Why I cook with wood.
This weekend, I was asked by my cousin to "barbeque" the chicken for her party. She has a Weber kettle, so I thought I would actually Q it, but she wanted me to grill the food. After explaining the differences of grilling vs. barbecue, we inevitably got into the classic wood vs. gas discussion.
"Gas is cleaner." "Gas is easier to control." "Gas is faster." "It tastes the same." "You can't cook over wood/charcoal in the winter." Well, I agree with two points. Gas is cleaner since you don't have any ash to clean up afterwards and gas is faster. Sure it's faster. Flip a switch and the fire is on. But to me these don't outweigh the negative aspects of gas cooking.
First and foremost, a gas grill can not match the flavor imparted on the food from a real wood, or wood and charcoal fire. Some people say that they can't taste the difference. I can. My family can. When I cook for people over a wood fire, they can tell the difference. Isn't that the real reason for cooking any food..the flavor? Wood and charcoal = flavor.
You can't create real barbeque on a gas grill. Barbeque, by definition requires low, slow cooking using wood. Gas grills can not maintain a low enough temperature for proper slow cooked barbeque. So, IMHO, gas grills are only good for grilling.
Second, if you know what you're doing, it's very easy to control a wood/charcoal fire. Sure you have hot and cold spots in your cooker whether you're smoking or grilling, but working with this is part of the fun of the cooking process.
Third, I like building and maintaining fires. Cooking, camping, or bon fires, doesn't matter. Maybe I have some pyromaniac tendencies, but somehow fire connects with something primitive in my soul. I can watch a fire for hours.
Lastly, you can cook using wood/charcoal regardless of the outside temperature. It will require more fuel to maintain the cooking temperature, but so what. You'll use more gas in the winter as well.
In an old post, I talked more about barbeque vs. grilling and why they are two completely different methods of cooking.
Wood, when properly used is actually another "spice" in your recipe. Each type of wood imparts a different flavor on your food. Try using each wood separately at first, then mix them for your own flavor stamp.
So what are the wood types suitable for smoking? Here's a list that was compiled from various sources, including the BBQ Faq, The BBQ-Brethren and Life Tyme Grills.
ACACIA - these trees are in the same family as mesquite. When burned in a smoker, acacia has a flavor similar to mesquite but not quite as heavy. A very hot burning wood.
ALDER - Very delicate with a hint of sweetness. Good with fish, pork, poultry, and light-meat game birds.
ALMOND - A sweet smoke flavor, light ash. Good with all meats.
APPLE - Very mild with a subtle fruity flavor, slightly sweet. Good with poultry (turns skin dark brown) and pork.
ASH - Fast burner, light but distinctive flavor. Good with fish and red meats.
BIRCH - Medium-hard wood with a flavor similar to maple. Good with pork and poultry.
CHERRY - Mild and fruity. Good with poultry, pork and beef. Some List members say the cherry wood is the best wood for smoking. Wood from chokecherry trees may produce a bitter flavor.
COTTONWOOD - It is a softer wood than alder and very subtle in flavor. Use it for fuel but use some chunks of other woods (hickory, oak, pecan) for more flavor. Don't use green cottonwood for smoking.
CRABAPPLE - Similar to apple wood.
GRAPEVINES - Tart. Provides a lot of smoke. Rich and fruity. Good with poultry, red meats, game and lamb.
HICKORY - Most commonly used wood for smoking--the King of smoking woods. Sweet to strong, heavy bacon flavor. I don't know if I get the flavor of bacon from this wood, but it does taste like BBQ to me. Good with pork, ham and beef.
LILAC - Very light, subtle with a hint of floral. Good with seafood and lamb.
MAPLE - Smoky, mellow and slightly sweet. Good with pork, poultry, cheese, and small game birds.
MESQUITE - Strong earthy flavor. Good with beef, fish, chicken, and game. One of the hottest burning. Can be bitter. My family doesn't like it if I use only mesquite in the fire. They feel it makes the food "hot" and "spicy."
MULBERRY - The smell is sweet and reminds one of apple. My friend Phil calls this "cotton candy" wood because the smoke smells a lot like cotton candy.
OAK - Heavy smoke flavor--the Queen of smoking wood. RED OAK is good on ribs, WHITE OAK makes the best coals for longer burning. All oak varieties reported as suitable for smoking. Good with red meat, pork, fish and heavy game.
