Our reference guide for what wood to use for smoking
WHAT WOOD TO USE FOR SMOKING
I see the question asked so many times and in so many ways. What is the best wood to use for smoking? What is the best wood to use for smoking (fill in the blank with your favorite food)?
I’m going to shake things up a bit by stating there is no rule book saying a specific wood must be used with a specific food. There are, however, some basic things you should know to reduce the risks of toxicity, damage to your equipment, and overall ruining your barbecue. Use the wrong hardwood and you can bitter any food you expose to that wood’s smoke.
Absolutely No Softwoods
Right up front, let me tell you, only smoke with hardwood. Softwoods or coniferous woods should never be used for cooking because they have elevated sap levels and more air in their cell structure. This causes the wood to burn fast, hot, produce lots of sparks, and produce unpleasant flavors not ideal for flavoring foods. Let’s be clear on what a softwood is: pine, redwood, cedar, fir, spruce, hemlock, larch, cypress.
Meet the North American Hardwoods for what wood to use for smoking
Now, meet the North American Hardwoods! Known as deciduous trees that produce broad leaves, produce a fruit or a nut, and generally go dormant in the winter, hardwoods are the woods to use for cooking and makeup roughly 40 percent of all trees in the United States. However, not all hardwoods are created equal when it comes to flavoring foods. Let’s examine some of the specific hardwoods of North America. I am referencing our key to the boldness of the wood’s flavor (= Mild = Medium = Strong)
Part of the Birch family of hardwoods, Alder is a relatively soft hardwood of medium density. It is most commonly used to smoke fish but can be used with mild poultry cuts, pork, vegetables, fruits and spices for natural wood flavoring/smoking. The flavor profile is mild on our scale of boldness. Alder provides a neutral coloring to the outer skin of foods and is the preference for those who like to cold smoke.
Ash hardwood is part of the Oleaceae family or olive family of hardwoods and can be used with any food for natural wood flavoring/smoking. The flavor profile is on the light side making it ideal for most any food but in particular, it works great with wood-fired pizza as it can lose moisture quickly providing for a great bed of coals. Ash provides a neutral coloring to the outer skin of foods.
Considered a lightweight hardwood, Aspen is known to have “wet pockets” which can lead to some difficulty with using this as a cooking wood due to its tendency for bacteria development. Variations in moisture can result in temperature variation during cooking which is directly opposite the goal when fire cooking.
This hardwood is known as the preferred wood for carving. It grows commonly with red oak, white ash, and sugar maple trees. This wood is soft and light which makes it a quick burner. It does not have any notable odor or taste which makes it a poor choice as a cooking wood.
This hardwood grows in large stands and mixes in with many of the other dominate hardwoods. It is a popular filler wood for making charcoal so you know it burns long and evenly. It is classified as moderate in flavor boldness.
This can be an ideal firewood choice due to the prevalence of the varieties of birch and the strength of the wood itself. However, it is not a highly flavorful hardwood for cooking and burns too hot. If used for fire cooking, you will have a challenge controlling the cooking temperature.
This hardwood produces a poisonous nut as well as twigs. For that reason alone, it is not recommended as a smoking/cooking wood.
This hardwood belongs to the genus that includes walnut though it is not as weight-heavy a wood as walnut. Don’t let the name confuse you. There is no buttery taste to this wood. In fact, it does not offer any balanced qualities when used for cooking and for that reason, is not recommended.
Like Oak, there are many species within the genus of cherry. It has an obvious fruity aroma and tends to light easily producing a steady burn and flavor. Wild or forest grown cherry is very different from orchard cherry which can have bitter undertones which may in part, be due to the chemical application commonly applied to nursery trees. Feel free to use it with poultry, beef, pork, lamb, even vegetables, as it is a workhorse when it comes to flavoring foods. Be sure to use a meat probe when cooking with cherry wood as this wood provides a reddish-pink hue to the meat that can easily be mistaken for under-cooking.
This is a very hearty hardwood that is resistive to decay so it is not necessarily an easy lighting wood. It can be used for smoking though I certainly feel there are better choices out there.
This hardwood is part of the genus that contains the aspens and poplars. As such, like its siblings, it does not make for a good smoking wood. In fact, when it becomes wet, it produces a sour odor which can transfer to food.
Although this is a dominant hardwood in the USA it is a hardwood that has no characteristic odor or taste. For that reason, it does not make for an ideal cooking wood.
A very heavy hardwood that holds moisture for indefinite periods of time which causes it to be a poor choice for pleasant smoke flavors. This can produce musty aromas that can transmit to foods.
