Thu 23 Mar 2017
We are approaching that exciting time of the year when just about all of North America can start to enjoy cooking outdoors again! Make it the best outdoor cooking season yet by learning the steps to using wood for cooking and grilling successfully, avoiding the trademark pitfalls that sink those outdoor meals.
#1: Don’t Soak the Wood Chips or Chunks
The goal when you cook on outdoor equipment is to maintain a stable temperature for the cooking process. This ensures that your foods cook evenly and have a pleasant flavor from the cooking process. When you add wet wood products to coals, you stimulate a “cool down” effect to those coals which translates to fluctuating temperature. Energy is expended to steam off the water from the wood and bring the coals back up to temperature. Even when you add wet wood product to a gas or electric assisted unit, you still use up energy for temperature control, requiring more energy to generate steam to dry the wood. Always apply wood products dry whether directly to charcoal, to the flavor bars/diffusers of an LP grill or in a smoker box, smoking tube, or disposable pan.
There is a time when wet wood is preferred. If you are going to do a traditional hot smoking technique on a food item that will take more than a few hours, and you don’t want to constantly replenish the wood chips, you can do a “two-pan” set up of wood. Using disposable foil pans, add dry wood chips to both and place under the food grates. Pour enough warm water into one pan to cover the wood pieces. Leave the other pan dry. By the time the dry wood product has combusted completely, the water in the “wet” pan set up will have dried up (steamed off) making the wood ideal to start smoking. This is a great way to keep the wood flavoring the food the whole cook time without having to constantly feed wood.
#2: Don’t Add a Lot of Wood
Likely the biggest mistake made when cooking with wood is to add too much. I always tell cooks to view the wood as another ingredient in the overall dish and have a tempered hand. Smoke is a vapor that contains very small particles of organic compounds with certain compounds that contain the actual flavoring imparted from wood. As a plant material, these flavonoids, when combusted, can be quite bold. Always start with about 6-8 ounces of wood product and only replenish when the wood has reduced to 1/3 its size. Replenishment is only needed to get the full cooking time completed.
#3: Don’t Measure Flavor Infusion By the Quantity of Smoke
It will take another article to explain the differences in smoke by color so let’s stick to the basics. As I mentioned above, smoke vapor particles are quite small and are known to be attracted to moist surfaces. With most equipment on the market today, materials used in construction ensure an efficient set up so air does not escape other than out the intended vents. Don’t add wood to the equipment just because you don’t see smoke. The best smoke vapor is barely visible and has a blue tint to it. Rest assured, the wood is doing its job even if you don’t see a lot of smoke. You certainly should smell the aroma of the wood as it combusts.
#4: Stop Peaking When Your Smoking or Indirect Cooking
I know it’s hard to keep to this rule but you must stop opening the grill hood or smoker lid and looking! Proper oxygen flow, a balance between intake of air and exhaust damper or vent, is critical to keep everything you grill, smoke or wood-fire tasting good. If you’re using wood on a traditional charcoal smoker or kettle style grill, then you shouldn’t be checking anything – water pan, charcoal level, wood combustion – until at least a couple of hours have passed. And for those units that have a charcoal access door, you can cause a temperature differential when you expose the hot coals to a flood of air as well as cause ash to become air born if windy. No one likes ash on their foods! Limit the amount of time you lift the lid.
#5: Pick the Right Moisture Level for the Cooking Technique
For most wood-fired cooking techniques, a moisture level of between 15-25% is ideal. That level will allow you to hot smoke either via direct method (heat/smoke directly under the food) or indirect method (food placed to the side without direct heat under), produce smoke vapor on the gas grill using the diffusers/flavor bars or a smoker box, and do direct fire cooking. For ember or coal cooking, I prefer to see a wood with a moisture level around 15%, as that will allow the wood to combust faster and produce the bed of coals needed for this type of cooking. If the wood is too dry, say below 10%, you simply are using something designed for a maximum amount of heat output so that wood should be reserved for campfire cooking or direct hot searing. Remember, moisture means there is water in the wood. It takes some time to evaporate the water out which is how the wood will last longer during cooking.
#6: Hardwoods Only
Without question, the type of wood as well as the species is critical for a successful wood cooking event. ONLY use hardwoods! That means no pine, redwood, spruce, fir, cypress, cedar, or hemlock. Softwoods contain a greater percentage of sap which translates into unpleasant flavors when you cook. Additionally, many of these softwoods can trigger reactions to the digestive track which make many people sick. Also, stick to hardwoods that have been tested for cooking. Favorites include: apple, beech, hickory, pecan, oak, cherry, peach, maple, alder, ash, mesquite, walnut (http://www.smokinlicious.com/blog/?p=746 ).
#7: Build a Hot Fire
Many equipment manufacturers include a charcoal basket or grate for the charcoal and wood to sit on. This is done for a very specific reason; wood needs oxygen to generate heat. If wood product sits in ash, it won’t burn consistently and cleanly. This can result in soot coating your foods. Also, don’t build a huge fire. A small fire that can ignite unlit charcoal and wood is the ideal and produces the best temperature control and flavor.
#8: Balance Everything
Don’t simply purchased grilling, smoking, or cooking wood and throw it on the fire without thinking about how you want the dish to taste. If you’re using sweeter ingredients, than pick a hardwood that has a bit more boldness to it like ash, beech, hickory or oak. Fruity ingredients to the food doesn’t translate to using a fruity wood. Remember, taste is aroma (http://www.smokinlicious.com/blog/?p=405 ) so any wood fire you use for cooking should smell pleasant and enticing.
If you keep these tips in mind, you’re on the way to having one of the best outdoor cooking seasons ever when everyone wants to always gather at your house!