When it comes time to cook your next delicious meal, don’t settle on wood that’s just plain old sawdust. The difference between good smoke and great smoked food can be as much or more than what you put in there. If you want to smoke your food, there is no better fuel than wood. Whether it be hickory for Kansas City Ribs or pimento (allspice) woods which cook up some amazing jerk in Jamaica; these days we have access to a variety of different types that can create whatever flavor profile you desire.
It is a great passion of many people to match particular woods with specific foods. For example, some may go as far as identifying what type or variety an apple wood goes best for pork while others prefer cherry matches chicken meat dishes just right.
The hardest part about smoking meat is actually getting the smoke inside your burner. But if you want to know what really matters when it comes down right here, I’ll say this: The type of wood does not make as much difference in flavor or appearance. In my opinion, the most important thing is how you burn it. While each wood variety produces smoke with a slightly different color and flavor, all of them work equally well at creating tasty barbecue flavors.
As the owner of Carolina Cookwood, groups woods into two broad categories: forest and orchard. While the former includes nut woods like hickory, pecan, and oak; wilder types such as maple or alder. The latter includes the already quite common apple and cherry, as well as peach or pear, or mulberry. To this list, we could easily add exotic woods used for smoking in China and pimento trees from the allspice family which produces intensely aromatic smoke responsible in part for making Jamaican jerk chicken so delicious.
It’s not always easy to tell the difference between these diverse woods, but they all have one thing in common: Trees that shed their leaves annually are categorized as hardwoods. It doesn’t normally smoke with softwoods like pine, spruce, and other evergreens. These produce a dark sooty smoke full of harsh oily flavors that you don’t want in your mouth.
But here are some exceptions: Canadians are known for their robust smoking culture, and it is no exception with the steaks. Canadians usually grill over fresh branches of spruce to get that signature flavor in every bite. The French have a dish called éclade de moules which is made by cooking mussels over dry pine needles. This unique method produces an exquisite flavor and texture not found anywhere else on earth. The food on this planet is so diverse, that it’s hard to believe that they’re all from the same place. One thing you’ll find though? There are many ways of smoking meat. The people smoke with tea and spices like in China. When cooking Jamaican Jerk Chicken you should add allspice berries or cinnamon for a unique flavor that is hard to find anywhere else. The most bizarre smoking fuel? That would be dried sheep dung, used for BBQing horsemeat and mutton in Iceland.
How much wood do you need for each smoking session?
The amount of wood needed for each smoking session will vary depending on your desired outcome. Some people like their meats and vegetables very well done, while others enjoy them less done or even raw! The smoker you use should have directions with precise temperatures that need to be achieved during the cooking process as well as how long they want this completed in general terms. Here you can find a rough guide.
A few words about charcoal
Charcoal is a great way to cook with wood, but most people use it in combination with other fuels like charcoal chunks or chips. Larger competitions will often burn only natural wood while smaller backyard barbecues may make do without any kind at all if their smoker doesn’t have an automatic feed system.
Charcoal is a popular accessory for barbecues and grills. The two most common types include lump charcoal and briquette. Of all the different types of charcoal out there, this is by far my favorite. It’s made from chunks or logs that have been cooked until they’re crumbly and black – no additives needed. Lump charcoal varies depending on the base wood, for example, mesquite burns hot with a lot of sparks. Maple and oak charcoal is the perfect way to start your fire. It’s easy, clean, and constant heat will get a chimney burning in no time at all. If you want to get the most out of your lump charcoal, look for brands that sell irregular jagged chunks. Those straight edges or square corners are a clear indication that this charcoal was made from lumber and flooring scraps—not my first choice.
To avoid unpleasant-tasting smoke, you should always add fresh lump charcoal to your fire when burning it for the first time. The temperature drops off more quickly than with briquettes and they have shorter burn times as well so be careful not to overdo it on how much wood is added at once or else there will likely never be any embers left.
