Long before hipster chefs in Brooklyn took to serving hay-smoked chicken and rib eyes, cheesemakers in Paestum, Italy, bronzed fresh buffalo-milk mozzarella and other cheeses with fragrant clouds of hay smoke. They’d place the cheese in the top of a smoker (sometimes little more than an old refrigerator or a metal box). They’d pile dry hay at the bottom and set it ablaze. The hay erupted in a cloud of fire and smoke, adding an intense smoke flavor in a couple of minutes — which comes in handy when you’re smoking foods, such as fresh mozzarella, which would melt if exposed even briefly to moderate heat. Hay-smoking delivers high drama — it looks cool and it leaves you feeling the sort of “Why didn’t I think of this sooner?” satisfaction you get from mastering a revolutionary and exceedingly effective technique.
Hay-smoking is a great technique for smoking in a hurry (this recipe requires only 2 to 4 minutes of smoking), and after you master it, you can use it for a number of melt-prone or otherwise fragile foods. Other cheeses come to mind (Scamorza, Taleggio, fontina, Gouda, and Camembert, for example), but the technique also works for smoking steak tartare, burgers, and racks of lamb before grilling.
For cheese, you want a fresh mozzarella, the sort that comes packed in water or dripping with whey. Extra points if it’s made with tangy buffalo’s milk. You’ll need about 3 quarts of hay for this recipe, and if you don’t have it on hand, you can find it at garden centers or tack shops. Yield: 1 ball of mozzarella.
• Cooking oil of choice, for oiling the grate
• 1 ball (8 to 12 ounces) fresh mozzarella, patted dry
• Extra-virgin olive oil (optional)
• Coarse salt (sea or kosher)
Place a small mound of charcoal in the smoker firebox or to one side of a kettle grill and light it. Brush and oil the grate. When the coals glow red, place the cheese in the smoke chamber (or on the side of the kettle grill opposite the embers), as far away as possible from the fire. Toss hay on the coals and close the smoker or cover the grill. Smoke the cheese until it’s colored with smoke (but not long enough to melt it), 2 to 4 minutes.
Slide a spatula under the cheese and transfer it to a plate to cool. Do not grab it when hot, or the deposit of smoke will come off on your fingers.
Let the cheese cool to room temperature, or refrigerate until ready to serve. (For maximum flavor, let the cheese come to room temperature before serving.) Drizzle with olive oil and salt, if desired, and serve.
3 Cool Things to Do with Hay-Smoked Mozzarella
Smoked caprese salad. Thinly slice the smoked mozzarella and arrange on a platter with thinly sliced smoked tomatoes. Strew with torn fresh basil leaves, drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and season with salt and pepper.
Smoked mozzarella panini. Place sliced smoked mozzarella and thinly sliced prosciutto or tomatoes in a square of focaccia (slice it in half through one side) to make a sandwich. Brush the outside with olive oil, and toast on the grill (place a grill press on top) or in a sandwich press until crusty and brown and the cheese starts to melt.
Smoked eggplant parmigiana. Place slices of smoked mozzarella atop slices of grilled or fried eggplant. Top with tomato sauce and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Indirect-grill or bake until browned and bubbling.
For more smoker recipes from Steven Raichlen and more about hot-smoking and hay-smoking, read Season of Smoke: An Introduction to Smoked Foods.
This excerpt from Project Smoke, copyright 2016, is courtesy of Workman Publishing. Steven Raichlen hosts PBS shows, including “Primal Grill” and “Barbecue University.” Find Project Smoke and Planet Barbecue, and Raichlen’s latest book, Barbecue Sauces, Ribs, and Marinades, are available in our online store.