Joe Carroll effectively jump-started the barbecue boom in Brooklyn with the opening of his Williamsburg restaurant, Fette Sau, in 2007. In his new book, Feeding the Fire (Artisan), Carroll dishes up various techniques for making fire-cooked meats at home — none more important than choosing the right kind of wood. Here is an excerpt.
Barbecue isn’t barbecue without wood smoke; wood is as much flavor as it is fuel, especially when you’re cooking simple barbecue. When your only ingredients other than meat are dry rubs, or just salt and pepper, the type of wood you use can have a profound effect on the taste of the finished product.
I like to impart a good amount of smokiness to my barbecue; I want whoever’s eating it to smell and taste the smoke right away. Think of wood like a seasoning in the same way chefs use spices in their cooking. As with spices, you want to use enough to make its presence known, but not so much that it overwhelms the dish.
Whiskey blenders, winemakers, and beer brewers strive to maintain a consistent flavor profile from batch to batch and season to season, resulting in a unique and unmistakable product. Most regional American barbecue styles follow a similar approach, employing one type of wood, or a specific blend of woods, usually determined by whatever grows nearby. Texas brisket gets its intense flavor from mesquite and post oak; the pork barbecue of the Carolinas wouldn’t be the same without the flavor of hickory and pecan wood smoke; Santa Maria barbecue is tied to hearty red oak; and so on. At Fette Sau, we use a mix of local hardwoods (mostly red and white oak and maple) to smoke our meat. We try to maintain a consistent blend of wood from day to day; if we suddenly switched over to hickory, for example, our ’cue would taste noticeably different.
There are dozens of woods that can be used for barbecue and grilling. While it’s true that each type produces its own unique flavor of smoke, the differences between one variety and the next can be subtle, especially when you are using them to smoke large cuts of meat already flavored with a spice rub. It’s usually not worth the time and expense to seek out more exotic woods like sarsaparilla or pecan if they aren’t readily available where you live.
Types Of Wood And Their Flavors
Alder: Often used to smoke fish (especially salmon), alder has a delicate and slightly sweet flavor.
Almond: Best used for seafood and poultry, almond wood produces a light, nutty-flavored smoke.
Apple: The most popular of the “mild” woods, apple yields a sweet, fruity smoke flavor. It is most often used for pork and poultry, though it also works well as an all-around wood when you want a more subtle smokiness in your barbecue.
Cherry: Cherry yields a sweet, fruity flavor; it will also impart a rosy hue to fish and poultry.
Grape: If you live in or near wine country, you may be able to source dried grapevines for smoking, which will produce a tart, fruity flavor.
Maple: Maple has a lot of wood sugar, so it imparts sweeter flavors and aromas. It’s great with poultry or pork barbecue that isn’t aggressively seasoned.
Sarsaparilla: Sarsaparilla is a musky-flavored wood that adds a mild root-beer note to poultry and game.
Pecan: Pecan wood gives off a flavor similar to hickory but is less intense. If you can get it, pecan makes a great all-around cooking wood.
Oak: The most versatile and widely available cooking wood, oak is dense and burns for a long time, making it ideal for smoking larger cuts of meat. Its flavor is strong but not so overpowering that you can’t use it on seafood or poultry. I’ll often mix oak with other varieties of wood to create a more complex smoky flavor.
Hickory: A popular all-around wood that’s widely available, hickory has more punch than oak and a slightly nutty flavor. Many prefer hickory for pork and beef, and it can be used sparingly with poultry, in combination with other wood.
Beech: Like oak, beech burns slowly and evenly with a moderately smoky flavor.
Acacia: Acacia results in mesquite-like flavors, though much less intense and bitter.
Pimento: This exotic wood from Jamaican allspice trees is used for traditional jerk-style barbecue. It imparts a tangy, herbaceous flavor similar to that of its berries.
Walnut: Walnut’s hefty, deeply flavored smoke is best matched with big cuts of beef. It’s often used in tandem with other milder woods.
Mesquite: My feelings on mesquite are best summed up with Livia Soprano’s words to her son, Tony, in the series’ first episode: “You’re using mesquite. That makes the sausage taste peculiar.” Although mesquite is popular and widely available, use it with caution: it can impart a pungent, bitter flavor that overpowers any cut of meat, especially when used as the only source of smoke. Even if you love that telltale mesquite flavor, it’s best used in small amounts with other woods.
That said, not all wood is meant for cooking. Anything with a high sap content — including pine, cedar, and other coniferous trees — should be avoided, as the sap will impart an unpleasant flavor (plus, some say the smoke from coniferous trees can make you sick). Conventional wisdom says that elm, eucalyptus, and sycamore are also unfit for smoking. Likewise, any green wood — that is, freshly cut wood that hasn’t been properly seasoned (dried) — will contain too much moisture and sap, making it burn unevenly and sometimes imparting an unpleasant flavor. Always avoid scrap lumber, which might have been chemically treated or stained, as well as plywood.
The best wood for barbecuing and grilling has been either air-dried or seasoned in a kiln. The cheapest and most readily available wood will be whatever grows near you, but before you order from your local firewood supplier, ask them how their wood has been dried; many can sell you wood seasoned specifically for cooking. It’s safe to assume that any wood chips or chunks you purchase by the bag at a retailer have been properly seasoned.
At home, you can experiment with various types of wood until you find one — or a combination of two or more woods — that best matches what you want to barbecue. Some woods are too intense to be used on certain meats; others are too delicate. To get you started, pages 30 to 31 list some of my favorites, arranged by their flavor, from mildest to most assertive.
Logs, Chunks And Chips
Wood used for barbecuing and grilling ranges from whole logs down to chips to pellets, which are made from pressurized sawdust for use in specialty smokers and grills. Most electric and propane smokers only work with wood chips, while charcoal smokers and grills can use wood in any form. A good rule of thumb is to use wood chunks for longer smoking times (two or more hours) and chips for shorter ones. When barbecuing a large piece of meat, I typically start with a few large chunks, then replenish the supply one or two pieces at a time to maintain a constant stream of smoke. Although whole logs are usually used only in large commercial smokers, you could keep a log fire burning next to your smoker and feed it with partially burned wood, which will provide both the heat of charcoal and the flavor of wood smoke.
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