Learning How to Flavor Your Barbecue with Wood
By Kevin Bevington
When learning to cook barbecue, the one thing that everyone seems to learn quickly is to use wood, such as wood chips or wood chunks, or wood pellets, to give your barbecue a smoky flavor. What is not learned quickly enough is how much to use and most use too much, creating an over smoked, bitter piece of meat that is not very pleasant to eat.
Wood flavoring has to be considered similarly to a spice.
If you put salt on something, you are careful to add small amounts and taste, until you come up with just the right amount. The same thing applies to smoke flavor, start with a small amount of wood chips, or a wood chunk, and work your way up. You will find out real quick that people have much different opinions to yours, on how much smoke flavor should be there, so starting with a small amount is the best advice to give.
Chips, Chunks, Sticks, or pellets
If you’re trying to figure this out, then my guess is you’re cooking with charcoal and wanting to flavor with wood. However, I will go over the uses for all 4.
Chips – Wood chips are often purchased, and used handfuls at a time. I really don’t recommend using them for cooking barbecue. The reason is they burn way to fast, before getting any real benefit from them. The best use for wood chips is for adding smoke flavor while grilling, where you would add them to a tray, wrapped in foil, or directly over hot coals.
Chunks – If you’re cooking barbecue, and using charcoal as your heat source, then wood chunks would be my choice, and it should be yours also. Wood chunks are big enough to give smoke for a period of time, and if mixed into your charcoal, should last. One thing to make note of is, if you will be wrapping your meat at any point during the cook, I recommend adding chunks as you go, rather than mixing them into your charcoal. You don’t want to be wasting wood chunks, when your meat is wrapped in foil.
Sticks – Can also refer to split logs, so we can obviously be talking a wide range in size and thickness. If they are thin sticks, you can certainly use them like chunks in the smaller cookers. But if you have split logs, then you need to save these for when you are using a large cooker, fireplace, or camp fire. Do not attempt to use split logs in charcoal cookers. You will ruin your cooker, and over smoke your meat. Split logs need a large area for clean combustion.
Pellets – Pellets are mostly used as a fuel source in pellet cookers however, it is getting increasingly popular to use wood pellets in varying flavors, to flavor meats on charcoal cookers, and gas grills.
Types of Wood for Barbecue
The different types of wood can complicate your decision on what to use, we will go over a few here, but if you decide on a single type of wood to use on most of your meats, such as Oak or Hickory, you would be just fine.
Fruit woods have always been popular to use, and tend to be milder in flavor. The use of fruit woods is very regional in nature. Here is a brief list of fruit woods used and the best meats to use them with.
Apple – Is a mild, sweet, smoke which is exceptionally good on Poultry. It is versatile enough to be great on pork, and beef, you can’t go wrong with Apple.
Cherry – Is a popular wood as well, especially Wild Cherry wood. Like Apple, Cherry is very well suited for poultry, but in some areas it is just as popular to use with Beef. Cherry can also be used on all meats, but be careful, too much can make your meat very dark in color, especially when using wild cherry.
Peach – This is a southern favorite, a mild very sweet wood is extremely well suited for pork and poultry, although like the others so far, can work great on all meats.
Citrus – Orange is likely the most popular out of the citrus woods to use, but they all are very similar, and you would likely not be able to tell the difference. Citrus is a very light, mild wood, which is great on all meats.
Guava – Even though it is not real popular, I had to include this wood because I feel it deserves to be here. Like citrus, it is a mild smoke, very good with poultry, and it is versatile enough to use on all meats.
Hickory – This is likely the favorite of this type of wood, and like the oak has several related varieties. Hickory is a bold pleasant flavored smoke which is best suited for pork, and beef, but can be used for poultry as well. If you know how to use it, you can also use it for all meats.
Oak – Even though hickory could be considered the favorite, oak is likely the most used, and this is mostly because of the vast varieties of oak, which makes it the most common based on availability. It is the most versatile, and even though you have mild varieties and not so mild varieties, it can be used for all meats. Oak is an excellent wood for direct grilling.
Pecan – A close cousin to the hickory tree, a little milder, and very popular in the Deep South. Pecan is a good wood for all meats.
Black Walnut – Not a favorite of mine, but it is considered a smoking wood. It is a strong flavored smoke, and it is best suited, for thick cuts of beef, or pork.
Other Popular Hard Woods
Maple or Sugar Maple – This wood is close to hickory or pecan, but sweeter. It is very popular to use with bacon, and all cuts of pork. It can be used for all meats if desired.
Mesquite – This is a very popular wood, which was fortunate for ranchers in the southwest who consider this to be a weed. Mesquite is strong as a smoking wood, and should be used sparingly. However, I highly recommend Mesquite as a direct grilling wood, in my opinion the best for steaks.
Alder – This is a mild smoke for the most part, and as a result is used a lot for smoking fish. It can be used on all meats, and it is very popular in some areas, and is used as a base in some pellets. Alder does make a great direct grilling wood.