Thursday, November 5, 2009

BBQ Smoking Woods

ome time ago, man discovered fire. Once he learned to harness and control fire, he learned he could cook over a fire. I can imagine the first cookout, everyone excitedly chatting it up, drinking ice cold beer and waiting for the 500 pound dinosaur leg to cook. I'll bet that was some sight. I can imagine Cro-Mag-non dude eating cooked meat for the first time. As he takes his first bite, he begins pounding his chest in victory over raw meat with one hand and a giant pterodactyl leg in the other. This was soooo much better! then eating cold flesh for protein.

We have been cooking outdoors with wood ever since that day so long ago. Around 1920, Mr. Henry Ford changed the way Americans cooked outdoors.

He founded Kingsford Charcoal. He discovered a process of taking charcoal and binding it with lime and borax to form briquettes. Back then, many automobiles had wood bodies. Mr. Ford would use the wood scraps from his auto production and make charcoal. This new invention was so convenient that many quit cooking over a wood fire. One of the drawbacks was a noticeable loss of flavor. The meat just didn't taste quite the same.

Introducing wood chunks and chips! By placing small amounts of wood on the coals, the wood would smolder and recreate that cooking over a fire taste. Today, there are three sizes of wood that are used for cooking outdoors and I'll briefly cover all three.

Chips: These are exactly what they sound like, chips off the block... or log if you prefer. They are small enough that they can be ready to use in about 30 minutes, and you can toss them onto the coals right through the cooking grate. Wood chips can also be rolled up into a foil log or placed in a chip box and used on gas or electric smokers without making a mess.

Chunks: Wood chunks average about 3-4 inches in size and come in all various kinds of natural shapes and sizes. When choosing chunks, look for a clear bag that you can see through and look out for excessive bark. You want mostly wood with little bark in the bag. Bark will create a bitter flavor and no one wants that. Also be on the look out for weight. If the bag says 10 lbs, it'll more then likely be 10 pounds, but is it a full bag? Wood that is not properly cured will weigh more. This is known as green wood. It has a numbing effect on the tongue and is bitter. Chunks will need to be soaked for 1-4 hours, (Some scientists that grill will tell you that water will only penetrate for the first hour, I disagree with this) depending on the grain and natural moisture already in the wood. Simply remove a chunk piece from the water and place on the edge of your coal pan.

Logs: Split and solid logs are used in big smokers, usually found at county fairs, BBQ competitions and big outdoor events. Charcoal is not used except as a starter or additional heat source outside of the firebox. The fire is started early and the wood is allowed to ember up and create hot coals. You may need to add logs a few times before you have a nice hot ember fire going in your offset firebox. Wood is added as needed to maintain the desired cooking temperature. It is important to ensure that the wood is properly cured. It should be mostly dry throughout and easy to split.

That covers the sizes that are available but what about the different types? I'm glad you asked, because we are going to delve into that next. There are literally hundreds if not thousands of species of different trees. We are only going to concern ourselves with a few of the more popular ones that are actually good for smoking our meats. There are two general type of trees that we are after, deciduous and fruit. Deciduous trees loose their leaves each year and include such trees as oak, hickory, pecan, mesquite, alder, maple, apple, cherry, etc. So that rules out pine trees thankfully. Can you imagine what a pine tree smoked chicken would taste like? Ugghh....

Most of these woods are sold as chips or chunks in bags up to 10 lbs at your local hardware store. There are also a growing number of merchants online that carry these and other sought after woods and they will ship them to you. I'm lucky, my Lowe's carries at least Hickory, Mesquite and Apple, which is plenty for me. Now you might be asking yourself, which wood is best to use? and the answer would be all of them! Each wood has different flavor characteristics and qualities. Let's take a look at the more popular woods and point out their uses:

Apple & Cherry: These woods are very mild and have a slightly sweet taste to them. they are good with poultry and pork. Apple can also be used with other woods when you need to tone down a flavor. The sweet smell of the wood often doesn't translate to sweetness in the taste of the meat. The flavor is mild and it colors the meat nicely.

Oak and Hickory: These woods provide a good solid heat. They burn hot and are used for barbecuing, slow roasting of the meat. If I was only given one wood I could use for the rest of my life, it would be hickory because of it's unique nutty flavour. Avoid green hickory, it'll ruin your meat and numb your mouth. These woods have a mild flavor and are good with chicken, pork and some beef cuts.

Mesquite: This wood burns HOT. Mesquite coals are excellent for grilling over. The wood has a very aggressive taste and is best used for game like venison, lamb, and grilled beef. This wood is not ideal for slow cooking as the flavor is just too strong.

Pecan: This wood has a fruity flavor that is very mild. Pecan wood burns much cooler then most other BBQ woods and is therefore great for smoking large cuts, like brisket or shoulders but can also be used to compliment fish, poultry and chops.

There is no right or wrong wood. It is all a matter of personal preference. I suggest that you just try them out, experiment for yourself and find what you and your family like. I have had people tell me that they cannot eat smoked meat, then they turn around and demolish some ribs smoked in apple and pecan. More then likely, they had a past experience where mesquite was used or the wood was green. Even my buddy's girlfriend who used to never touch true BBQ loves his outdoor cooking now, because he experimented and found what they can both enjoy. The majority of people love smoked foods. Grocers even carry this stuff called liquid smoke that people add to foods to try and fool ya. Imagine that, liquid smoke!

When using wood to smoke our foods or to add flavour to grilled foods, we want to obtain a thin blue wisp of smoke. The last thing you want is a smoker or grill that looks like it is ready to take off, with smoke billowing out from all over. Remember that thin is in. The less smoke the better. Our goal is to sustain the smoke for the length of the cooking event. If the wood is too dry and flames up easily, soak it for 1 to 4 hours. After awhile, you'll gain a feel for the weight of the wood and will be able to know if it needs to soak longer before using it.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me via email by clicking on my signature below or the contact me link on the right side bar. Until next time, Keep Smokin!!



Inspired by eRecipeCards said...

This is a great post... sadly, my wood supply is limited (without spending a TON)...

so, commercial hickory is about my only option. Wish I had your access

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