What makes barbecue taste and smell so great?
You can say itís the spice rub or the marinade. You can argue itís the quality of the meat. But everyone knows itís the smoke.
Wood chips allow you to add that rich, smoky flavor to meats and even veggies even if you donít have an offset smoker attached to the side of your grill.
As long as you have the right types of wood, smoking chips are easy to make (yes, using your own wood chipper!) and easy to use whether youíve bought them from the store or chipped them yourself.
The Right Types of Wood for Smoking
This is important. Some types of wood should never be used for barbecue or smoking:
- Never use treated lumber or manufactured woods like plywood.
These kinds of woods contain chemicals that are harmful for humans to eat or breathe in. When the wood gets heated or burned, the chemicals get released.
- Never use resinous conifer wood like pine or spruce.
Woods from needle-bearing conifer trees like pine, spruce, and fir contain a thick resin. This resin sparks and pops unpredictably when it burns. It also creates a black smoke that leaves food with a bitter taste.
You might see seafood like salmon smoked on cedar planks. These are made from Western Red Cedar. Western Red Cedar is the only type of cedar you should use in your grill. Donít use other types like Eastern cedar. Not sure what kind you have? Donít take the risk!
When it comes to the best wood chips for smoking, itís smart to stick to the tried-and-true classics.
|Fruit Tree Woods (Apple, Cherry, Peach, Pear) ||Light/Mild ||Pork, Poultry ||Throughout U.S. |
|Alder ||Light/Mild ||Seafood, Pork, Poultry ||Western U.S. |
|Hickory ||Medium ||Pork, Beef, Poultry ||Southern U.S., Midwest |
|Maple ||Medium ||Pork, Poultry, Vegetables ||Throughout U.S. |
|Oak ||Medium ||All Meats ||Throughout U.S. |
|Pecan ||Medium ||Pork, Beef ||Southwest U.S. |
|Mesquite ||Strong ||Pork, Beef ||Southwest U.S., Especially Texas |
Smoking Woods with Mild Flavors
These are great to use on their own or mixed with the medium woods.
- Fruit Tree Woods (Apple, Cherry, Peach, Pear)
The wood that comes from fruit trees actually imparts a sweet, fruity taste when smoked. By themselves, these woods pair well with the light flavors of poultry and pork. For a more complex flavor, theyíre often mixed with oak.
Light and sweet without a fruity flavor, alder wood chips are a popular choice for smoking seafood. Itís also good for poultry and pork.
Smoking Woods with Medium Flavors
Thereís nothing middle-of-the-road about these commonly used smoking woods, which come from trees like the oak tree pictured to the right.
Hickory might be the most popular smoking wood; itís especially popular in the South and the Midwest. Hickory smoke produces the strong, bacon-like flavor that makes so many people think barbecue. Because of its strength, itís best with pork and beef, though it can be used with poultry, too.
To cut the strength of hickory smoke, some people mix their hickory wood chips with oak wood chips.
Mild, sweet, and subtle are all words used to describe the smoky flavor that comes from maple wood. Because itís just slightly stronger than alder but lacks the tartness of fruit woods, maple wood chips are recommended for vegetables as well as for lighter meats like pork and poultry.
Another popular smoking meat, oakís flavor is milder than hickoryís but stronger than mapleís. This makes it a good match for any meat and a good complement for the lighter fruit tree woods as well as heartier hickory wood.
Pecan is popular in the Southwest, where the climate allows pecan trees to thrive. The smoke from pecan wood chips has been called rich, strong, and even spicy. Itís stronger than oak and is good with pork and beef.
Smoking Wood with Strong Flavor
In a category all its own is mesquite, the smoking wood that some would say has the strongest flavor. With a flavor this big, it should be no surprise that mesquite is popular in Texas barbecue.
Sharp, powerful, and earthy, the taste of mesquite smoke was practically made for beef and pork, especially ribs. Mesquite burns quickly and produces a lot of smoke, so use it carefully!
How to Use Wood Chips for Smoking
Smoking wood chips are small, about one to two inches in length. Theyíre different from other forms of wood you can use with your grill:
- Wood pellets are tiny pellets of compressed sawdust. Theyíre made for use specifically with electric pellet smokers.
- Wood chunks are larger than wood chips. Theyíre about four inches long, or roughly the size of your fist. Although they can be used on a gas grill as described below, theyíre often recommended for small offset smokers.
- Split logs are made for the serious pitmasters with dedicated smoking rigs and large offset smokers.
But weíre talking about wood chips here, which are perfect to use in your backyard barbecue grill.
Because wood chips are so small, they burn quickly. They donít make a good primary heat source and are no substitute for charcoal or your grillís propane tank.
Instead, itís better to use wood chips in combination with another heat source for your grill:
- For gas grills: place your chips in a metal smoker box. If you donít have a smoker box, wrap the chips in a foil pouch and poke holes in the pouch six to ten times with a fork. Place your box or pouch on the grate inside your preheated grill, close the lid, and wait a few minutes for smoke to build before adding your food.
- For charcoal grills: light your coals and wait for them to turn greyish white. Then, put your chips right on top of the coals, close the lid, and let that sweet smoke build.
Thereís a debate about whether grillmasters should soak their wood chips in water for 15 to 30 minutes before putting them on the grill. Some people say this prevents the chips from burning. Others say that it wonít matter because the water will evaporate as soon as the chips come near heat. Donít be afraid to experiment and find out what works best for you.
Whether you soak your wood chips or not, donít smoke your food for the entire cooking time! Too much smoke will overpower the flavor of your food instead of enriching it. Bon Appetit magazine suggests smoking your food for half the cooking time at most.1 When in doubt, check your recipe.
Tips for Making Your Own Smoking Chips
You can make more than mulch if you have your own wood chipper. If you have any of the kinds of wood mentioned above available, why not make your own smoking chips?
Here are some suggestions to keep in mind:
- Make sure your chipper is strong enough.
The consumer-grade chipper you have in your backyard can handle less dense woods like the fruit tree woods or maple. But stronger flavor comes from denser woodsóyouíll probably need a commercial-grade chipper to chip a wood like mesquite.
Check your chipperís product manual for information about the sizes and types of wood it can handle.
- Remove the bark before you chip your wood.
Some pitmasters say that bark adds a bitter taste to smoke when burned. For the cleanest smoky flavor, remove the bark first.
- Season your wood before you smoke with it.
Storing your wood outside for at least six months after itís been cut allows it to dry out. This dried-out wood is called seasoned wood. It will be easier to burn than freshly cut green wood. It also will produce more flavorful smoke.
If you donít have the best kinds of smoking wood available on your property, you can always buy smoking chips from a local supplier or store. However you get them, smoking wood chips make it easy for you to give your barbecue that mouth-watering flavor.
†NEXT: The Hardest Trees to Chip