Although we’ve titled this section “Basics of Smoking” this really covers the basics of cooking with wood. Ideally, meats, poultry, and fish are best smoked with a temperature range of 180°-225°F, although many cooks will go as high as 300°F. Always remember to bring the internal temperature of the animal protein to the recommended internal temperature (as recommended by the USDA Food and Safety Inspection Service) to ensure it is safe for consumption
Ground meats and meat mixtures like for sausage 160° F,
Fresh beef, veal & lamb: 145° F,
Poultry: 165° F,
Pork and ham: fresh items 145° F, (pre-cooked items 140° F),
Seafood items with fins: 145° F).
Why does smoker hardwood work so well in fire cooking? Because hardwood contains organic compounds, over a 100 of them, with 3 key compounds: cellulose (40-60% composition), hemi-celluose (20-30% composition) and lignin (20-30% composition). It is the lignin, a phenol compound, that gives wood-fired foods distinct flavor, aroma, and color! The added benefit: it protects foods from bacteria. Smoke is the visible gas derived from the combustion of the wood. Each hardwood will react differently to the food or beverage item exposed to smoke vapor and produces a unique flavor, aroma, and color to foods. There really is no true descriptor for each wood flavoring. Instead, we guide you on the boldness of the flavor.
Here is our Hardwood culinary offerings listed in order from mildest to boldest of flavor:
#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. 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.
#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. 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
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: 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.
#5: 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 and air space in their cells 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.
#6: Learn Two-Zone Cooking
To bring less stress to your outdoor cooking, learn how to cook with a two-zone set-up: heat on one side of the grill/smoker, food on the cool side. You won’t feel tied to the equipment the entire time the food is cooking. I find this allows for more stability of the cooking temperature and keeps the food cooking evenly.
Reminder-- A little goes a long way. Remember to start with small quantities (about 6-8 ounces depending on the equipment) and add wood gradually as needed.
Superior Product… Superior Outcome! For all wood-fired techniques including smoking, grilling, coal cooking, ember fired, cold smoking, and stove top smoking.