Using wood smoke to enhance barbecued meals may seem like an over-and-above addition to modern barbecue cooking; however, many cultures have used wood smoke for centuries to preserve and flavour meats. Think of smoking as another seasoning to add to grilled favourites. Like any seasoning, it is important to balance it with the existing flavours from marinades, rubs, and the meat itself.
Smoking can add flavour to a gas or charcoal barbecue, and certainly to more specialized charcoal smokers. Like spices, different woods impart very different flavours (see chart below) – from the intense, spicy notes of mesquite and hickory, to the sweet and fragrant notes of apple and cherry. If you’ve never done any smoking before, don’t overdo it – start with a small amount of wood chips (1/2 cup or so), soak them for ½ hour and then add them to a stainless steel or cast iron smoker box. A smoker box controls airflow for ideal smoke conditions, and keeps ash contained to keep your barbecue clean. Milder flavours like apple and cherry are a good place to start as well. The acrid, almost burnt taste of something that is over-smoked is not pleasant.
Where there’s smoke… there’s fire??? It’s very important that your wood chips don’t actually catch fire – the smoke from burning wood chips is very bitter and acrid and imparts an unpleasant flavour to your food. The sudden rise in temperature can also impact the overall cooking result in your food. Soaking your chips and monitoring cook temperature is very important when using chips, especially on a gas grill. Controlling airflow on a charcoal grill is the key to both temperature and smoke control – it becomes second nature with a bit of experience.
Once you get comfortable with the amount of wood chips required for a pleasant smoke flavour, feel free to experiment with different flavours of wood chips and even blends of different flavours. Many world-renowned barbecue restaurants use blends – try apple and hickory or cherry and alder together for a true ‘sweet and smoky’ experience.
For ‘low and slow’ barbecuing, wood chunks make a great addition to your charcoal grill – large, softball sized pieces of hardwoods offer an extended smoking time and mesh well with lump charcoals to create true southern barbecue classics.
Wood Chip / Chunk Flavouring – Ideal Pairings