Playing big in the magic of barbecue is wood smoke that snuggles up, cossets and kisses the food. We logged some time learning secrets about that sweet cloud of success.
What makes great barbecue? Right up there with meat, technique, sauce and timing is wood. Whether logs, chunk or chips, it’s more than mere fuel, it’s a backbone of sorts, its nuanced complexity not just mingling but fully conjoining with meat. “It’s an ingredient for sure, as important as the meat,” says Amy Mills, who, with her father, Mike Mills, owns 17th Street Barbecue in Murphysboro, Ill.
Mills says selecting wood for 17th Street wasn’t a decision as much as it was a simple solution. “We’re in apple country, so there was plenty of wood from local orchards,” she says, adding that its flavor and burn are perfect for their style. “Wood is a regional marker for barbecue, and the apple wood is part of what defines us. You could change it up, but we don’t.”
According to Doug Psaltis, chef/partner of Chicago’s Bub City, mastering the craft doesn’t happen overnight, but the journey is delicious. “There’s a lot of trial and error to find what really suits you.”
Ted Terio, sales consultant for Reinhart Foodservice, concurs, adding that it’s important to match wood with food. “It’s a careful, flavor-driven process. You don’t want to just taste wood,” says Terio. “Whether it’s a longer process or a fast smoke, you have to find the right balance. Then it’s magic.”
A Pacific Northwest favorite ideal for all types of fish, especially salmon.
Mild, sweet and versatile for poultry and seafood.
This slow-burner is tailor-made for brisket.
Apple, cherry, peach, pear: These generally have light, sweet smoke that infuses foods quickly. Each is subtly different, but they behave similarly for cooking.
Sweet-tasting smoke closely associated with bacon. It’s great with pork, but use carefully; it can add overpowering bitterness.
A close kin to hickory, this is a regionally fave where pecan trees are abundant.
Strong, earthy and strongly associated with Southwestern barbecue. It’s oily and burns hot and fast. Too much will impart a harsh taste, so it’s often mixed with other woods or used for a fast finish.
REGIONAL & LESSER USED WOODS
Grape, mulberry, acacia, almond, cedar, olive, walnut/black walnut