What is the best wood to use to BBQ?
Well I’ll tell you what that’s a damn fine question and I’m glad you asked. I have written this guide to help you choose the correct wood for your BBQ needs and help you correctly identify the wood you find at your local wood cutters or saw mill.
Why is wood important?
The difference in wood choices and seasonings are all that separate the master BBQ pitt man from Joe Average at his smoker in the back yard. More important then the marinades, injections and seasoning rubs, smokeis the flavor component that can make or break your BBQ. Factis you don’t even need the other preparations. Smoked meat purists often scoff at injection’s, marinades and overly strong seasonings, opting for the pure smoke and natural meat flavors exclusively. In any case, the smoke should tie together the preparations and seasonings and marry the natural flavors of the meat.
The art of barbecue,is in matching the ingredients to the cut. Larger cuts such as Brisket, Tri-tip, Pork Shoulder, Butts, and other large muscle masses require stronger flavorings and heavier smoke as well as in most casesa slower cooking process. These large cuts are perfect for your heavily spiced injections, stronger seasonings and slightly larger amount of salt.
Smaller cuts of meat, Ribs, Chicken and even Fish or Cheese, require more subtle seasonings, lighter smoke and many prefer sweeter rubs, and marinades. These lighter flavors are less likely to overwhelm the natural flavor of the meat.
The reasoning behind this all boils down to one thing. The percentage of meat to surface area. Inalarge roast for instance you haveaminimum of surface area ( the outside edges) and much more meat. Marinades and seasonings only penetrate at most 1/2 inch into the meat so in order to flavor the entire cut you rely on the heavier seasoning mingling with the meats natural juices to spread that goodness throughout when you takeaknife to it.
In smaller cuts thereisalower percentage of meat to surface area, so it follows that you would use less invasive seasonings and smokes so as tonotoverwhelm the flavor of the meat itself. This where the magic happens.
Larger cuts of meat also take exponentially longer to cook which means they will be in contact with the smoke foraprolonged period of time all of these things should be considered when planning your Que.
So what kind of wood do I need?
Generally speaking any Hardwood can be used to smoke and cook food. Most Softwoods are unsuitable with the exceptions of cedar and juniper and those should only be used fora short period for flavoring.
You want seasoned wood. Thatiswood that has been cut and allowed to fully air dry. This process can take up toayear and as you see in the pictures the difference between “seasoned” and “green” woodiseasily identified.
You want Clean Wood. Clean wood makes for clear flavors, Bark can be polluted by molds and fungus, remove what you can before adding it to the Smoker.
Of course the two main woods associated with BBQ are… yep you guessed it, Hickory and Mesquite. It’s an East vs West kind of thing thing. If you live in Texas or the surrounding states where the naturally occurring species of hardwood happens to be mainly mesquite you will find ironically enough that Mesquiteisthe prevalent flavor component in the wood smoker. In the rest of the country Hickoryisthe prevalent “power wood” along with Oak which grows nearly everywhere except the far south western states.
Use what you have available. It holds true throughout the entire spectrum of regional cooking and ethnic cuisine that people tend to prefer and prepare ingredients that at one time were available in their backyards. Thisis how historically traditional recipes came about. So by making use of the woods in your locality you are basically continuing that traditional approach. I knowa few contest winners that always use local wood and say that its best to provide local judge panels with flavors they are familiar.
Hickory and Mesquite are the power woods associated with BBQ. The thing these two species have most in commonisaheavy almost acrid smoke. Both Mesquite and Hickory smoke if left to settle on the meat for any length of time imparts an bitter flavor which can easily overwhelm the flavor of the meat. Care must be taken to ensure even cooking while maintainingamoderate airflow.
Mesquite Wood generally burns hotter, which equates to faster. It produces slightly less smoke because of its rate of burn, but again you donot want the smoke to settle on the meat for any length of time. Good airflow, even though it will consume more fuel,is preferable to over smoked meat. The flavor of Mesquite works well with other strong flavors. Itis used most often on beef andis instantly recognizable by smell and taste.
Hickory Woods burn slower, lasts longer and imparts more smoke. Hickory also carriesa slightly bitter component thoughnot nearly as pronounced as the Mesquite. As with the other strong flavored woods good steady Airflowisa must. Both of the “power” woods require more constant attention and subsequent experience. To refine the process I always advise that one use these woods sparingly at the beginning and the end of the process while mixing ina good Oak or alder for the actual cooking process.
