Tips From the Pros: Cooking with Wood
October 10, 2011
Chunks? Chips? Soak? Post oak? When it comes to cooking outdoors with wood, the possibilities are almost endless. In order to provide a quick tutorial on the subject, we turned to VIP blogger and knower of all things BBQ and grilling Craig “Meathead” Goldwyn of AmazingRibs.com.
Originally all barbecue was done with logs as the fuel source. Old timers would stack the logs, light ‘em up, and let them burn down to glowing embers before shoveling them under the meat.
Wood smoke penetrated the meat and imparted a distinctive seductive scent that is the essence of barbecue. But it is difficult to control the heat and flavor when cooking with logs, so today, only a few diehards cook with logs only. If handled improperly, logs can infuse the meat with creosote, not a pleasant flavor.
Today, most barbecues use charcoal, gas, or electricity, and get their smoke flavor by the addition of measured amounts of chips, chunks, briquettes, pellets, logs, and sawdust.
But wood giveth and wood taketh. You can ruin a batch of meat pretty darn easily by over smoking. Over smoked meat can be inedible. Tastes like an ashtray. Over smoking is the most common error of the beginner. So start with only a little wood and as you get the hang of your cooker and your tastes, you can gradually add more each time you cook.
Here are some rules of thumb. The rules will vary from cooker to cooker, but start here with your experiments:
No need to soak. Here’s a myth busted: It is conventional wisdom that you should soak wood before using it to slow its burning. I strongly disagree. In separate batches, I took wood chips and wood chunks labeled “apple”, and soaked them 12 hours in room temp water. I weighed them on a fairly precise digital postage scale before soaking. After soaking I patted the exterior lightly with paper towels and weighed them to see just how much was actually absorbed. Chunks gained about 3% by weight and chips about 6%. I cut the chunks in half and penetration was only about 1/16″. DOH! That must be why they make boats out of wood! Wood doesn’t absorb much water!
If you toss wet wood on hot coals, the small amount of water just below the surface will evaporate rapidly, negating any effect of soaking, and the wet wood will have the deleterious effect of cooling off the coals when the goal is to hold the coals at a steady temp. For charcoal grills, put the wood right on the coals. No need for foil packets or metal containers. For gas grills, scroll down for more info.
Which wood? Cured (dried) hardwoods with low sap are the best for barbecue, especially fruit and nut woods such as apple, cherry, peach, grape, hickory, alder, mesquite, maple, and oak. They all have slightly different flavors, and it is almost impossible to describe them. I avoid mesquite. It can be harsh, bitter, and pungent. Hickory is the tried and true mate for pork, but some people find it too strong and occasionally it can taste bitter. Fruit woods tend to impart a sweetness.
To make things complicated, there are different kinds of each wood. For example, there’s shagbark hickory, scrub hickory, pignut hickory, and red hickory. The climate the tree is grown in can impact flavor. Florida hickory tastes different than Michigan hickory.
The Internet is full of guides attempting to describe the flavors of different woods like wine, but I don’t find them very accurate. Here’s the best I can do based on the woods I have used. And remember, I have won wine tasting championships, and I would love nothing more than to tell you that a particular wood has “nuances of spice with an undertone of earthiness.” I just can’t do it.
- Mild (best for foods that are not heavily seasoned or sauced). Alder, apple, cherry, grape, maple, mulberry, orange, and peach.
- Strong (best for strong flavored foods with lots of spice and/or sauce). Hickory, mesquite, oak, pecan, walnut, and whiskey barrel.
Bad wood. Whatever you do, never use wood from conifers such as pine, fir, cyprus, spruce, redwood, or cedar. They contain too much sap and they can make the meat taste funny. Some have been known to make people sick. Yes, I know that cedar planks are popular for cooking salmon on, but I don’t know anyone who burns cedar as a smoke wood. I have also heard that elm, eucalyptus, sassafras, sycamore, and liquid amber trees impart a bad flavor. Never use lumber scraps. Some lumber is treated with chemicals that are poisonous. Never use wood that has been painted. If you have branches fall from trees, make sure they are not moldy. Never use wood that is moldy.
Fresh or dried. Green woods have more sap, burn irregularly, and impart different flavors than dried wood. Some cooks prefer green wood, some dried. I stick with dried wood.
Bark or no bark? Some wood has more bark than others and that can impact the flavor. Some folks say you should remove the bark. I have not been able to get a handle on this.
What does Meathead prefer? If I was on a desert island I would want a bag of apple chunks and a bag of small apple chips or pellets. I would use the chunks for steady slow release smoke, and the chips or pellets for quick smoke.
Add wood early. Meat seems to soak up more wood flavor at the start of the cook, and the colder the meat the more smoke it absorbs.
How much is enough? It is best to weigh the amount of wood you use so you can increase or decrease it as you wish in future cooks. The amount you need will vary depending on your preferences, how tight your cooker is, the type of fuel, the thickness of the meat, and if you use chunks, chips, or pellets. Pellets are especially good for measured amounts.
Here’s where to start your experiments: Use 8 ounces of wood for ribs. Use 16 ounces for pulled pork and brisket, 4 ounces for turkey and chicken. Add it in doses. Put on about two ounces when you put on the meat and add another two ounces when you can no longer see smoke.
Where to get it? There are a number of barbecue specialty stores opening around the country and there may be one near you. Most hardware stores carry only hickory or mesquite, but a few carry expanded barbecue supplies and a selection of woods. Watch the newspaper for ads from stores promoting a lot of grills. Then give them a call. Also there are a number of places to buy wood on the net. Another option is to go to an orchard and ask if you can have some dead limbs.