Smoking fresh cheeses adds a depth of flavor to things like mozzarella. While cold smoking, or smoking over little to no heat, is ideal for cheese, you can hot smoke it with great results, too. Be sure to keep the steaming bath above the fire full.
Special equipment: You’ll need a charcoal grill to turn it into a smoker (or better yet, if you have a smoker, use it). You will also need a pastry brush, twine or string, long heatproof tongs, matches or a lighter, newspaper, 2 oven mitts, 2 buckets of water (one to soak the wood chips and the other to refill the aluminum loaf pan), 1 disposable aluminum 5-inch round pan (like a pot pie pan), 2 disposable aluminum 9-by-5-inch loaf pans, and an oven thermometer.
You will also need a large piece of ultrafine woven cheesecloth. It can be purchased at cooking supply stores or online.
A chimney starter, which looks like a large beer stein, is handy for lighting charcoal. They can be purchased at hardware stores or online.
Lump charcoal is preferred because the charred pieces of wood burn hotter and cleaner than briquettes, the uniform black pillows made from carbonized wood and a starchy binder. If you do buy briquettes, avoid the self-lighting ones, which are laden with chemicals.
Buy pure, resin-free, bark-free wood chips. Choose your wood chips based on the origin of the ingredient you are smoking. For example, use cedar chips for Pacific salmon and hickory chips for Southern catfish. For this recipe, we recommend hickory chips, but any wood will do. Wood chips can be purchased at most hardware stores and grocery stores during the summer months, or online.
1Using a sharp knife, punch holes in the bottom of the small round aluminum pan.
2Soak the wood chips in a bucket of water for at least 15 minutes.
3Meanwhile, place the cheesecloth on a flat surface. Using a pastry brush, coat the cheesecloth with oil, then sprinkle with salt and pepper. Set the mozzarella ball in the center of the cheesecloth and season all over with salt and pepper. Gather the edges of the cheesecloth so they meet at the top and center of the mozzarella ball, then tie them together tightly using twine or string. Set the cheesecloth-wrapped mozzarella in the small round aluminum pan.
4Prepare the grill: Remove the cooking grate and set it aside. Fill a chimney starter halfway with charcoal, then pour the unlit charcoal onto one side of the charcoal grate. Using tongs, stack the charcoal in a slight slope against the side of the grill bowl. Remove 1 cup of the wood chips from the water, shaking off any excess, and lay the damp chips in the middle of the unlit charcoal. Fill the chimney again halfway with charcoal. Place the chimney on the charcoal grate next to the unlit coals. Twist two or three sheets of newspaper, form the twisted paper into rings, and place them under and inside the chimney starter. Light the newspaper through the holes at the bottom of the chimney. After about 5 minutes, the charcoal should be red and flames should have appeared toward the top of the chimney.
5Carefully pour the lit charcoal onto the pile of unlit charcoal on the grate. Use tongs to stack the lit coals on the pile. Top the lit charcoal with the remaining 1 cup drained, damp wood chips. Set the empty chimney aside. Place 1 of the aluminum loaf pans next to the hot charcoal. (This will be the drip pan.) Place the cooking grate back on the grill. Fill the remaining loaf pan three-quarters of the way with cold water and place it on the cooking grate over the hot charcoal (the cold water is needed to keep the grill temperature low). Set an oven thermometer in one of the grill lid’s vent holes or on the cooking grate near the edge of the grill and opposite the charcoal. Cover the grill, making sure that the bottom and top vents are open and that smoke is coming out of the vents. (If smoke is not coming out, check your fire to make sure it is lit. If it’s not, relight it, using tongs to transfer the warm charcoal from the grill back into the chimney starter.) Let the grill heat until it reaches at least 250°F, about 15 minutes.
6Place the aluminum pan holding the mozzarella on the cooking grate over the drip pan (not over the flaming charcoal). Cook, covered, making sure the lid’s vent is over the mozzarella (not the fire), until the cheesecloth is amber in color, about 25 to 40 minutes. Halfway through the cooking time, check the grill temperature. It should be between 250°F and 300°F. If it is too hot, add more water to the loaf pan (it evaporates) and close the lower vent by half. If the temperature is too low, make sure the bottom and top vents are open, or you may need to feed your charcoal by lighting more in the chimney.
7Remove the cheese from the grill and let it cool slightly. Remove the cheesecloth and serve the mozzarella warm or at room temperature.