by Michael Y. Park
Call it an inflammatory statement, but when your barbecuing friends put on airs like Eastern mystics as they rhapsodize about the woods they use to smoke with, you have our permission to call them out for being a wee bit pretentious.
"There's a little bit of wishful thinking there," says chef Jamie Purviance, author of Weber's Smoke: A Guide to Smoke Cooking for Everyone and Any Grill. "Wood smells and tastes like wood for the most part. Smoke is smoke."
He sees even veteran barbecue competitors fall prey to almost magical thinking, like pit masters for Georgia who insist that throwing peach wood on the coals can trick your tastebuds into thinking the ribs you're sinking your teeth into came from a pig raised at Tara.
Still, he says, the true grill master knows that using wood correctly is a key part of the smoking food. It's just a matter of knowing the fundamentals.
Know Your Woods
The first thing to consider is what kinds of wood to use, based on how overpowering the smoke they put out is.
Think of smoking woods as existing on a spectrum from mild to strong. On the mild side are fruit woods, like apple, peach, cherry, and pear, which might impart that sweetness your friends swear by, but are subtle enough to use with lighter foods like poultry or fish, and sometimes pork. Birch is a smidge heavier, and an appropriate choice for more strongly flavored fish -- salmon smoked in birch is a classic combination.
In the middle part of the spectrum are woods like hickory, maple, pecan, and oak. They're great with pork, and strong enough to stand up to beef and game meats. Purviance's personal favorites to smoke with are hickory and oak.
Finally, there's the strongest wood of all, and it's in a category all its own: mesquite. It can be a invaluable wood to smoke with -- if you do it in moderation.
"Use mesquite like you'd use chile peppers," Purviance says. "It's to be used in combination with other flavors, and for limited amounts of time."
It's Not Just About the Smoke
Which leads to the biggest mistake most people make: over-smoking their food. Though smokiness can lend a diabolic richness to food that can transform a decent hunk of flesh into a transcendent repast, too many grillers have forgotten that when it comes down to it, their guests want to eat meat, not smoke.
"In general, you shouldn't smoke for more than half of the cooking time," Purviance says. "Just stop. Otherwise, you risk overdoing it."
People also tend to forget that smoking isn't just about adding flavor, it's also about adding an appealing hue to the meal. Hickory and oak are so popular partially because they lend a "really rich, dark, mahogany color" to meats.
And for the truly advanced, there's nothing wrong with a little mix-and-match. If you're willing to experiment, try simultaneously using different woods of various strengths. Popular combinations include hickory with apple or hickory with cherry, which ups the game of the mild fruitwoods while imparting that deep, golden-brown finish to the meat.
"The most serious smokers or competition pit masters get into the act of blending woods the same way you would blend spices," Purviance says.
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Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em
If you wanted to kill two birds with one stone and chop down that pesky tree in the backyard to keep your smoker well-fed this summer, keep in mind that some woods just aren't meant to smoke food. Stay away from the more resinous woods, like pines, which will quickly make your food inedible. And don't just tear off a green branch and stick it on the coals, either, for much the same reason.
If the wood isn't too resinous or green, let it season before you use it. Arrange it in a well-ventilated stack, preferably in direct sunlight and not directly on the ground, and let it dry out for at least a month before using it.
"You'll find that it has a better aroma and burns a little slower for you," Purviance says.
For the most part, you'll be using chunk-sized pieces of wood in your smoker, which won't become cinders before your pork shoulder gets above room temperature. But wood chips have their role too: If you're grilling up something that cooks up in a flash on a regular charcoal grill -- say, chicken thighs or fish filets -- wood chips are ideal for adding that five or 10 minutes of smoke that are all you really need.
And as for the age-old debate about whether to soak your wood or not before you toss it on the coals, Purviance is firmly on the no-soak side, observing that the heat of the coals evaporates the water before it gets a chance to affect your food.
"It really doesn't make a difference," he says.
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