This is a moderately hard wood that has a yellow to grayish heartwood that does not make it the best choice for smoking. The benefits of exposing food to this wood are not well documented and for that reason, is not an ideal choice.
Since these hardwoods are part of the same genus they share similar qualities: dense wood that is strong, can be difficult to lite, but produce a lot of color and flavor to foods. What should be noted here is that not all the species are the same. Some hickory varieties are very bold and can have bitter undertones. It is important to learn the differences between varieties before selecting one for cooking.
There are over 120 species of maple so let’s clarify some of the terms. Sugar maple and black maple are also called hard maple. Silver maple, red maple, and boxelder are called soft maple. These maples make for excellent smoking and cooking woods producing beautiful even coloring and a moderate flavor level.
This is not a heavily populated hardwood in the USA and it is a slow grower. It can be confused with Hickory due to similar coloring. However, it does not produce the same flavors as hickory.
An extremely light hardwood that does not hold any ideal moisture for smoldering to produce a clean smoke. Poplar burns too quickly to be an ideal choice for cooking.
Although this hardwood has a medium weight and can burn evenly and for good length, it does not do anything for coloring foods or adding any pleasant flavor. For this reason, it is not recommended for cooking.
The oaks are the one hardwood that worldwide dominates with the greatest number of species. This is a heavy wood that can be difficult to light but once it ignites, it produces intense smoke and flavoring that is easy to distinguish when consuming foods cooked over it. Red oak has a strong aroma and flavor, requiring a trained hand to use it.
One of the heaviest hardwoods available, it belongs to the same genus as hickory and pecan. If classified as smoking, it is on the bold side and should be used in small quantities. The wood produces a very dark outer “bark” coloring.
Similar in structure to Red Oak, the white variety tends to be less strong aromatically though it still produces an obvious bold flavor to foods. Because it is a heavy, dense wood, it holds moisture for a long time making it more ideal for hot smoking and grilling rather than for cold smoke application.
There you have a quick guide on the hardwoods of North America and those considered ideals for fire cooking. Experiment and keep a written log of what works with the other ingredients you use in your wood cooking. Hope you enjoyed our discussion of what wood to use for smoking!
Recently, I came across a great article on the new hot trends in cold cuts and smoked meats. The article stressed how the $200 million in sales was the result of companies offering such things as chorizo, pepperoni, salami, and smoked bacon with bolder flavors and cleaner ingredients. So, why do I have a problem with this?
What About the Smoke
The article went on to explain that the No. 1 trend in smoked and processed meats is products that are “uncured” or “no-nitrates added”, stating that this is due to the new health-conscious consumer. This got me thinking about smoked products in general. No one seems to be asking about the smoking process used to get that bacon hickory smoked!
If people are so sensitive to the ingredients in their foods, why haven’t we become concerned about the smoke component used for the actual process?
Demanding Label Changes
There are so many companies investing in the repackaging of their products to include such labels as “no-sugar-added”, “dairy-free”, and “gluten-free”. Consumers are label readers and keenly interested in how products are made, how animals are raised, how products are preserved, and the percentage of fat in the processing.
One factor in food preparation that doesn’t seem to have been included in labeling is the actual smoking process for food products like smoked bacon, fish, or beef jerky.
Why doesn’t anyone seem concerned enough to ask what are they smoking with? Is it actual wood or the wood-flavored vapor that is used to make liquid smoke, hardly an ingredient that would be considered chemical-free?
Wood Should Be a Food Ingredient Hot Trend
Let’s examine why wood should be looked at as a food ingredient when used for hot or cold smoking or wood-fired cooking in general.
First, not all companies selling wood products under the guise of smoking, identify what components of the tree are manufactured in the product. Nor do they give any indication if the wood used in the manufacture of products started for only the purpose of food application. To clarify this point, let’s review one common seller of wood products found on Amazon.com.
This popular choice in wood chips started as a hickory and mesquite manufacturer of log products by a single owner back in 1986. Originally, they sold logs to locals around their area. Eventually, they branched out to wood chips and wood chunks in retail packaging when BBQ became so popular.
The company was sold to a fire log company who uses recycled wood sawdust and agricultural fibers to produce fireplace log products. With the change in ownership, the company began selling other woods; pecan, post oak, and mesquite that are native to their home state of Texas, and the rest of the offerings which are brought in from other suppliers and locations. There is no bark removal, there is no separation of wood layers. Much of the product lies in open areas on the ground exposed to the southwestern sun as well as to anything else that may make contact. The product is left uncovered in outdoor areas awaiting packaging, even after it has been kiln dried which is the only reference made to any preparation of the wood.
