherry wood, hickory, pecan, and oak are popular for smoking cheese. Wood-like mesquite is best to stay away from because it is much too intense for even the hardest cheese. Powerful smoking woods will make the end result bitter and hard to eat.

  • AppleWood

Applewood has a light smoky flavor, which helps it pair well with a lot of different cheeses. If it is your first time smoking cheese, applewood is a great option. Because of how light the smoke is, it will be more difficult to over-smoke your cheese, which can give it that bitter, charred flavor.

While pretty much any cheese will be elevated by a good applewood smoking, some are better paired with it than others. Applewood best complements cheddar, Gouda, and Swiss cheese.

Cheddar holds smoke well, so none of the smoky flavors are lost, even with a light smoking wood like applewood. Its sharp flavor pairs well with the fruity flavors of applewood.

Smoked Gouda is a favorite among cheese lovers, and applewood brings out the notes of caramel in a high-quality Gouda.

Swiss cheese is mild in flavor and easy for beginners to smoke because of how hard it is. Applewood and Swiss are a great pair for any beginning cheese smoker.

  • Maple

Maple is light like applewood is, but it has a much greater sweetness to it. The unique sweetness from this wood pairs well with light, nutty cheeses. Swiss, provolone, and Gorgonzola blue cheese are the best options when smoking with maple.

Swiss, as covered before, has a nice light flavor that might be overpowered by a heavy smoke. Maple is nice and light, leaving the nutty, savory flavors of the cheese prominent while adding a hint of sweetness that will impress any cheese connoisseur.

Provolone is a pretty popular cheese to smoke, because of how inexpensive it is, but it is a bit harder to keep from melting because of its semi-softness. The saltiness and beefy undertones of this cheese will be greatly complemented by sweeter wood. However, you’ll need to be cautious of how difficult it can be to keep this cheese together in the smoker.

Many different kinds of blue cheese are great when they’re smoked, but Gorgonzola pairs especially well with maple wood. It is buttery and very savory, so the light sweetness serves as a great addition to its flavor profile.

  • Cherry Wood

While we’re on the topic of sweet woods, cherry wood produces a heavier smoke that mixes well with other woods. Similar to maple, cherry enhances and adds sweetness to any cheese, but has a unique, fruity sweetness that is different from maple.

Once again, nutty cheeses are great when they’re smoked with cherry wood. Provolone and cheddar are best with cherry wood. Swiss is omitted because even though it is nutty, its flavor is too light and will get lost in the heavier smoke of cherry wood.

Cherry wood adds a more smoky flavor than maple.

Provolone works well with cherry for the same reasons it excels with maple; the nutty, beefy flavor is well complemented with the sweetness of the wood. Cherry adds a more smoky flavor than maple, and provolone is known for pairing well with cherries!

Cheddar has a sharp bold taste that will not be lost at all in cherry wood smoke. The almost hazelnut flavor of cheddar will fit very well with the fruity notes from cherry wood.

  • Hickory

Hickory is known for creating a heavy smoke with a bacon-like flavor. It burns clean, but if you’re not careful, it will produce a very strong smoky flavor that many people do not enjoy. Extra care should be taken when smoking cheese because it tends to be more prone to smoke than meat. Because hickory is so strong, strong cheeses are your best option. Cheddar, Gouda, and provolone can handle the intense smoke.

Cheddar, once again, is a great option for smoking (sounds like you should buy some cheddar for your smoker!). The sharpness will be able to hold its own against the bitterness of hickory smoke. The bacon flavor of hickory is a great addition to the hints of whisky flavor that’s noticeable in some cheddar cheeses.

It pairs well with sweet and savory woods, so pecan is the best of both worlds for smoked cheddar lovers. The sharpness gets a better chance to stand out with pecan as well!

Gouda has an incredibly strong flavor that will have no trouble staying present through the hickory smoke. The versatility of hickory is apparent when smoking this cheese because Gouda is known for having sweet, buttery flavors that are nicely juxtaposed by the bitter, savory flavor of hickory smoke.

Provolone is another cheese with sharp, salty flavors that will fit nicely with the bacon-y taste of hickory. Be careful to not smoke for too long, because while provolone has a strong flavor, it can be drowned by the hickory if you’re not careful.

