Cross section of a harvested hardwood tree showing the heartwood of the tree
IS HEARTWOOD REALLY THE ‘HEART’ OF THE TREE?
By now you’ve come to recognize SmokinLicious® Gourmet Wood Products as the Company that produces it’s cooking wood products from only heartwood. Yet, there are still many questions out there as to what that means for the individual using our products. Is heartwood where all the life forces of the tree thrive?
The short answer is, no, but there are benefits to using woods derived from the heartwood of the tree for cooking. Let’s explore!
Mini molecular-biology course: wood is an organic material that is porous and fibrous. It contains hundreds of organic compounds but there are three primary compounds responsible for the cell construction in trees: Cellulose which is a glucose that is tasteless and odorless but comprises 40-50% of the cell. It is crystalline so it provides for the strength of the cell wall. Hemicellulose is also a glucose and carbohydrate but unlike cellulose, it has little strength and makes up 15-25% of the tree’s cell structure. Lignin is the cell compound that is responsible for the structural materials in the support tissues of wood and bark and makes up 15-30% of wood cells. Lignin is what fills the cell wall spaces between the cellulose, hemicellulose, and pectin components and is crucial for conducting water. Lignin yields more energy than cellulose when burned. Most importantly, lignin is what gives wood-fired cooked foods their flavor and aroma.
Now, on to the heartwood. All wood starts life as sapwood, the living, outermost portion of the tree that is just under the bark. Sapwood is where water and dissolved minerals are transported from the roots to the crown of the tree. Essentially, it is where energy for the tree is stored. As older sapwood cells age and die, they become heartwood, which plays no role in the transport of essential nutrients for the tree. Then what are the benefits to heartwood?
Heartwood is known to be resistive to insects and decay. An additional benefit is the heartwood tends to be darker in color than the sapwood. Because the cells die off, the moisture level is less difficult to manage than sapwood, meaning it can be dialed in with greater ease. That’s why traditional firewood can take so long to season (up to a year) as it will contain bark, sapwood and heartwood due to the splitting of the harvested tree. The combination of these three distinct components can alter the aroma and flavor when used together in cooking, producing a more muddled flavor profile. This is where the risks for toxicity in cooking reveal themselves.
One of the reasons that SmokinLicious® has specific hardwood species in our product offerings is because the hardwoods we’ve selected tend to have a healthier heartwood to sapwood ratio, are known to have less risk of heartwood rot, and have lignin percentages that are more complimenting to cooking. We’ve done the hard thinking for you so go ahead and select one of our hardwoods with confidence that you will get a super aroma and taste to your wood-fired menu items!
SMOKY-GRILLED POTATO: OUR #1 CROP GETS A NEW FLAVOR TAKE
As the #1 crop in the world, available all year, potatoes are a favorite for a variety of reasons. Get the nutritional benefit of this abundant vegetable by adding flavor in a different way – cooking it over charcoal and hardwood!
New red and white potatoes
3 tablespoons of oil (grapeseed, walnut, almond, vegetable, or canola)
I’m using small red and white potatoes. You’ll need a knife and cutting board, as I like to cut these small potatoes in half to allow for maximum wood fire flavoring. I’m going to use a vegetable grill pan but you can use any heat safe pan whether foil, glass, heat-safe ceramic, or cast iron. Cut each potato in half, and place in the grill pan.
Seasoning and Oil Bring Out the Best
Just 3 simple ingredients are needed before the pan is placed on the grill. Drizzle three tablespoons of oil over the halved potatoes, then add coarse salt and fresh pepper. The oil can be grapeseed, walnut, almond, vegetable, or canola, anything you have and prefer. Mix well to ensure each potato is coated, then let rest to allow the seasonings to penetrate before adding to the hot grill.
Charcoal Grill Set Up
Time to get the grill ready. I’ll be using a combination of charcoal and wood – charcoal as the fuel for heat and wood chunks and chips for flavor. Keeping my intake vents open on the kettle grill, I start a chimney full of charcoal. Just one chimney will be needed for the actual cooking. I lay a small line of unlit coals down both the right and left side of the charcoal grate to keep my temperature stable through the cook. I pour the hot coals in the middle then add two Sugar Maple wood chunks and a handful of Wild Cherry Grande Sapore® wood chips on top of the hot coals. On goes the food grate and then my vegetable pan of halved seasoned potatoes.
Once the wood is set up and the food grate is on, the pan of potatoes is added. Put the grill cover on and adjust the lid outtake vent to 1/3 open position. Now, adjust the lower intake vent to the ½ open position. Let the potatoes cook for about 25 minutes prior to stirring. You’ll see the golden hue from the maple and cherry smoke vapor. Be sure to rotate the potatoes on the bottom to the top so that there is even color and flavor to each piece. The total cook time will be close to an hour but each grill and charcoal will perform differently so be sure to watch closely after the first 35 minutes. Remove when the potatoes can be pierced easily with a toothpick or knife tip.