Here is one concern with the current ownership – keep in mind, with a primary business of manufacturing charcoal and fire log products, this business was originally connected to a cedar and basswood pencil business. For those who don’t know woods, cedar and basswood are both softwoods, something that can be toxic if used for cooking food.
No Wood Regulations
There are no regulations that specifically state that you must guarantee that the wood packaged is clean, pure, and 100% of what it says it is on the label. Just about anyone can start to package wood, whether hardwood or softwood or a combination of both, as a “cooking”, “grilling”, “smoking” or “BBQ” wood. There are no regulations that it must be kiln dried or heat treated. It is a free-for-all!
There may be claims that we are label readers, but it appears when it comes to wood used for cooking, we don’t have a clue. This may be the oldest method of cooking in existence, but it certainly doesn’t have to contain the same risks as what the earliest homo sapiens endured.
The next time you see packaging that bacon, jerky, deli meat is of a smoked variety, look at the label and ask the question, “How was this smoked?” You will be amazed that little or no answers are provided. I hope you enjoyed our topic “Hot Trend” and the argument for better food labeling!
In THE HISTORY OF FIRE COOKING PART IV, we examine how wood fired cooking has evolved around the world, focusing on those countries who still rely solely or in great part on wood fired cooking for sustenance.
Many Still Rely on Fire
The numbers can be staggering when you take a close look. In developing countries, some 2.5 billion people rely on biomass to meet their energy needs for cooking. For many, these resources account for over 90% of the household energy consumption. Biomass includes charcoal (derived from wood), fuel wood, agricultural waste, and animal dung. As area populations increase, the number of people relying on biomass for cooking also grows. By the year 2030, it is estimated that 2.7 billion people will relay on biomass for cooking! The immediate concerns are that biomass will be used without sustaining harvests and that technologies for energy conversion will not be used properly. In fact, 1.3 million people, the majority of whom are women and children, die because of exposure to indoor air pollutants from biomass. Slowly, the goal for switching to modern cooking fuels and/or promoting more efficient and sustainable use of traditional biomass is under way. For now, there are millions who wood fire foods for their family’s nutrition using traditional methods and recipes.
The Many Methods and Meals of Fire Cooking
Without question, the continent of Africa houses most of the countries who are reliant on wood fires for cooking. The top 12 countries using wood fires for cooking are: Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Rwanda, Burundi, Liberia, Madagascar, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Guinea, Laos, Ethiopia, and Central African Republic. However, there are many other countries that carry generations of wood fired cooking recipes into today, making them a family gathering special occasion. Let’s examine some of those countries and what they cook.
Moroccans cook in earthen ovens called tagine, a conical shaped terra-cotta lid that sits on a flat terra cotta bottom. It sits on a base called a majmar, an unglazed brazier full of hot coals that cooks the tagine slowly. In the market place, tagines are lined up with various foods like fish & potatoes, chicken & olives and lemon, or lamb with prunes. They also use small elevated grills in the port areas to cook various fish.
Although the people of Laos do grill some items, including water beetles, they mostly make soup in large pots set over an open wood fire. This is much like the American style of cowboy cooking. Vegetables, sprouts, and noodles are often added to the broth to make the traditional Laotian daily dish.
Guatemalans use a method of wood cooking known as three stone cooking. A fire is started between 3 fire proof materials, usually stones that are used to support pots placed over the fire. Pepian, the national dish of Guatemala, is a mouth-watering chicken stew made with different types of native chilis, seeds, and vegetables. In addition to hand-crafted tortillas, it takes 3-4 hours to make this recipe traditionally over a fire.
Here they call barbecue asado and it is certainly about the meat. Vegetables, calamari, bread, and other foods are introduced to fire and heated either on heavy grates or iron pans.
One of the biggest misconceptions is that tandoori is a recipe from India. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Tandoori is a technique of grilling meat over fire in a tandoor, a clay oven. The tandoor is buried. Heat escapes from the top. Tandoori is very hot! Skewered meat or fish is inserted into the tandoor vertically to cook. The traditional bread, Naan, is placed along the sides of the clay vessel.
Koreans use a very unique method of wood fire cooking while at the same time utilizing the heat from that fire to heat their homes. They are one of the earliest users of radiant heat. Outside the home, a fire proof container is hung over the fire area. A series of flues travel horizontally under the house. Ondol is a layer of flat stone located directly beneath the house floor.A chimney flue is located on the opposite side of the house from the fire source preventing any smoke from entering the actual home. As the smoke travels through the underground flue system, it acts as a preservative to the wood house by preventing insects, mold, and bacteria from developing.
