Our tour of the whiskey distillery got me thinking about wood. No, not that kind of wood. I mean, how wood instead of peat can be burned so smoke flavors the malt and wood chips are used to age and flavor the spirits. It reminded me of the importance of smoke in barbeque.
Even though barbeque meat is seasoned with spice rubs, basted or mopped with liquids, and plunged in sauce, its dominant flavor is smoke. Depending on the wood burned, the smoke can be sweet or acrid, fruity or resinous. The word barbeque even comes from the Spanish word barbacoa, which means a grid of green (fire resistant) sticks on which food is placed high above a fire to smoke.
Hardwoods have sugar molecules that produce aromas and proteins which contribute to roasted flavors. Most softwoods, like pines and firs, have significant quantities of resin that produce a harsh tasting soot when burned. This is not preferential for smoking food. So, don't use your Christmas tree in the barbeque pit. Since different species of trees have different amounts of these sugars and proteins, they impart different flavors to food. The temperature at which wood burns can also impact cooking with smoke. The ideal is low, smoldering temperatures for wood in your barbeque cooker. Because some hardwoods burn so hot, pitmasters sometimes choose to lower the combustion temperature by soaking wood chunks in water before placing them on a fire.
Some common woods used in smoking are:
- Alder – light, aromatic smoke; preferred for salmon
- Apple and Cherry – sweet, fruity smoke; great with poultry and pork
- Hickory – strong, full-flavored smoke; popular with ribs, pork shoulder, bacon, and turkey
- Maple – sweet and fragrant smoke; goes well with chicken and full-flavored fish
- Mesquite – heavy smoke with a pungent flavor; works best with beef and sausage
- Oak – good all-purpose smoky flavor, not as strong as hickory or mesquite and never bitter
- Pecan – rich, fragrant, mellow smoke; won’t overpower delicate seafood
Mesquite is my favorite wood for barbeque and it imparts a very strong flavor to meat. Because of that, it works best with meats that have an equally strong flavor, like beef or wild game, but I like it with everything. I find it bit sweet and very aromatic. It is also the most common wood used in Texas barbeque.
My dad uses mesquite in his cooking. When my brother and I were kids, we regularly helped him scrounge pieces from nearby ranches before our barbeques because the trees are considered a nuisance. Ranchers aren’t too fond of mesquite trees because they compete with grass for moisture, and cattle need grass. Right now, my dad has a plentiful supply since Hurricane Dolly knocked out several mesquite trees and he was able to chop them up and stash them my his barbeque cooker.