Full Flavor With All the Nutrition Intact
With all the nutritional value still intake, these golden, smoky potatoes are ready to eat as is or you can include them in your favorite potato recipes. I’ll be giving a smoky edge to my interpretation of a potato curry in our next recipe feature. Take advantage of this popular comfort vegetable and the ease of using a charcoal/wood grill for cooking and give your meals a memorable flavor enhancement.
As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts on our feature so start the conversation with a comment!
Dr. Smoke try this smoky-grilled potato technique!
Menu board found in most restaurants- regarding wood-fired grill
WHEN A FLOP COULD HAVE BEEN A SUCCESS WITH THE WOOD- FIRED GRILL!
Listen to our blog about the wood-fired grill
There is no question that being in the franchise restaurant business is a challenge especially given that there is a national menu dictated by the brand you partnered with. I am amazed at the risks brands will take when it comes to making a major capital investment in marketing strategies, equipment upgrades, and personnel training for single concepts. Case in point: the obsession with wood-fired grilling to get customers in or coming back!
Here are just a few brands that took the leap of faith into the wood-fired grill market:
Carrabba’s Italian Grill
Applebee’s Grill & Bar
Certainly, not all these efforts have resulted in 100% failure as often the addition of a wood-fired oven or grill was added for other menus items that had an established following or existed from the conception of the franchise. For instance, Carrabba’s Italian Grill offers wood-fired pizza in their brick oven so it is not a giant leap for them to do wood-fired chicken. The same can be said for Bonefish Grill whose focus is fresh fish. Logan’s Roadhouse and Outback Steakhouse bring diners in for mostly steak and that is a protein accustomed to being cooked by fire.
What happens when a decision is made by a brand to go into this unchartered area?
There are two franchises that standout on this topic: Red Lobster and Applebee’s Grill & Bar. More than 6 years ago, Red Lobster began a major marketing campaign on their newly launched “wood-fired assisted grills”. The brand stated a commitment to using oak wood for their wood-fired menu items. At some locations, though not all, you would find a log holder with firewood logs outside or just inside the front door. In 2016, Applebee’s Grill & Bar attempted a major menu change with the introduction of wood-fired steaks, pork, chicken, and salmon which required the purchase and installation of wood-fired grills to its nearly 2000 locations. Why don’t you see these two brands focused on wood-fired menus any longer? The short answer is, they didn’t study the market on wood-fired cooking with the help of a wood expert!
What should have been done to make this capital venture, this leap-of-faith, successful? By far, the most pivotal mistake made was not understanding the role the wood plays in food flavor. Both Red Lobster and Applebee’s Grill & Bar defaulted to using oak, an extremely strong wood to use in cooking. Also, they elected to use firewood meaning that the variety of oak, if not sourced by one supplier, would vary by region or state, if indeed they received oak exclusively. Most firewood suppliers do not sell one type of wood. In fact, firewood could be a mix of softwood and hardwood which should be of great concern when you are targeting cooking.
Understand, that most franchise brands do not come up with a concept and immediately put it in place. There is a testing period, usually two, whereby they take a small sampling of their locations and put the new menu items in place. Then they collect feedback and data. The catastrophic failure that occurred for Applebee’s Grill & Bar is that they did not stay true to the procedures set in place during the testing period when they rolled this out to nearly 2000 locations. The result: they will turn in the worse 2016 sales numbers for a franchise restaurant.
What is the lesson to take away?
If you are considering adding wood-fired menu items to your business, do your research! Don’t get enamored with the idea of this style of cooking. Learn from an expert what occurs to foods exposed to live fire, what changes result flavor-wise, and what to avoid in wood choices based on the equipment. Most of all, start out by understanding, not all wood is appropriate for cooking and not all suppliers have great wood. Then take advice from the expert rather than risking not only the success of your business but the health and experience of your guests who dine with you.
Dr. Smoke- Learn about the wood-fired grill issues with restaurants
I’m going to first relate the information on why the risks in North America are not the same as developing countries and then I will highlight the top six (6) potential reactions we face when using specific woods for cooking. This will be generalized reactions to wood compounds and not the direct result of a specific cooking technique.
Developing countries generally use very primitive equipment for cooking the daily meals needed to sustain families. The simplest method is with three large stones to contain the fire with a pot or other metal container placed on top for the cooking. The fires are fueled by solid materials like coal, wood, dung, and crop waste. All these materials release harmful particles into the air as they burn. Here’s the issue: they employ this cooking set up INDOORS, where they live which generally is in homes constructed from thatch, mud, and/or animal skins. Chimneys may not be present or if present, have no flue to draw the contaminated air out.
