Cooking with wood chips adds unique flavor to meat

Cooking with wood chips adds unique flavor to meat

June 22, 2005|by JULIE E. GREENE

If George Washington chopped down the cherry tree, did he grill with it?

If he had, he might have discovered what Steve Kauffman did when his cherry tree was chopped down in his backyard last summer and he threw chunks in the firebox of his Char-Griller. Smoke from the firebox flows through the cooker portion of Kauffman's smoker, slow cooking the meat.

Smoking meat with cherry adds a sweet flavor with the smoke's effect marked by a purplish-pink coloring around the edge of the ribmeat, said Kauffman, 52, of Hagerstown.

"Basically, the wood puts some distinctive flavor into the meat," he said.

Smoking with wood - without bark - makes it easier to control the smoke, which should be white, Kauffman said.

Cooking with wood chips has grown in popularity during the last 20 years, with shipments of cooking wood chips and chunks seeing healthy increases the last two years, according to Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association in Arlington, Va.


Statistics point to hickory and mesquite being the most popular wood chips. Cherry is becoming increasingly popular, spokeswoman Leslie Wheeler said.

Knowing the differences among the woods is key, said Roger Martin, owner of Penn Avenue Meats.

Soft meats accept other flavors quicker so they don't need heavy smoke, Martin said.

The lighter smoke produced by apple or cherry are good for chicken and seafood, whereas the heavier smoke created by hickory, oak or alder are good for steaks and pork, Martin said.

Kauffman often finds the difference between the flavoring from different woods is subtle, except for a wood such as mesquite, which has a strong flavor.

Some fancier grill models come with built-in trays for wood chips or one can be made with heavy-duty aluminum foil, Wheeler said.

Check your grill's manual or the packaging for store-bought wood chips for safe grilling procedures, Wheeler said.

According to "Weber's Real Grilling," a grilling cookbook co-published by the grill manufacturer of the same name, wood chunks should be soaked in water for at least one hour and wood chips for 30 minutes. Shake off excess water and add chips or chunks to the fire or smoker box.

"Weber's Real Grilling" suggests blending a pungent wood with a moderate wood such as oak or maple but warns against woods treated with chemicals and against softwoods, such as pine and fir due to their "unsavory, resinous character."

Smoky Hale, author of "The Great American Barbecue & Grilling Manual," said wood chips should be added just after the charcoal is ready - when it's gray. After the wood burns down, add the meat.

The main key is not to oversmoke, Hale said.

"A little smoke flavor goes a long way. If you're barbecuing for a long time, it should be a mere wisp of smoke coming out. It shouldn't look like a coal-burning freight train," Hale said.

"Don't oversmoke. Don't overcook and don't get overwrought while you're doing it," said Hale, who lives in Mississippi.

Baby-Back Ribs

For Kauffman's four racks of baby-back ribs, he used a mix of about 85 percent cherry wood chunks from the tree he cut and 15 percent hickory chips. He added the wood, first dipping the hickory chips in water, to charcoal he'd already started in the firebox to the side of the cooker.

He smoked them for more than 7 1/2 hours in his smoker, keeping the temperature between 200 degrees and 250 degrees.

Kauffman used Smoky's Legendary All-Purpose Rub and Basic Mid-South Finishing Sauce from "The Great American Barbecue & Grilling Manual" by Smoky Hale. The cookbook is available through Waldenbooks and Borders Books Music & Caf or online at

Any modifications Kauffman made are noted in parentheses.

Dry Rub

1 pound salt (1/2 pound salt)

4 ounces garlic powder

4 ounces onion powder

4 ounces Hungarian paprika

2 ounces ground thyme

2 ounces ground bay (substitutes Old Bay)

1 ounce ground celery seeds

Basting sauce

4 tablespoons dry rub (see above)

1/2 cup vinegar

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup oil (or canola oil)

1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce

Basic Mid-South Finishing Sauce

1 cup ketchup

1 cup water (Cut to 1/2 cup for thicker sauce)

1/2 cup butter (Kauffman used 3/4 stick of butter; can use olive oil)

1/2 cup vinegar (or cider vinegar)

4 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

4 tablespoons brown sugar

Juice from 2 lemons

2 tablespoons prepared mustard (or yellow mustard)

1 tablespoon black pepper

1 tablespoon salt

1 tablespoon Tabasco (or a bit more if you like it hot)

A dash of cloves

Mix ingredients for dry rub and rub on baby back ribs.

Mix basting ingredients. Smoke for approximately 7 1/2 hours, basting every 45 minutes or so.

Heat finishing sauce ingredients in saucepan, stirring together until smooth.

Apply finishing sauce just before removing ribs from smoker or put on serving table to be used as dip.

When the chips are down ...

Wood chip grilling tips from "Weber's Real Grilling"

Chips are listed below with desired flavors:

  • For pungent - best for beef, lamb or pork - try mesquite, hickory or pecan

  • For moderate - best for fish, pork or poultry - try oak, maple or alder

  • For mild - best for fish, poultry or vegetables - try apple, cherry or pear
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