  • Pecan

Pecan wood is a beautiful combination of the flavors of hickory and maple. It carries the same slightly bacon-y flavor of hickory, but with the lightness and sweetness of maple. Those who find it difficult to not over-smoke their cheese with hickory will find pecan to be a delight. Pecan also smokes best with a cool smoke, which how cheese must be smoked! Cheddar, Parmesan, and Gorgonzola are great options for pecan smoke.

The almost floral flavors of Parmesan seem to dance with the savory sweetness of pecan

Parmesan is an easy cheese to smoke because it is a very hard cheese that is rarely at risk of melting. The spicy, salty, and almost floral flavors of Parmesan seem to dance with the savory sweetness of pecan. The sweetness contrasts with the salty flavors, and the light floral notes will settle nicely with the light bacon flavor.

Gorgonzola has buttery flavors that pair with the nuttiness of pecan. It can be a great combination, though it could come out a little heavy and rich, so be careful to only lightly smoke with pecan.

  • Oak

Oak is best known for its strong, clean flavor and for mixing well with other woods. While it has a distinct flavor, it does not tend to overpower other flavors, whether those be in the woods it is mixed with, or in the food being smoked. Its clean, earthy flavor will complement any cheddar or Gouda.

Cheddar takes on any flavor well as we’ve discovered, so why is it good with oak in particular? Cheddar takes on smoke very well and will make the most of the subtle flavors under the general smoke flavor. The delicate earthy flavors will not be lost on cheddar. Cheddar also pairs well with grains and nuts which often have similar flavors to oak.

Gouda comes in second place for best smoking cheese with the addition of oak to its complementary flavors. Like cheddar, it pairs with grains very well, so it is very nice with a clean smoke like oak. The sweetness of it is well balanced by the slight bitterness of oak smoke as well.

Pair Wood with Cheese

While it is helpful to know which cheeses work well over which woods, it can also be very helpful to be able to pick your wood based on which cheese you have stocked up on. Here is a chart that can help you figure out the best flavor combinations.

CheeseSmoke Wood
CheddarApple Wood, Cherry Wood, Hickory, Pecan, Oak
GoudaApple Wood, Hickory, Oak
ProvoloneMaple, Cherry Wood, Hickory
GorgonzolaMaple, Pecan
SwissApple Wood, Maple
ParmesanPecan

If you have a favorite cheese and you want to know how to smoke it to bring it to that next level, this chart has the information you need. All of the flavor notes of the woods fit nicely with the cheeses they are paired with.

Beginner Tips

If you are smoking cheese for the first time, there are a few tips about which cheese and which wood to use that will fit your skillset and give you a perfect smoke a lot easier!

Which Cheese

With enough practice and care, any semi-soft to hard cheese can be smoked. As a beginner, it is best to start with a harder cheese that has a strong flavor.

Cheddar is the best option for a first smoke. It is semi-hard so it will not melt too easily, and its strong, sharp flavors are not prone to be drowned out by the smoke. Cheddar also holds smoke very well, so you will have not have to worry about under-smoking it even with light smoking woods.

Another good beginner cheese is Gouda. Gouda is a very popular smoked cheese that so many people have high praises for. It is also a semi-hard cheese, so it will be easier to keep it in one piece. It has many different flavor notes than cheddar, so your first couple of cheese smokes do not have to taste similar. Gouda is sweet and strong while cheddar is savory, so it also gives you more options for choosing your wood later.

Which Wood

Some woods, like hickory, can be difficult to deal with for your first cheese smoke. You want to pick woods with lighter smoke, and easier flavors.

Applewood is easily the best option to start with. It pairs nicely with the two easiest kinds of cheese that we just discussed. It is a light smoke with a slightly fruity flavor. It will not overwhelm your cheese with smoke, and it complements almost any cheese, even ones outside cheddar and Gouda.

Maple is also a great wood to start with. Maple has a light smoke as well, but with a distinct sweetness that applewood does not have. While it offers flavors that are too sweet for Gouda, it is a great contrast with cheddar’s sharp flavor. Maple pairs with so many other cheeses as well, so it is a great investment if you plan on perfecting your cheese smoking skills.

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