What results from the exposure to smoke from cooking daily in these situations?
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease
Lung Cancer and Upper Airway Cancers
Death (from long-standing exposure)
In North America, we view wood-fired cooking as entertainment as we are blessed with having other options for our primary cooking needs, specifically, gas, electric and convection cooking equipment. Our equipment is built from high-end materials with proper ventilation key to installing and using this equipment. All our cooking can be done safely with minimal exposure to the health risks listed above.
Most of us engage in wood-fired cooking outside, where the particulate matter of smoke cannot accumulate in one area lowering our risks for compromised health. Restaurants who include wood-fired menu items do so by having specialized ventilation that must pass a rigorous inspection. All this ensures that we don’t suffer the same consequences as these developing countries.
The question is: are there any other variables that put us at risk when we cook with wood even outdoors?
I’m going to pick some of the most popular woods to cook within North America and isolate some of the potential concerns with these woods. I will list these by two categories: fruitwood and hardwood.
In this group, I’ll include Apple, Cherry, Grape, Peach, Pear as these tend to be the favorite fruit woods to use for wood-fired cooking. Let’s address the gorilla in the room first– pesticides.
Like the fruit these trees produce, the wood absorbs the pesticides that are applied to the trees. Eat a non-organic apple (keep in mind organic produce also is exposed to pesticides but usually these are natural derivatives and not synthetic), wash it, and you will still absorb any pesticide that has been absorbed into the actual fruit meat. Same is true for the tree. Pesticide applications embed into the soil base of the tree, which then enters the root system, and is on the way to the other parts of the tree. Now let’s be clear, pesticides can also become air born as they turn into a vapor and travel by air. The bark of any tree is a great absorber of these air particles. Once pesticides enter the human body, they are stored in the colon.
For the Prunus Armeniaca family which includes ornamental cherry, peach, plum, and apricot trees and shrubs, it is the stems, leaves, and seeds that pose the greatest risk if these are consumed by animals, even the dog, and cat. Cyanide is present and can be lethal to animals so if you bring in wood with bark and/or leaves intact, be sure these are away from all animals.
Popular hardwoods to use for cooking include Beech(nut), Cedar, Alder, Pecan, Mesquite, Hickory, Maple, and Oak. For all these woods as well as the fruit woods, dust irritation in the form of rhinitis and the general respiratory reaction is a given. Wood dust is an irritant. How people react to the dust is dependent on each person’s immune system. You should make every attempt to purchase wood for cooking that is clean of dust, particularly for wood chips. Often sellers of wood chips don’t screen the product sold and you can often end up with a bag or box full of wood dust. This will certainly aggravate most respiratory systems and potentially could exacerbate already compromised systems.
Today, I’ve highlighted only those hardwoods that have gained popularity as a cooking or grilling wood. In future articles, we will explore the hazards of using woods that are less common and more toxic. Don’t assume just because you’re cooking outdoors, the risks are few. Be informed on the wood choice before you make a lethal mistake.
Start a conversation with us on this topic by leaving a comment regarding our opinions- Can cooking over wood make you sick!
Dr. Smoke, please take our concerns seriously regarding-CAN COOKING OVER WOOD MAKE YOU SICK?
I’m often asked if there is any hardwood that is a safe bet to use with any food item and equipment. One that won’t be too strong if over applied or hurt the equipment if too much wood is used. Well, as you’ve heard me mentioned before, we don’t provide descriptors of the woods we manufacture as we believe there are too many variables that affect the overall flavor of the hardwood. Instead, we offer a rating of our woods based on how bold they are. On the low end of that rating scale? Alder.
Family of Trees
First, let me state that Alder is part of the Birch family of hardwood. It is a genus that is a flowering plant. Around the world, there are 35 species of both the tree and shrub form. Yes, that is correct. Alder is not always a tree but can be a tall growing shrub. In New York State, we have roughly 13 varieties with our Alder referred to as Eastern Alder. On the density side, this is a lighter hardwood and thus, it does not hold moisture long. This makes this hardwood ideal for very specific cooking applications.
Alder is very light in its stimulating flavor compounds. I’m sure you’ve read that Alder is ideal for fish but there are missed opportunities if you don’t go beyond the fish category. Given there are so many options to infuse smoke vapor, this can be a great wood choice when using a handheld food smoker or even a stove stop smoker or cold smoke generator. Contemplating chocolate, cheese, or fruits? Alder can be a perfect match.
