What Wood Would You Choose?
Traditional BBQ is built around using what was available. They cook hogs with hickory wood in the Carolinas because that’s what they had, and they cook beef over mesquite and post oak in Texas because it was available. But these days we’re lucky enough to be able to get wood from all over the country and even around the world. That’s great news but it gets more complicated because of it.
Let’s start with what cut of wood you should be using. Typically, we find chips, chunks, logs and pellets available.
Chips are the easiest to use and reasonably effective.
It’s best to soak them in water for 1/2 hour so they won’t burn right up if they go on a hot fire, but they still don’t last very long and are best used for a mild smoke flavor.
Wood chunks that are readily available are a little bit bigger and will smoke for a longer time. There’s usually no reason to soak chunks if you have reasonable control of your fire. Throw a few on top and they will give you a nice smoky flavor for an hour or so. One thing to remember here, just because you’re not seeing big puffs of smoke doesn’t mean the wood isn’t still flavoring your food.
I’ll address pellets here too because they are readily available and easy to use on most grills/smokers. You’ll need some vessel to hold them and there are many options available. A little cast iron pot, a screen tube, a metal box, or even a simple aluminum foil packet all work well. Some grills even have a specific drawer to put wood in and pellets work well for that. Look around and see what best suits you and your grill if you want to use pellets for additional smoke flavor. The general consensus is they don’t provide a heavy smoke so once again pellets are best if you like a light smoke flavor.
Logs and split logs are best for a specific smoker that is built to burn them. Too much wood can over smoke food so a clean burning fire with a lot of intake and exhaust is needed for a good wood flavor from logs. But if you do have a big smoker you’re not restricted to just logs.
I’ve always been a fan of lump charcoal with chunks or small splits of wood added for extra flavor in any smoker. Something really important to remember here is that you really can over smoke food and make it so that not many people will enjoy it. In general, lighter smoke is better so go easy no matter which cut of wood you are using.
TYPES OF WOOD FLAVORS
Now let’s talk about types of wood. We have access to so many fun flavors that sometimes it’s hard to choose. The traditional woods that we like to barbecue with are hickory, oak, pecan, apple, and cherry. Mesquite is often talked about but honestly it’s very strong for most people’s taste and not used as much as it’s discussed. I think mesquite is best saved for hot grilling where the food won’t be hanging out with it for too long. Now we can add in peach, citrus, alder and even guava and kiawe wood from Hawaii because they’re all readily available. I like to use any and all of these woods and I often combine them.
The general thinking is that oak and hickory are bold smoke flavors, but they also are traditional barbecue flavor and I always like to include some of one or the other. Apple and cherry are generally mild flavors and go well in combination with oak and hickory.
I tend to think of pecan as somewhere in between and like to use it by itself. Peach and citrus woods are similar in boldness to apple and cherry while alder and the Hawaiian woods have a very distinct flavor that pairs well with mild foods like fish and chicken.
I don’t think you can go wrong with any combination of wood and food. It all goes back to what is available and what you like. Experiment, enjoy and find your favorites!