Not only is grilling a fun way to cook, many people believe that it yields the most flavorful food. If you are a competent grill master, you may want to step up your game and experiment with BBQ wood smoke as a flavor enhancer. If you do, you need to know that selecting the right wood for your dish is the key to improving the taste of your grilled meat.
Generally, wood can be used as chips, chunks or logs. Which one of these you select depends on how you grill. Chips and chunks can be used on both charcoal and gas grills. Logs, however, are used in place of gas or charcoal. Grilling with wood alone is a more complex undertaking than conventional grilling, so few people do it. It’s relatively difficult and can produce uneven results. Chips and chunks can be purchased in hardware stores, supermarkets and other retailers. Some people also gather their own wood and break it down into chips and chunks. Most people use wood that is dried and seasoned although there are a few adventurous cooks who use green wood. Some people recommend soaking the chips and chunks in water before grilling, but others contend that soaking wood provides little benefit. For foods that cook quickly, use wood chips and for foods that take longer to cook, use wood chunks.
Wood from just about any fruit tree can be used to enhance the flavor of grilled or barbecued foods. Apple is probably the wood most often used by backyard chefs, and cherry is popular too. However woods like pear, peach, plum, orange, lemon, lime, grapefruit, grape, mulberry, persimmon and others also have their fans. The fruit woods are all mild and usually add a light, sweet, sometimes spicy flavor to meats. They are particularly good for poultry and pork, but can really be used for just about anything, including fish, beef, lamb, goat, game and mutton. If you are new to using wood smoke as a flavor enhancer, one of the fruit woods would be a good place to start since it’s hard to ruin a dish by infusing it with a fruity taste.
Wood from nut trees is stronger than fruit woods and adds more flavor to meats. Hickory is the most commonly used nut wood. It is most often used to flavor pork, but it can also be used with lamb and beef. Pecan wood is slightly milder than hickory wood and is sometimes used as a substitute. Walnut, particularly black walnut, is very strong and heavily flavored. Rarely do cooks use walnut alone. Usually it is mixed with one of the fruit woods, almond wood, or oak. In fact many people mix in other woods whenever they use any of the nut woods. Walnut is best for game animals and red meat. The one nut wood that is comparatively light is almond. It works for just about any meat and can be used alone.
Oak, which has some similarities to hickory, is a very popular flavor enhancer for barbecue. Mesquite, a wood that is essential in Southwest cuisine, has become big in grilling circles recently. Both restaurants and backyard gourmets are now using mesquite. But be aware that this wood produces heavy smoke and can overwhelm meat. It’s probably not a good choice for beginners. On the lighter side, woods such as cottonwood, ash, maple, willow, beech and gum are suitable for grilling. Alder, a wood that grows in the Pacific Northwest, is gaining many adherents. Alder is a light, sweet wood that is especially suitable for adding flavor to grilled fish and poultry. You can also mix in your favorite fresh herbs with your wood chips and chunks to add multiple flavors to grilled meat.
Woods Not to Use
Never grill, barbecue or smoke meats with any wood that has been painted, stained, pressure treated, used in construction or contains nails. No only can these woods ruin the flavor of your meat, they can also infuse food with dangerous toxins. Only use wood from commercial sources that has been produced and packaged for flavor enhancement or wood from logs that have never been chemically treated or used in construction. You can also harvest and use tree branches provided that they have no mold on them. Also, never use pine, conifers, eucalyptus, sycamore, cedar, elm, cypress, sassafras, redwood, fir and spruce. These woods impart bad flavors to meat and some may be dangerous.