Briquettes are the alternative fuel for outdoor fires. They’re made of wood scraps, coal dust, and borax with an accelerant to make them burn faster; they also have petroleum in them so you can light them easily. You can also buy eco-friendly, sustainable charcoal made with 100% natural wood or coconut shells. Briquettes are the better choice if you want a consistent temperature throughout your fire. They burn at 600°F for 1 hour before going out. There is a downside: The acrid-tasting smoke is often released when briquettes are first lit and it can be overwhelming to someone who’s never experienced it before. For this reason, I recommend using a chimney starter instead of directly on top course coals for your smoker.
NOTE: Charcoal is a popular and versatile fuel used for smoking. However, it does not produce the same smoke that wood does so you cannot cook with just charcoal alone- but some manufacturers have found ways around this problem by embedding tiny pieces of mesquite or hickory into their briquettes which will give off an earthy flavor while on the grill but will need additional tweaking when using other techniques like smoking food directly over low heat coals instead!
Charcoal briquettes on the left picture are uniform in shape, while lump charcoal on the right comes with irregular chunks.
How to make the perfect smoke and what causes it to taste so good
Smoke is the soul of barbecue and can be found in some world-class foods like bacon, kippers, or Scotch whisky. You know it when you see, smell or taste smoke. It’s the soul of every barbecue.
Smoke is a by-product of cooking. Smoke-flavoring foods have been used for centuries to preserve, flavor, and enhance the taste of food but what exactly does it mean when we say “smoked”?
Smoke is released when you burn wood and other organic materials. The smoke contains:
- Liquids (such as tars and oils)
- Solids (in the form of tiny carbon particles called soot)
- Gases (responsible for most of the flavors we prize in smoked foods)
The three factors that contribute to the look, aroma, and taste of smoked foods.
The taste of smoke is a complex flavor that can’t be found in any one type or form. It’s an amalgamation of various plant materials, such as hay and corn cobs used for smoking meat around America but not all woods produce good flavors when burned to create this culinary delight! Hardwoods like hickory offer up more intense tastes while softer ones make quieter smokestacks on your barbeque grill; these differences depend largely upon their composition.
When you burn wood, it goes through three different stages:
- Pyrolysis (decomposition by heat);
The fire first dries out the wood, then breaks it down to create smokiness. Finally, an ignition event occurs which produces different types of smoke and releases those same flavors in each stage.
In his book Modernist Cuisine, food scientist Nathan Myhrvold breaks the smoking process into 6 key temperature phases:
- 212°F. When the water in a wood boils at 212°F, it releases steam and carbon dioxide. One consequence is that these two compounds react together to form some amazing smoke rings.
- 340°F. The process of pyrolysis begins at 340°F, which releases formic acid and acetic acids. These not only add some tart flavors to smoke but also help to preserve a food color as well.
- 390°F. The smoke flavor of smoked foods mellows as pyrolysis begins producing carbonyl molecules–aromatic, responsible for the appetizing yellow-brown and dark red colors. One, in particular, is formaldehyde which acts both as an antimicrobial preservative to keep food fresher longer.
- 570°F. Pyrolysis produces aromatic compounds called phenols. These include creosol (responsible for meat like a flavor one associates with Scotch whisky); isoeugenol, which gives smoke its clove and other spice flavors in addition to being an antioxidant found naturally on plants such as garlic or onion skins; vanillin – the source of vanilla-like sweetness you’ll find when consuming burnt sugar.
- 750°F. The perfect smoking temperature for a variety of meats and vegetables. At 750°F the wood blackens, and smoke production peaks to add flavor to your food while also creating tar that creates an interesting texture.
- 1,800°F. The wood burns at 1,800°F. The flavor-producing compounds are never released into the smoke because they burn up in flames – but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy these delicious flavors – it’s good for cooking and no longer for smoking.
