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Thursday, September 9, 2010

Wood Smoke 101

Getting a deep red ring around the edge of your brisket slices... cooking ribs that are pink to the bone... Steve Raichlen refers to the smoke ring as the "red badge of honor" in barbecue.

You've probably heard it discussed before; you generally can't call it "barbecue" if there's no wood smoke involved.  So how do we decide what kind of wood imparts the best flavor on what kind of meat?

Well, the answer is always hard wood, but even that leaves our grills open to dozens of possibilities.  Hickory tends to be the most popular wood used by professionals, with oak probably making second place.  Maple, alder, and mesquite are a few other possibilities.

Hickory offers a sweet, very bacony flavor.  It's been noted that pecan wood is actually quite similar to hickory, perhaps a bit more elegant.  Some barbecuers even use pecan nut shells on their coals.  However, pecan may be difficult to find.  Most of the time you can find wood chunks or wood chips at a hardware store or a department store with a grilling/barbecuing section.

Fruit woods, such as apple and cherry are popular as well.  We tend to hope that some of the flavors of the fruit of the tree actually come through in the smoke flavor.  While this may occur to a certain degree, it won't make your barbecue taste "like apples" or "like cherries."  Pear wood, peach wood, and plum wood are lesser used, but still good fruit woods.  Even lemon wood is available at some stores, though this is a rare barbecuing wood which we have not had much chance to experiment with.

Really hearty wood flavor may come from trees such as oak, walnut, and mesquite.  Oak is commonly used for wood-fired ovens, such as those used in the Italian culinary world, though American barbecuers use it as well.  Walnut wood can add a heavy-handed pleasing punch to your meat, though it is often mixed with other wood to avoid it becoming acrid.

Mesquite is a strange wood.  Some barbecuers find it harsh, and some complain of the hard-to-clean residue it leaves on their pits.  Sizzle Grove has done some light experimenting with mesquite, and we found it to be fairly tasty for use on a home smoker.  Establishments such as Green Mesquite in Texas prefer to stoke their pits with young mesquite wood, to give some extra oomph.  Any wood described as "green" just means that the tree came down within the past year.

So, to follow up one of the first things we said in this post, wood smoke is "generally" what separates barbecuing from grilling, in addition to proximity from a heat source.  However, in Asian barbecue cultures, they may use tea leaves, uncooked rice, and certain spices on their coals in order to add smoke flavor to duck or other meats.  This will give an intense flavor totally unlike American barbecue.  We hope to experiment with this soon at Sizzle Grove.

What do you guys use at home?  Tell us at

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