With so many types available, how do you find the best wood chips for smoking on a gas grill? Chef Koetke breaks it down and gives tips on the best foods to pair with each.
Smoke has become one of the most popular flavors in recent years with backyard and professional chefs alike smoking pretty much everything they can get their hands on. Perhaps our love of smoke harkens back to camping trips or is part of our national BBQ/cowboy cookout DNA.
Smoke adds a deep, satisfying flavor to grilled foods. It complements the simplest preparation as well as more complicated recipes chock-full of different spices.
Smoke also contributes an attractive color to the outside of grilled meats and fish. And the longer that the food is exposed to the smoke, the more pronounced the smoke’s coloring effect. Foods coated with a spice rub rich in paprika or chile, react positively to smoke and produce a gorgeous mahogany color that I can’t get enough of.
TIP: Try mixing in Hungarian paprika—sweet, hot, or a combination of both, along with smoked paprika into ground beef. It makes for a great colored patty when exposed to a healthy dose of smoke. The smoked paprika also reinforces the wood smoke. The result is spectacular!
As smoke has become increasingly popular, so has the number of smoking options available on the market. This can be seemingly confusing because smoke is just… smoke. Right?
This is where smoking gets to be fun. The fact is, when you burn different woods, you get different flavor profiles that interact differently with different foods. Opinions on which woods are the best run the gamut. Let’s take a look at some of the basic woods out there.
MESQUITE. This is a strongly flavored wood that appeals to some and completely turns others off. Because of its intensity, mesquite is best paired with stronger flavored meats like game, buffalo, and even grass-fed beef. It can also go well with stronger fish like mackerel and blue fish.
HICKORY. Hickory is a few steps down from mesquite and has been the traditional go-to wood for a lot of BBQ. It’s a middle of the road smoke with familiar flavors. If you’re going to have one wood around the house, have hickory. Hickory is my preferred wood for smoking most meats and especially pork. A few hickory chips on the grill will transform the common hamburger or pork chop! Hickory also pairs incredibly well with grilled lamb chops.
FRUIT WOODS. Fruit woods (cherry, apple, pear, etc.) have received attention in recent years and justifiably so. These woods tend to produce a mild and delicate smoke that doesn’t overpower foods. Think of them as infusing a gentle (some say sweet) smoke flavor. Many people swear by these woods. While their flavor gets lost with hardier flavored meats, fruit woods are perfect for most poultry and certainly fish like salmon, tuna, sea bass, etc. It is undeniably my favorite wood for grilled duck breast as it pairs perfectly with the slight sweetness of duck meat.
PECAN. With a flavor profile somewhere between hickory and fruit woods, pecan has also received a lot of attention in recent years. I appreciate its subtlety and like it with grilled chicken, perhaps glazed with something sweet like a port wine reduction.
MAPLE. I group maple along with pecan in terms of flavor intensity and how it pairs with different ingredients. It’s fun to use maple wood for meats and even portabellos brushed with a maple syrup and black pepper reduction. Yum!
SPECIALTY WOODS. Outside of the above woods, there are an increasing number of specialty woods such as wood from wine or whiskey barrels. As there are no hard and fast rules for these woods, go for it and try pairing them with different foods and preparations.
The only wood that should never be put on the grill is anything from the conifer family (i.e., pine, fir, spruce and cedar). These woods, while common, are grouped under the heading of soft woods and are known for having sticky resin. This resinous quality produces bitter, black compounds when burned. The result is disastrous and toxic to your health.
Finally, when it comes to actually burning the wood to produce smoke, I am a big fan of simply putting a small pile of wood chips on the SABER® grill grates and letting them burn (see our post on the best way to smoke wood chips for more info). The beautiful thing is that on the SABER, the woods chips won’t catch fire, but rather produce large amounts of smoke. Keeping the grill lid closed, this intense smoke is perfect to infuse into smaller grilled items like chicken breasts, pork and lamb chops, various vegetables, fish fillets, hamburgers, and steak. The results are mouth-watering!