Here’s my one caution. If you are planning to incorporate bolder ingredients with your food item, then alder may not be the first choice. Lots of bacon, chili or cayenne pepper – these will mask the flavor of the Alder wood. Instead opt for foods that have lighter ingredients like herbs, citrus, dairy components.
As mentioned, Alder or Birch will start with a moisture level that is higher but due to the composition of its cell structures, the water will evaporate faster in the hardwood. Using it on an LP grill or in a charcoal unit may require quicker replenishment than another denser hardwood so extra supply is always recommended.
Don’t forget, blending Alder with another hardwood works well too so if you do want a spicier kick to your ingredients, feel free to add Alder with a bolder wood like hickory, beech or oak.
The best part is always in the experimentation so have fun working with this hardwood that I call the safety net – it won’t let you fall flat if you select it for your smoke infusion.
Dr. Smoke Alder wood the safe bet when it comes to wood smoking with a lite taste
Can hardwood be too dry for wood smoke vapor? Our thoughts for you!
to can, hardwood be too dry blog
CAN HARDWOOD BE TOO DRY FOR COOKING?
Here are the misnomers:
Wet = Smolder
Wet = Smoke
Dry = Fast Cook
Let’s make one thing perfectly clear – all wood, whether hardwood or softwood, contains water! As a comparative, when wood is dried to ~20% moisture content (MC), it weighs 40-50% less than un-dried wood. This is the direct reason why the National Conference onWeights and Measures – Uniform Regulation for the Method of Sale of Commodities does not allow for the sale of wood products by weight. It would not be a level playing field for those of us selling this commodity.
So, we know that wood has too much water when a tree is first cut down and obviously will need to dry to some degree before being used for cooking. Why do you ask? Without reducing the water in the wood when burned/combusted, the wood will produce an acrid aroma and smoke vapor which, in turn, will produce off flavors, colors, and textures in foods cooked over wet woods that are consumed.
You might ask, does it matter how the wood is dried?
Absolutely! There are various ways wood products can be dried with the decision on a drying process usually dictated by what the wood will be used for. Just because you purchase a wood chunk bag or other product for cooking, does not mean it started out for that intended purpose. Often wood is used first for a primary business like furniture manufacturing, hardwood flooring, or cabinet making. It’s only the waste wood that is re-purposed for cooking use with a focus on BBQ.
Let’s examine the most likely methods of drying woods for this scenario.
Kiln Drying:Lumber or other wood items that have been dried in a closed chamber in which the temperature and relative humidity of the circulated air can be controlled. There are 3 types of kiln drying methods: low-temperature drying which is below 130° F, conventional electric de-humidification drying, and conventional steam-heated drying which have temperatures up to 180° F. Of the 3, the conventional steam-heated drying system is preferred due to its computerized programming but the high cost of this system makes it less attractive to most businesses.
Air Dried:The process of drying green lumber or other wood products by exposure to prevailing natural atmospheric conditions outdoors or in an unheated shed. There are 3 dominate air drying methods: open yard, shed, and forced-air shed. The first is not held in high regard as the wood is exposed to all the elements making it the longest method of depleting moisture content. The second, similar to the first, has the addition of a roof covering to maintain a precipitation-free environment. The third option is most used although the use of electric fans increases the cost from the other two options, it produces quicker results meaning products can be sold quicker. Remember, the primary purpose of the wood is not necessarily cooking so quicker is better to get it to the primary business’ production.
Warehouse Pre-drying: A very popular method of drying lumber despite higher capital and energy costs, this system can run consistent drying parameters almost 24 hours per day.
Now, knowing many wood producers sell their products first under the guise of another business before packaging waste wood for cooking, you need to understand where the MC needs to be in order to work for the furniture making, flooring manufacturer, or cabinetry business. These are items that require lower MC and that level across the United States and Canada has an average between 4-13% MC!
Can you imagine putting a piece of wood on a grill’s diffuser or on hot coals when it only has a moisture content of 4%? What do you think will happen to such a dry piece of wood? POOF! It’s gone!
SmokinLicious® developed a method of decreasing moisture content in our hardwoods using a controlled heat method with a re-hydration parameter. Our sole/primary business is wood-fired cooking woods! That’s it! We have no reason to reach for moisture content in the single digits and for cooking purposes, you would NEVER want this! The ideal moisture content for cooking is in the 20% range (this is dependent on wood species, however).
We ALWAYS provide you with a moisture content of the hardwoods you purchase from us, so you can be educated about the conditions of the wood for the type of wood-fired cooking you want to do. That is just one of the reasons whySmokinLicious®is a superior product for superior outcome in wood-fired cooking! We will explore for you the science behind the fire and topics to can hardwood be too dry to produce smoke vapor!