When it comes to flavor, cooking with wood is the definitive game changer. Meat over a wood fire—it’s a link to our earliest ancestors. It’s earthy and primal and tastes like nothing else. Whether used as fuel, flame accelerator, or smoking medium, wood logs, chunks, and chips contribute their highly individual flavors to the finished dish as equal in importance as any other seasoning, spice, or herb.
And, when we talk about cooking with wood, we mean hardwood with low moisture content from deciduous trees, those that bear fruit or nuts. Coniferous trees—soft woods with high-moisture content such as pine or spruce—contain sap which tends to spark and flare, as well as taint the flavor and, in some cases, the food itself.
A Palette of Uses
If you have a big grill and want to cook with wood as your main source of fuel, you can use logs about the size you’d use in a fireplace. Alternatively, you can use a combination of wood chunks (about the size of a closed fist) with lump charcoal and/or briquettes. In a smoker, you can also opt to start the fire with lump charcoal and, as the fire needs replenishing, gradually increase the amount of hardwood chunks until you’re burning wood only.
Wood chips can be used dry or wet. Most commonly, wood chips that have been soaked in water or another liquid are used on a hot fire to create a dense smoke that creates a heavy smoke flavor. Aside from water, you can also soak chips in wine, beer, apple juice, or cider—use your imagination.
On the other hand, dry wood chips are an excellent flame accelerator when you want a fire that burns very hot, but for a short amount of time, which is ideal for searing. This is particularly useful for tabletop searing, but the same process can be adapted to a larger grill for direct or indirect grilling.
Just before you are about to put your food on the grill, sprinkle a healthy handful or two of dry chips onto the coals and give it a minute or two for the flames to build. Then, add the meat and sear each side. Make sure you have long-handled tongs and good protective gloves because this process will create flames that can rise 8 to 10 inches with temperatures pushing 800ºF or more.
Depending on what you are cooking, the total time for searing would be 4 to 8 minutes, just about the length of time those chips will be flaming. If you’re done searing and you have flames still, put the lid on the grill until the flames die out and the charred chips smoke.
This method imparts a different smoke flavor. It’s much lighter because the smoke is hotter, far less dense, and short lived, compared to wet chips that create thick smoke and smolder for a good while and permeate deeply.
Gas grills offer some options for smoking, but they are comparatively limited. A smoke box is a rectangular metal or cast-iron container that holds water-soaked wood chips. The vented box is set on the gas jets, and allows the chips to heat to smoking without catching fire.
Nut woods tend to give off a richer, smokier flavor, while fruit woods offer a lighter, sweeter flavor. Checkout barbecuewood.com for its vast selection of woods, from common to hard-to-find: from hickory, oak, and mesquite to lilac, olive, and peach.
Combine a robust smoking wood with a sweet top note of a fruit wood or fresh herb—mesquite and apple, hickory and maple, pecan and apple or any fruit wood, oak and cherry or fresh rosemary, or alder and fresh dill.
Beef has an affinity with many woods, including mesquite, pecan, and oak, the traditional wood used in South American cooking. Mesquite, like hickory, produces a dense, robust smoke that, if used to excess, will turn the meat bitter. Pecan and oak produce medium-bodied smoke that pairs well with fruit woods.
Pork and hickory smoke are almost synonymous. In fact the vast majority of pit masters on the barbecue circuit use hickory exclusively. Hickory has a robust flavor, so it’s best to control the amount of exposure—heavy smoke for short amounts of time or a lighter smoke for a long time. Apple and cherry woods also produce smoke that complements pork. Either can be used on its own or in combination with hickory to add lighter, fruitier flavor notes.
Poultry works with just about any type of wood. Maple, in particular, gives poultry a beautiful mahogany sheen as well as a pleasant smokiness that is not overpowering. Be careful with such heavy smoke woods as mesquite and hickory when dealing with delicate poultry, such as poussin, quail, or game hens. Either smoke briefly or combine with a fruit wood to lighten the flavor. Stronger-flavored poultry, such as turkey, duck, or goose, can handle denser smoke, but benefit also from being combined with fruit woods.
Are you a wood-smoking pro or novice? What are your favorite meat and wood-smoke pairings? What’s the best wood-smoked meat you’ve ever had (and what was it cooked over)?