Wood Considerations and Controversies
The debate over smoking is one that stirs up heated arguments. Some say it should be done with green wood, while others prefer seasoned or bark on—and some even think you shouldn’t soak your smoker before use! Here’s my opinion about how to go ahead.
Green or seasoned wood? The old saying is true; fresh cuts of trees contain 60% moisture. However, after it’s been dried in the open air for about six weeks or so (my preference), you can reduce that number to 15-20%. Green wood often causes difficulty when trying to lighten up your fire because its Charter oak smokiness borders on acridity sometimes while seasoned ones will give off delicious smells once they’re burning.
Bark on or bark off? The choice between burning bark or not is an interesting one. For those who live in areas where there are insects that love to nest inside of your woodpile, it’s best not to have any on the outside as they can find their way into what you’re trying so hard at keeping out! But if we want our smoke flavor without these pesky creatures getting into all sorts of things then simply cutting it off. The smoke from straight wood bark can be harsh and unpalatable but if you have a choice, it’s best not to let that stop you. The flavor is thicker than what we’re used to which makes for an intense experience full of bitterness as well as sweetness—especially in green logs. So you can keep on grilling on straight wood bark.
Whole logs or split? Split logs are better because they burn more quicker and easier.
Soaked or not? This is a question for the ages. One side argues that by slowing down smoke production you get smoother, more evenly cooked meat with less grease absorption from water retention; whereas others say it doesn’t make any difference and just leads people into thinking they’re doing something good for their health when in reality all there really operating at is a faster rate than if left unsoaked. It has been proven that when you smoke your food, the soaked wood chips release more NO2 which may lead to a better-smoked flavor. Others say that soaking simply delays pyrolysis (decomposition by heat) and the consequent release of smoke flavor. If you want to smoke your food with a slower and more steady burn, soak wood chips in water for 30 minutes before adding them on top of the fire. You can also use dry pieces directly without needing extra wet ones; just make sure they are scattered evenly across all four corners. Soak wood chunks or not—the final taste will be the same. I don’t bother.
The great thing about smoking is that it’s an art form. There are so many different woods to experiment with and find your favorite! The list of possibilities goes on for days, but at least you can start by giving some classics a try: oak or cherry would be good choices. If they’re not available in your region, just use some classic ones in your area:
- alder (the Pacific Northwest)
- mesquite (the Southwest & Texas)
- pecan or hickory (the South)
- maple (New England)
- oak (Europe & Texas)
- cherry (the Pacific Northwest & Michigan)
- apple (the Pacific Northwest & the Midwest)
Blending and sequencing woods is a great way to add complexity to your smoking recipes. This will help you learn more about how each type of wood influences the final product, but it’s important not to be afraid at first! Just experiment with one variety for now before moving on to other blends or sequences that might work better according to what flavors are desired from them.
The debate on how long to smoke during cooking is still going strong. Some people say you should burn wood throughout the entire process while others argue that meat gradually loses its ability to absorb smoke, especially in the later stages of a cook. There are many types of meat like brisket or pastrami that require wrapping during the final hours of cooking. You must continue smoking until you wrap it, but don’t add any more wood unless using an open fire smoker. Let all heat from your charcoal dry out this process.
The amount of wood you add to the fire can vary. If you want to smoke food, then it’s important that the process is slow and steady. You should never add wood all at once or in quick succession because this can cause an oversmoke which ruins your product. Read some guidelines on how much lumber per hour works best for different types of smokers.
As a conclusion
- Store your logs outdoors off the ground in a cool, dry covered spot. Make sure it’s well-aerated and you don’t store them too damp or they may get moldy and rot before their time.
- You should not use moldy or bad-smelling wood for smoking because of the smell it might acquire. The mustiness will only get worse over time, and you could end up with an unpleasant taste in your mouth from these toxins too.
- When you are done smoking for the day, remove any leftover soaked wood chips from your smoker and let them dry completely in direct sunlight. This will prolong their effectiveness so they can continue giving off that delicious smoke.