Oak Woods carrya moderate and slightly mellow smoke flavor to the meat. It’s identifiable butnot overpowering. Red Oak hasa slightly sweeter component which further mellows the smoky flavor. Oakisa very hard dense wood. It generally burns for longer periods providing an even stable heat, this makes ita perfect “fuel” for cooking in the smoker,
Oak wood’s slightly less distinct flavor allows for added flavoring woods to haveagreater effect. For instance adding pecan at the very beginning and end of the cooking process will leave the meat with the lingering flavor of the pecan wood. Where as if your base were hickory for instance you would barely notice the pecan smoke flavor.
Oak woodisoften suggested for beginners, or for use with new equipment as it can be depended on to provide good stable temps and even heat. All in all Oakisprobably the most used ifnotthe most popular wood in BBQ
Alder Woods both red and white found most often in the west central region of the US releasesa slightly more flavorful smoke itis less subtle then oak butnot nearly as pronounced as Hickory, Mesquite. Perfect for milder flavored meats, including fish, and most notably water foul. Alderis used often in cold smoking as it’s less dense and smokes well ata lower temperature.
Both Oak and Alder are safe to use during the prolonged 4-6 hour cooks of larger cuts of meat. However you still shouldn’t allow your smoke to lay upon the meat too long. Constant light airflowisthe key to avoid bitterness.
Pecan Woods are in use in the more southern states. Pecan wood producesa smoke flavor very close to its cousin the Hickory though slightly sweeter, mellow yet full bodied flavor that compliments pork perfectly and most milder flavored meats. Pecan even though its similarity to Hickoryis distinct itis often used asa flavoring smoke because its tasteis easily recognizable in heavier flavor profiles.
Maple Woods are another huge favorite mainly because of its massive availability and the fact that Maple wood impartsa definite maple flavor to the smoke. Maple varieties are nearly endless. With sugar, Silver and Red Maple being the most common in the US. Maple burns sweet relatively hot andis dense and long lasting. Maple woods generally imparta slightly less acrid but otherwise strong smoke flavor and can be used with nearly any stronger flavored meat including most game varieties.
Apple Woods are an all around favorite buta little tricky to work with. Apple hasa somewhat low density but burns hot and fast. Producing less smoke because of its more rapid consumption. The mildly sweet smoke flavoris easily overpowered by heavier flavors so itis more useful as fuel then asa flavoring agent. When working with apple you will want to have an abundance of large pieces in order to retard the furious burn rate.
Apple wood isgreat for baking. You can produce wonderful breads pastry and rolls in asmoker with apple wood. Other fruit woods such as peach can be used as well providing alight sweet flavor. When baking in the smoker will need to tend the fire more to ensure no over smoking occurs.
Getting the wood can be challenging in some locations. If you live in new york city it may be harder to finda guy on craigslist selling firewood ata price that doesn’t play deep woods banjo rhythms when you see it. However there are sources online that will ship nearly any amount of raw split wood either on pallets or in boxes fora fairly decent price + shipping.
Many hardware stores carry flavoring woods in chunks. These are to be used in conjunction with charcoal to provide the smoke flavor to your BBQ. You can use them with any type of fuel. I like to use chunks to experiment with as its easier then going out and finding larger amounts that may or maynotbe suitable.
If your fortunate, there will beanearby wood cutter or sawmill that sells seasoned woods. The best way to buyisto visit the wood cutters stock and pick out the mixture of wood types you’d like to have. You may also be able to have the pieces sized to work best for your particular smoker. Building these types of relationships will really pay off when you begin to narrow down your favorite flavorings.
Fire and BBQ woodisoften sold by the cord Cords,aCord equals 128 cubic feet of wood, or roughlyapile that measures 4′ x 4′ x 8′. Some wood cutters will offer youaFace Cord or whatisalso referred to asaRick, or Rack.
Ricks and Racks are confusing because they representapile 4′ x 8′ x 1 log’s width. Since different wood cutters will cut different size logs the actual amount of wood can vary quiteabit. Because of this in several localities itisillegal to advertisearick,rack or face cord of wood in which case wood cutters will offerafraction ofaCord or sell by the truckload. The average truck bed holds just overathird ofacord of wood on average.
Many grocery stores carry wood chips for imparting smoke flavor to grilled items. These work well with electric smokers which basically bake the meat inalight smoke but are ineffective in smokers in general because of their high rate of burn.
I hope now that you know what to look for you wont be afraid to get out and find some decent wood and get to cooking upamasterpiece for you and your family to get excited about. Call your friends make some plans and get smoking.