Have you ever been to a rib joint or a backyard barbecue and wondered just how they got that beautifully smoky taste in their food? Well, it’s not as difficult as it might seem. There are a few tips and techniques that I am going to share with you that will (with a little practice) make you into a real ‘barbecue pitmaster’.
It all begins with the choice of fuel. While gas (propane or natural) is very quick and convenient, it simply cannot, by nature, give you that most sought-after smoke flavor. It’s not the best fuel choice for our goal here today.
A charcoal fire is the most traditional and popular method for those after that great barbecue taste. Charcoal is made from hardwood among other things, which is the key to getting the right flavor. There’s a choice here too, briquets or lump (natural) charcoal. I generally start my fire in a charcoal chimney with briquets then add lump charcoal if needed. The reason for this is that lump charcoal ignites cleaner and does not give off the acrid smoke and possible bad taste. Lump charcoal also burns hotter and shorter than the briquets.
Oh, by the way, NEVER use lighter fluid. It has a tendency of giving the food a ‘diesel-like’ flavor. Always start your fire in a charcoal chimney. This is a much more efficient and environmentally friendly way to go. The heat is funneled straight up and ignites the charcoal more evenly and quickly.
There are some people who use nothing but wood in their grills and smokers. Many verities of hardwood can be used by itself with amazing results. I’ll tell you about the different types of wood in a minute.
But the method most utilized by us barbecue enthusiasts is a combination of both charcoal and hardwood. By combining these two, you get the best of both fuels. The charcoal ensures a longer sustaining fire, while the hardwood adds to the smoky flavor.
Now let’s talk about hardwood. There are many verities to choose from here too. I will cover the most popular ones used, but don’t feel limited to these suggestions. Try experimenting with others.
Alder is a very delicate wood with a hint of sweetness. It goes good with poultry, fish, pork and some game birds.
Apple is a favorite of mine in combination with hickory when doing pork ribs. It has a mildly sweet fruity flavor. It’s also good with poultry.
Cherry is another of the fruity and mild hardwoods. It’s also good on pork, poultry and some beef cuts.
Hickory is by far the most commonly used hardwood in barbecue. Its’ sweet and strong flavor is good with pork, ham and beef. A very good choice when grilling steaks.
Maple is a mellow and smoky wood with a hint of sweetness. If you like to smoke cheese, this is the wood for you. It is also good with pork, poultry and game birds.
Mesquite wood burns hot with a strong earthy flavor. It is popular in the south, especially Texas. It’s good with beef, fish, chicken and some game birds.
Oak gives a heavy smoke flavor. Red Oak is really good on ribs, while White Oak is a longer burning wood. Use Oak on red meat, pork and fish.
Pecan is very good choice for smoking. It has a subtly sweet and mild flavor. Pecan goes well with poultry, beef and pork. It also works well when smoking cheese.
Other woods that give great smoke are: Almond, Ash, Birch, Grapevines, Mulberry, Pear and the sweet fruitwoods like Apricot, Plum, Peach and Nectarine. These are all suitable for smoking so, do some experimenting.
The following are a few unsuitable woods for grilling and smoking that possibly could even be poisonous. Stay away from: PINE, FIR, SPRUCE, REDWOOD, CEDAR and CYPRESS. Also ELM, EUCALYPTUS, SASSAFRAS and SYCAMORE are woods not to use.
I’m sure if you follow these guidelines, with a little practice you’ll be able to achieve that wonderful smoky taste that we all strive for. Be patient, as it will take some time to develop your own skills. But remember, just have fun with it. Good luck and good eating.