Smoked Cheese

Science Byte

Cheesemakers have multiple methods of introducing smoke flavor into their products

Food has almost certainly been smoked since prehistoric times. Roman authors like Cato spelled out how foods were cured and smoked. A necessity of yesteryear, now an essential part of many food cultures around the world, smoked cheese (or smoke flavored) are as popular as ever.

Smoking Process

So how do smoked cheeses or smoke-flavored cheeses come to be? There are two main methods cheesemakers can use: (1) actually smoking cheese (i.e. cold smoking) or (2) adding smoke flavoring (i.e. liquid smoke). The former is pretty straightforward. You take the finished cheese and put it in a chamber that is full of smoke. It really does have to be “cold” smoke. Just sticking cheeses in an oven with some wood chips would result in melted smoked cheese. Not what we’re after. The liquid smoke method also has some nuance. It can be added to the milk, added to the brine, added to the curds, or the final cheeses can be sprayed/soaked with the liquid smoke.

ways to smoke cheese

Main methods of smoke addition to cheese

Which of these methods is best? You tell me. It depends on a whole number of factors. For our purposes though, the remainder of this post will focus on smoked cheeses (using actual smoke). The process of smoke generation has some interesting chemistry going on.

Warning: Chemistry Ahead

What is smoke?

Smoke is complicated. If we put on our lab coats and define it scientifically, “Smoke is an aerosol produced by burning wood.” If you track down a fire scientist they probably wouldn’t be happy with that definition, but it’s good enough for our purposes. We call smoke an aerosol because there are solid bits distributed within a gaseous medium. Those smoke components are what make it unique and useful for food flavoring/preservation. Things like temperature, moisture content of the wood, and all sorts of other things can influence the types and amounts of components.

Flavor and Preservation

To understand how smoke gets its flavoring and preservation power, we have to understand what wood is made out of. The three main components of wood we are concerned with are hemicellulose, cellulose, and lignin. Each of these chemical components can breakdown in different ways to give different molecules. It’s this menagerie of molecules that give smoke its unique properties. Phenolic compounds are generally accepted to be one of the main “smoky” flavor-inducing molecules. But many other types of compounds are produced as well; acids, carbonyls, furans, etc. All of these can play a role in creating flavor, as well as antimicrobial effects. The image below sums it up.

smoke chemistry

How the main components of wood are broken down and their equivalents in smoke.

Other Fun Stuff

No cheese topic is complete until I get to mention how crystals are involved. In the cheese industry, it’s generally accepted that smoked cheddar cheese develops calcium lactate crystals to a greater degree than non-smoked cheese. Here is a study by Rajbhandari et al that discuss possible causes. The long and short of it is that smoking dehydrates the surface of cheese, concentrating calcium and lactate, making them more prone to crystallizing.

smoked cheese with calcium lactate crystals

A smoked cheddar displaying some calcium lactate crystals


While we often talk about flavors and aromas being caused by certain compounds, it’s important to remember that the unique taste and aroma of cheese is caused by a whole menagerie of chemicals. Cheese flavor is definitely a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.


For More Information

  • Wood Smoke Components and Functional Properties"