Don’t Think All Wood-Fired Cooking is BBQ
The variety of foods and techniques noted are not considered BBQ but have traditions that originate in every corner of the world. Through trial and error, sourcing material that was available in each country, and incorporating foods and other edible items into recipes to feed families, fire cooking has advanced in some countries, while others still have seen little change.
Now we see the essence of barbecue by other names in other countries. Asado in Argentina, braai in South Africa, lechon in Philippines, mezze in Lebanon, and parrilla in Uruguay. Without question, the days of fire cooking are far from over as our innate nature seeks the flavors only provide by flame and smoke. Hope you enjoyed THE HISTORY OF FIRE COOKING PART IV, the final installment of the fire history series.
Preparing for Entertaining by Isac Atia is a great checklist to follow
This guest post PREPARING FOR ENTERTAINING
PREPARING FOR ENTERTAINING
by Isaac Atia, Founder of 10BestRanked.com, an authority blog where he reviews top home, kitchen, and outdoors products.
(Read his latest post about the best kitchen faucets here)
Getting Your Kitchen Ready for Entertaining Guests
The beginning of the holiday season means that you need to change a few things on your domestic routine, especially if you are hosting guests. If you are expecting some guests this season, you need to clean several areas in your kitchen thoroughly. Come to think of it, much of the holiday festivities center on food. As such, you need to ensure that your kitchen is ready for guests.
In addition to stocking enough supplies in the kitchen, you should also ensure that the kitchen is clean. So, how do you go about preparing the kitchen for entertaining your guests? Discussed below are some of the tips you may use to ensure that the kitchen is ready for your guests.
Clean Up and De-clutter
First and foremost, you need to ensure that all the surfaces and countertops in the kitchen are clean. Again, a little more space may be what you need in the kitchen right now. This being the case, you should consider getting rid of all the clutter lying around, especially on the countertops. You can begin by getting rid of the items that really don’t belong in a kitchen, such as bills and mail lying on the countertop. Removing some items that do not need to be in the cupboards can also free up some needed space.
Now that you have decluttered the surfaces, you should clean them and ensure that the counters, backsplash, as well as the floor are all sparkling clean.
Prepare the Microwave and Oven
These are some of the commonly forgotten appliances when cleaning the kitchen. It can be very embarrassing for a guest to offer to assist you in the kitchen only to find these appliances gross and dirty. Therefore, you should take time to clean both the inside and the outside of these appliances thoroughly as well.
While cleaning the oven, do not run the self-clean cycle. This is not advisable when you are expecting guests in your home. This cycle causes the oven to overwork, which may cause it to malfunction when you need it. Rather than running the self-clean cycle, you should use a wet rag to wipe the top of its burner clean.
Disinfect Your Trash Cans
However careful you are with trash cans in your kitchen, some dirt and gunk will still collect at its bottom. If you are preparing for some guests this holiday, you should ensure that the trash cans in your kitchen are clean and disinfected. As such, you need to take them out and clean them using dish soap and water. You may use a garden horse to rinse them clean. You should then use a cleaning spray to disinfect them. Again, you should also ensure that you have enough trash bags.
Stock Up the Staples
From where you’re standing, the pantry and spice rack in your kitchen may seem to be alright. However, you should check to see if they have all you need. In addition to stocking enough spices, you should also ensure that you have enough dish soap/detergent, aluminum foil, paper towels, plastic wrap and containers for leftovers. If you do not have the time to go out, you may buy these items online and have them delivered to your door step.
Prepare the Serve Ware
Are the knives in the kitchen ready for the task? You do not want them to hack away at the honey-baked ham when the guests are already there. As such, you should take time to have the knives sharpened. Again, you also need to take inventory of the basic supplies you will be using to serve food to your guests. This way, you can easily identify what your missing and buy it before the guests arrive.
Additionally, you should take time to go through your cookware, utensils, and cooking oils, serve ware and canned goods just to make sure that there is enough. As for the serve ware, they also need to be cleaned. As such, you need to clean the serving plate and polish the silver ones. You should also wash and iron the cloth napkins in preparation for your guests.
Preparing for guests can be a daunting task, especially if you don”t know how to go about it. As you already know, the kitchen is one of the places you will be using a lot when the guests are around. It helps to ensure that the kitchen is ready and well equipped for the task that lies ahead. The tips mentioned above will help you prepare your kitchen for entertaining guests. Hope you enjoy this guest blog PREPARING FOR ENTERTAINING!