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How to Flavor Your Grilled Food with Wood Smoke

kebab_woodgrilled_400The type of wood you burn during the smoking process matters. Learn which wood to pair with beef, pork, poultry or fish—and get more helpful smoking tips—from BBQ Makes Everything Better.

The smoky flavor absorbed by the food is a direct result of the type of wood burned during the smoking process. When choosing the type of wood to use, you need to be aware of the flavor that each particular species emits. Keep in mind that flavors are completely subjective, but there are a few woods that can easily overpower the subtle flavor of delicate meats. For example, hickory and mesquite have a much stronger smoke compared to fruity woods such as apple or cherry. Because of this, you will want to pair those woods with a meat that also carries a strong flavor, such as beef. Fish and poultry carry a much lighter flavor, so they should be paired with a subtle smoky flavor. Here’s a quick listing of how we choose to pair food with smoke:

Beef—Hickory, mesquite, oak, pecan
Pork—Apple, cherry, hickory, maple, oak, pecan
Poultry—Alder, apple, cherry, maple, oak
Fish—Alder, cherry, oak

Each of these woods is available in a variety of shapes and sizes. Deciding on whether to use pellets, chips, chunks, or logs depends on what type of smoker you are using.

Pellets are small pieces of condensed sawdust specifically designed for certain types of grills. Pellet cookers have an electronic hopper system that automatically feeds a fire to generate heat and smoke. Technology has come a long way in the barbecue world, and pellet grills are among the leaders. Some of the newer models have a fully automated control panel similar to an oven. This means that creating a perfectly smoked brisket can be as simple as filling the hopper with pellets and pushing a button. The people that use these types of grills affectionately refer to themselves as “pellet heads.”

Chips are best when you are converting a gas or charcoal grill into a smoker. These types of grills normally don’t have a large cooking chamber, so it doesn’t take much wood to fill it with smoke. Hardware stores generally carry metal smoker boxes that are designed to slowly burn wood chips. They’re rectangular in shape with a removable lid that has holes to allow the smoke to escape. To use the smoker box you simply fill it with wood chips and place it directly on your heat source. To create a homemade smoker box, wrap aluminum foil around a handful of chips and pierce a few holes in the top of the foil with a key or knife.

Chucks, or two- to three-inch blocks of wood, are best used in medium to large smokers and are what most people utilize when cooking on a dedicated smoker. The wood blocks are laid on top of smoldering coals to generate smoke.

Logs are used in extremely large smokers. These types of smokers are referred to as “stick burners.” The large smoking chamber requires a great amount of heat to keep hot, so charcoal is normally passed over in favor of burning whole logs in a campfire manner.

When discussing fire building and choice of wood, the topic of soaking always comes up. The theory is that by soaking your wood in water you can prevent your wood from catching on fire while also releasing steam into the cooking chamber. Our opinion is that soaking your wood doesn’t add any benefit. If you practice good fire-control techniques, you can limit the amount of oxygen that reaches your fire and prevent any flames. This low-oxygen type of environment is primed for a fire to smolder, which is exactly what you need to generate aromatic smoky flavors. We also cook with water pans, so the moisture in the wood is minimal compared to what is released from the steaming pan of water.


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