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Woods for Smoking

The rule of thumb for woods for smoking is any fruit or nut wood, but there are as many opinions on smoking as there are people who smoke. There is agreement that white smoke is ash and is harmless and tasteless. Black smoke is soot and will ruin barbecue. The ideal is the thin blue smoke of wood embers. Ten percent of outdoor cooks use a water smoker while only 5 percent use a dry smoker. The table below provides some general guidance for the common types of wood used for smoking.

Wood Types Characteristics Suggested Foods

Hickory Pungent Pork, beef, game, poultry

Pecan Similar to hickory but milder Pork, beef, lamb, poultry, fish

Mesquite* Sweeter than hickory Beef

Alder Delicate Fish, pork, poultry

Oak Forthright, blends well with others Beef, pork, poultry

Maple Somewhat sweet Chicken, vegetables

Cherry Sweet, fruity Pork, poultry

Apple Sweet, fruity Pork, poultry, beef Peach or Pear Sweet, woodsy Pork, poultry

I have experimented with a number of other woods such as citrus, persimmon, and sassafras. These are interesting, but they produce more variation in aroma than they do in the flavor of smoked foods.

* In my opinion using mesquite for grilling steaks is fine, but if it is used for the longer periods required by smoking it gives the meat a bitter flavor. Bear in mind that traditional Texas barbecue (before the advent of modern sauce marketers) was a brisket cooked over Post oak embers and seasoned only with salt and pepper.

I personally use a 50/50 mix of pecan and wild cherry collected locally for most of my beef and pork (see NOTE). I use apple chips from the big box store for chicken. Some recommend corn cobs, grape vines, or wine barrel chips. You are on your own with these. Some use wood chunks, some use wood chips, some soak the wood in water first, some do not. I personally use twigs or chips that are not soaked in water. I add these quickly about every hour through the side door of my water smoker.

Years ago, I barbecued a whole hog (100 to 150 pounds) in my back yard every New Year’s Day. For this I used a mix of logs – 2 parts oak to 1 part hickory. The oak tempers the potent hickory flavor.

In France fresh tarragon is sometimes thrown on the fire at the end when grilling fish, which provides a nice aroma. Other herbs such as rosemary could also be used.

NOTE: Driving around town or an orchard after a wind storm can provide wood for experimentation. If you collect your own wood thoroughly dry it before use. Burning green wood produces what is collectively termed wood-tar creosote. Well-seasoned wood with an adequate supply of air produces the pale blue smoke desired for seasoning barbecue.

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