Little by little, I’ve been learning how to use a pellet smoker this summer. Why? Because Camp Chef sent me a 24-inch pellet smoker so I could do exactly that. (More smoker thoughts to come in future articles!) Not only does it allow for some cool experimentation, but it’s loaded with some pretty impressive technology to prevent me from royally screwing up any of my food. So far, so good.
I recently joined a Facebook group called Smokers n Grillers where users post photos of food they’ve been making this summer, and honestly, these people make the backyard art of smoking look easy. From the looks of it, most of the food turns out delicious; there was even one guy who said he was attempting to smoke an open bottle of whiskey, though I’m not sure what happened with that. Not terribly long after I joined the group, my Facebook feed became a deluge of posts about one curious dish—and when I say deluge, I mean over a dozen posts in just a few days.
That dish? Smoked cream cheese. What the hell?
I’ve got to say, the photos of that particular item aren’t so pretty. In fact, most of them are kinda gnarly. The cream cheese are first doused in a rub or seasoning of choice, then smoked in entire blocks, and some appeared deeply bronzed. Many of the blocks also cracked open due to the smokers’ slow application of heat. Have you ever accidentally left a package of cream cheese open in the fridge? You know how the exterior of the cheese starts to dry out and crack after a while? The photos mostly look like that, except with a trip to the tanning salon on top of it.
But those who posted the pictures swore by the method. It didn’t take long before my curiosity got the better of me. I was already trying my hand at smoking my very first pork butt, which was going to take hours, so I decided to give smoked cream cheese a whirl using the extra open space on my smoker.
I liberally seasoned one whole block of cream cheese with Everything But the Bagel seasoning and the other with a McCormick barbecue rub. Then, as the Facebook posts instructed, I made a nest out of foil and just popped the blocks on the smoker at 225 degrees Fahrenheit (low and slow, baby!). I admit I had my doubts. Dried out cream cheese flakes? Can’t say I’ve ever been interested in trying that.
Most people said to keep the cheese on the smoker between two and three hours, which seemed like a long time and would potentially turn both blocks into crusty hunks, but I put my trust into a group of 59,000 strangers and let it ride. I didn’t open the smoker once, which took some discipline because I was wildly curious (peeking is a cardinal sin of barbecue), but after two hours I peeled back that lid and was greeted by two blocks of cream cheese split slightly down the middle. They’d mainly remained intact, with very little spread, and weren’t super funny-looking.
I pulled out the ancient Ritz crackers from my snack shelf (aka, the top of the fridge—does anyone else do that?), and tried some of the cream cheese while it was still hot. The heat had turned each block into the texture of fluffy hot marshmallows, which was surprisingly pleasant, and at first the flavor of the smoke was subtle, until it bloomed upon the aftertaste. I know, I know. Pretty in-depth description for smoked cream cheese, but I have to earn my keep as a food writer somehow.
Between the two flavors, I preferred the barbecue rub over the smoky bagel seasonings while the cheese was piping hot. The sugar in the barbecue rub played with the smoke and the tangy cream cheese well. It’s not that the heavily garlicky bagel seasoning was bad by any means, it’s just that the barbecue had the slight edge due to the sweetness. Did I love it? At first, no, but then the flavors really grew on me. I could see how two people could easily crush one block of smoked cream cheese as a snack. I kept eating more until I finally had to stop myself.
I wrapped them up and tasted them the next day after they’d spent the night in the refrigerator. As it turns out, smoked Everything but the Bagel seasoning edged out the barbecue rub while cold, as the savory notes came through stronger. This would be absolutely delicious on a bagel topped with lox or fresh veggies. Some Facebook users shared pictures of their sweet versions dusted with cinnamon and sugar and swore by those too, which has me thinking that cheesecake with a sweet smoked cream cheese base would be complex and stellar.
I asked around in the Smokers n Grillers group for the origin of the smoked cream cheese dish, and a few days later, I got a message from James Tudor, the lead mechanic for a used car shop in Northeastern Ohio and a member of the Smokers n Grillers group.
“This recipe I posted was the first to get any attention...lol,” Tudor told me over Facebook Messenger about his cream cheese creation. “After it went crazy my wife and I combed the cook pages to see if anyone had posted anything like this. We found 1 post in [Smokers n Grillers] from 1 month prior. He just smoked cream cheese. No recipe no instructions. My post seemed to go viral.”
You can find Tudor’s version of the recipe here, on Facebook. His version of the dish took longer—three hours as opposed to the two I smoked it for—and he cooks his cheese at 250 degrees, which results in a dramatically cracked open block that’s melted quite a bit. Plus, his has a drizzle of olive oil on it (I omitted oil because I was initially afraid it’d turn acrid from the smoke). Tudor’s post does seem to have been the spark to the smoked cream cheese fire, because as of this writing, the recipe has been shared over 28,000 times, and he’s also been interviewed by TODAY.
Since smoking food takes a relatively long time and uses precious fuel, it’s always a good idea to maximize how much you’re cooking all at once. If you’re having people over, I’d definitely recommend throwing a block of cream cheese onto your smoker for something to munch on while you wait for the meat to finish cooking. All you need is the cheese, your favorite seasoning, and a few lazy hours, and the party’s good to go.