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THE STRAIGHT STORY ON SMOKING WOODS

Common questions:

What is the difference between smoking and barbecuing food?
Do I need wood if I use real wood charcoal?
What type of wood should I use?
What kind of wood should I avoid?
What is the difference between the different woods?
Can I use wood on a gas or electric grill?
Is the bark off trees good to use?
Should I soak the wood first?
Should I use big pieces or small pieces?

What is the difference between smoking and barbecuing food?
Smoking meat and barbecuing meat are basically the same thing except that smoking food is a slow cook process. You may have had great bbq ribs which were slowly cooked over a low heat wood fire. Remember that the old fashioned barbecue started by cooking out doors over an open fire. The fuel for the fire was always wood and therefore the food developed a great smoky flavor. Later, with more people moving to the city, charcoal became the alternate fuel source. This was because charcoal was lighter than wood and easier to transport. It was also easier to obtain because it is mostly made from scrap wood. The problem with charcoal is that it provides only heat and NOT flavor. In the early 70ís CharBroil developed a gas grill and had to convince people that it had as much flavor as charcoal. This is true but only because both are heat sources and neither provides flavor. Since then the argument has raged over which is better, charcoal, gas or electric grills. The fact that most people have missed is that there is NO ARGUMENT that barbecuing or cooking over wood smoke is the BEST without question. The only question is which wood should I use, and thatís a matter of personal preference.
Remember too that smoking food also includes cold smoking such as smoking fish or cheese. This is done by flavoring food over wood smoke with little or no heat and takes several hours.

Do I need wood if I use real wood charcoal?
Yes! Charcoal only produces heat NOT FLAVOR. Even the charcoal with hickory chips doesnít do much because by the time the charcoal lights the hickory is burned up. If you use charcoal sprinkle some wood chips on the coals just before cooking or check out a new thing called a Grill Kicker.

What type of wood should I use?
Traditionally smoke woods are area dictated. For example, mesquite is a favorite in the southwest while hickory is selected in the south and alder in the northwest. The reason is the availability. However, today, because of the internet, different smoking wood is available from all regions.

Typically fruit, nut and hardwoods are the bbq smokers choice. Below is a list of some of the most popular in order of popularity.
Hickory
Mesquite
Oak
Alder
Apple
Pecan
Maple
Cherry
Orange
Blackwalnut
Olive
Grapevine

What kind of wood should I avoid?
You should not smoke food with soft woods like pine, spruce, cedar, cypress, elm, eucalyptus, redwood, fir or sycamore. A wood is not a good bbq or smoking wood just because a wood gives off a lot of smoke when it burns.

What is the difference between the different woods?
Selecting the proper type of barbecue or smoking wood is a matter of personal preference and taste. I started barbecuing steaks with oak wood and everybody loved it. I then switched to hickory because I had both types growing on my farm. I then noticed that women generally didnít like it as much because it has a very strong smoked flavor. I therefore switched back to oak and everyone was happy again.
I recommend that you start with a lighter flavored wood like alder, oak or apple and work your way into the stronger flavors like hickory and mesquite. You donít want to turn people off to smoked food before you really get started.
Below are some of the more common smoking woods.

Alder
A wood from the northwest with a light, sweet flavor.

Apple
A northern wood which is light and with a little more taste than alder.

Cherry
Cherry is a northern wood which is moderate to light in flavor.

Hickory
Hickory is a very strong southern wood which is now available almost anywhere because of its popularity.

Mesquite
Mesquite is a very strong flavored wood from the southwest. It is probably second to hickory in popularity.

Oak
Oak is one of my favorite smoke woods. It goes with just about any barbecue meat. It has a medium smoky flavor that is stronger than apple and cherry, but lighter than hickory. As a result, it mixes well with these three woods, but also works great by itself. It has a dense, tight grain and a color ranging from almost white to yellow to red.

Pecan
This is a medium flavored wood that is not as strong as hickory but is stronger than oak.

Can I use wood on a gas or electric grill?
Yes. Just wrap some wood chips in some aluminum foil and poke some holes in it. You might want to check out the SmokePistol for gas or electric smokers. I use one and like it. It also makes lots of wood flavors easily accessible without spending a lot of money.

Is the bark off trees good to use?
No. Avoid using the bark. The bark is the dead part of the tree and is filled with bugs, fungus, mold spores and all that nasty stuff. A little bark wonít hurt but donít use a lot of it.

Should I soak the wood first?
The additional smoke you see from soaking the wood first is mostly steam which doesnít hurt, because it keeps your meat moist, but soaking the wood first is not necessary. However, if you use small chips, a good soaking will keep them from burning up too fast.

Should I use big pieces or small pieces?
You get more smoke for the amount of wood with smaller pieces however you have to add them more often.

Summary
In short, I recommend that you start with a wood like oak, which is light and not overwhelming. Donít use too much smoke, it is not necessary and may distract from the taste of the meat. I personally prefer the taste of oak.
Typically it is difficult to get wood chips other than hickory because you usually have to buy a 20lb bag of the wood which is a lot if you donít like the flavor. Take a look at the Grill Kicker that I mentioned earlier because you can get different flavor cartridges without spending a lot of money and you can get a handle on the flavors that you like.
Remember, when smoking cooking on the bbq that it is important to keep your meat moist by basting constantly or using a can of water inside the grill. One trick is to open a can of beer and stand it up inside the grill. You can even put it inside a chicken and let it steam the inside. Also, DONíT USE TOO MUCH SMOKE! That is the biggest mistake made by beginners.

 
Please feel free to e-mail me at: TomThomasFL@hotmail.com with articles, tips, etc. Check back with this site often as I will update it as often as I can. Enjoy the web site!