ORANGE, LEMON and GRAPEFRUIT - Produces a nice mild smoky flavor. Excellent with beef, pork, fish and poultry.
PEAR - A nice subtle smoke flavor. Much like apple. Excellent with chicken and pork.
PECAN - Sweet and mild with a flavor similar to hickory. Tasty with a subtle character. Good with poultry, beef, pork and cheese. Pecan is an all-around superior smoking wood.
SWEET FRUIT WOODS - APRICOT, PLUM, PEACH, NECTARINE - Great on most white or pink meats, including chicken, turkey, pork and fish. The flavor is milder and sweeter than hickory.
WALNUT - ENGLISH and BLACK - Very heavy smoke flavor, usually mixed with lighter woods like almond, pear or apple. Can be bitter if used alone. Good with red meats and game.
BBQ List members and other internet sources report that wood from the following trees is suitable for smoking: AVOCADO, BAY, CARROTWOOD, KIAWE, MADRONE, MANZANITA, GUAVA, OLIVE, BEECH, BUTTERNUT, FIG, GUM, CHESTNUT, HACKBERRY, PIMIENTO, PERSIMMON, and WILLOW. The ornamental varieties of fruit trees (i.e. pear, cherry, apple, etc.) are also suitable for smoking.
Don't use any wood from conifer trees, such as PINE, FIR, SPRUCE, REDWOOD, CEDAR, CYPRESS, etc.
There are many trees and shrubs in this world that contain chemicals toxic to humans--toxins that can even survive the burning process. Remember, you are going to eat the meat that you grill and the smoke particles and chemicals from the wood and what may be on or in the wood
are going to get on and in the meat. Use only wood for grilling that you are sure of.
If you have some wood and do not know what it is, DO NOT USE IT FOR GRILLING FOOD. Burn it in your fireplace but not your smoker.
ELM and EUCALYPTUS wood is unsuitable for smoking, as is the wood from SASSAFRAS, SYCAMORE and LIQUID AMBER trees.
Here are some more woods that you should not to use for smoking:
Never use lumber scraps, either new or used. First, you cannot know for sure what kind of wood it is; second, the wood may have been chemically treated; third, you have no idea where the wood may have been or how it was used. For all you know, that free oak planking could have been used in a sewage treatment plant.
Never use any wood that has been painted or stained. Paint and stains can impart a bitter taste to the meat and old paint often contains lead.
Do not use wood scraps from a furniture manufacturer as this wood is often chemically treated.
Never use wood from old pallets. Many pallets are treated with chemicals that can be hazardous to your health and the pallet may have been used to carry chemicals or poison.
Avoid old wood that is covered with mold and fungus that can impart a bad taste to your meat. If you have some good cherry wood (or other good smoking wood) that is old and has a fungus growth and you want to use it, pre-burn it down to coals before you put it into your smoker.
Never burn leaves or poisonous vines. Be especially careful not to burn poison ivy, sumac, poison oak etc. The oils in the vines when burned will spread the toxins in the air and onto your food.
Some people say to pull the bark off the wood before you burn it. Bark is a natural fire block on the trees. Healthy bark will help a tree to survive a fire. Some people say that bark produces a bitter smoke. I don't know, I've never tested the theory. If I can get the bark off easily, I do it. If not, it goes right into the fire.
Grilling or smoking over a wood fire is more challenging than cooking over charcoal. Wood burns hotter than most charcoal and as a consequence, burns faster. Wood also stays in the 'hot coals' stage for a shorter period of time than charcoal.
There are other things besides wood that can be used to flavor your food. Some people use spices or onions, garlic etc. I've tried them. I didn't notice a real change in the flavor of the food. AND spices are expensive. I'd rather use a pinch of oregano in a marinade to flavor the meat than to burn a jar full in the fire. When I was in New Hampshire, I had bacon that was smoked over corn cobs. It was the best bacon I've ever had in my life. I'm going to try that soon.
One last thing about cooking with wood. When you cook with wood, you want to see very little or no smoke. Clean, blue smoke is what you're after. White thick smoke is bitter. Black smoke is toxic. Play with your wood. You'll see what I mean.
Here's an interesting link about BBQ and grilling: It’s barbeque time!