I contend that smoke produced from charcoal will lend a very slight smokiness to food (the old, charcoal tastes better than gas debate), but you need to step up your game if you want real flavor out of your grilling medium.
Grilling with wood is one of the greatest advantages to cooking food over a fire in my book, providing the unique opportunity to add a flavor that just can't be accomplished to the same degree inside a kitchen. Unlike the past few days of tips, this is one that will require a bit more experimenting on your part, since more variables are in play and taste for smoke is incredibly subjective. That being said, here are some tips and advice to get you headed down the right path.
Chips vs. Chunks vs. Logs
The first order of business is choosing the right size of wood from three basic options: chips, chunks, and logs.
Chips are scraps and shavings of wood that ignite quickly, but also burn out pretty fast. The biggest advantage to these are they're more readily available in a wide variety in stores. Other than that, I find the short burn time a reason to skip them unless totally necessary.
Chunks are usually about fist-size pieces of wood and my choice for getting things smoking. They take longer to fully ignite than chips, but burn for a good hour in a grill, and hours in a smoker. For city dwellers like myself, who may not have a natural supply of wood to forage from, chunks are sold pretty inexpensively all over the internet.
Logs are full pieces of wood, like you would use in a fireplace or to build a campfire. These are best reserved for barbecuing in a pit or with an offset smoker, but we're talking grilling, and I don't think logs serve much of a use here. They take a long time to get to the point where you cook over them and produce more smoke than you'll probably ever need when grilling.
Types of Wood
"You always want a hardwoods—softwoods like pine and cedar create a nasty, sooty smoke."
With the right size down, wood selection is up next. When picking a wood to grill with, you always want a hardwoods—softwoods like pine and cedar create a nasty, sooty smoke that have the potential to be dangerous to your health. Although each wood has its own unique flavor, without tasting them side-by-side, it's usually too subtle to really distinguish. That's why it's best to pick wood based on the level of smokiness it will impart, rather than obsessing over the minuteness of flavor. I break smoking woods down to three general categories: mild, medium, and heavy.
These include alder and fruitwoods like apple and cherry. The smokiness in these woods tend to be mild, with hints of a fruitiness or sweetness. The mild woods pair best with more delicate meats like chicken and fish, where a little smoke goes a long way.
Oak and hickory are the all-around players of medium woods. Oak is my go-to wood for almost anything, imparting that distinct smoke flavor without being overpowering. Hickory is heavier than oak, with a stronger flavor that's good for larger cuts of meat and just about any barbecue. Both of these work great with pork and beef—meats that can withstand stronger smokes.
This is really a special case for mesquite, which is strongest of all the smoke woods. The wood of choice for Texas barbecue, because brisket is one of the few things that can stand up against the hefty flavor imparted from mesquite.
Those examples is just the tip of the iceberg, and there are many more woods to mess around with. With any wood though, but especially ones falling into the medium and heavy categories, take caution not to use too much. Smoke can quickly overpower all other flavors, so if you're just getting started, I recommended using one chunk at first and increasing the amount as you find the right balance of smokiness—something that may also be achieved using a combination of woods.
Should I Soak the Wood?
"The rule of thumb around my house is if it's chips, give them a bath, otherwise burn them dry."
Many grilling books and guides will recommended soaking of wood chips, chunks, and logs prior to usage. The rule of thumb around my house is if it's chips, give them a bath, otherwise burn them dry.
With chips, soaking is a must—without some added moisture the chips will ignite and extinguish before any real flavor can be delivered to the food. For chunks, I find soaking pretty unnecessary, since they take a long time to fully burn out already and the added water just impedes the amount of time it takes to get them started.
To soak wood chips, place the amount of chips you'll be using in a bowl and cover fully with water. Allow to soak for 30 minutes before placing them over the coals.
Like charcoal, hardwood needs to be ignited and burning properly before introducing the food. To do this, place the wood on top of some hot coals and let it burn until its no longer flaming and is producing smoke. For chips, this is almost immediate, while chunks will take a little bit of time to get to the right stage, about 5 minutes depending on the type of wood and its size.
You can technically cook over hardwood exclusively, but for grilling, I think the best results are achieved by burning just the right amount of wood needed over charcoal. This gives the ultimate control between heat and smokiness that will keep foods coming out as perfect as possible.
The Smoke Ring
Although it's more prevalent in barbecue and you may never see it when grilling with wood, I want to give a quick primer to the smoke ring—a pink discoloration at the surface of the meat which is too often confused as a sign of it being undercooked. When cooking with smoke, especially for long times, a chemical reaction happens between the smoke and meat. When nitrogen dioxide from wood combustion mixes with the natural moisture in the meat, it forms nitric acid, causing the pink smoke ring.
A smoke ring is a surefire way to tell if something has been properly barbecued, and although I doubt it'll rear it's head in quickly grilled foods, if you happen to see it, it's definitely something to brag about rather than fear.
It's been a busy week learning some basics that will lead to great grilling. Luckily, an entire summer lay ahead to put these into action and transform them into some seriously delicious eats—which I hope you're willing to come back and share with us.
Until then, happy grilling!
Editor's Note: This is the final post in a 5-part grilling guide series by SE grilling correspondent Josh Bousel that should give you all the knowledge you need to tackle cookout season. —The Mgmt.