Generally speaking, cooking with wood is pretty damn simple. You light a fire, erect a grill and then place your food or vessel over the flame. There's really not much to think about other than not burning your food. Sure it's primitive, but It's a fundamental technique that is the foundation for every modern stove and as such, cooking on a whole.
However with barbecue, learning how to build a fire is the key to successful cooking. If there's any element of craft in barbecue, building fires is it. It doesn't matter how secret the rub is or how perfectly marbled the meat is, an inadequate fire will produce poor cooking results. Pitmasters spend years perfecting the ability to not only build a fire, but control its temperature and consistency over a span of 12 plus hours. The quality of your fire will determine the quality of your food and the ability to harness it is what separates backyard barbecuers from the professional pitmasters.
Understanding your wood, how to burn it and what type of smoke it produces is paramount to good barbecue. It's arguably the most important aspect of the entire process and it takes years of practice to get right. Learning about different tree species will aid in the cooking process and I always encourage barbecuers to learn as much as they can about their local trees.
The most frequent question I get asked is what kind of wood I use. From foodies to fellow barbecuers, this topic always piques interesting conversation. Depending on the wood I say I use, people's reaction varies. Fruit woods tend to illicit a most curious expression; as if the barbecue was somehow exotic after being exposed to cherry, apple or pear. Maple and oak on the other hand generally draw a look of complete ambivalence as if maple and oak are boring.
I've always thought this was really interesting because It showed me how much stock people put into wood when it comes to barbecue. But it also showed me how misguided most of the information out there is.
So as usual, I thought I'd break down (give somewhat of a tutorial) the various woods I use, why I use them and what to expect. Here goes.
Oak (Red and White)
Hands down my favourite wood. It is to barbecue what gasoline is to the modern automobile. Any pitmaster worth their weight in water will stock up on plenty of oak. It is extremely dense with an open grain allowing it to burn hot and burn long. It provides a ton of BTU's required to sustain the long cook times and because oak is a high temperature smoldering wood, it burns clean, reducing the amount of soot (bitterness) the meat is exposed to.
Beef unlike pork, soaks up smoke like a sponge. This is why it's the preferred wood of choice when doing brisket and beef ribs. Oak has a heavy smoke but because it can burn hot and clean, it's a good fuel wood as it helps prevent meat from tasting bitter or acrid.
In Texas, post oak is almost always used while in regions like Tennessee and North Carolina, live oak is used in conjunction with other woods to keep fire temperatures consistent.
Alternatives to oak include ash and alder.
Maple (Silver, Red and Sugar)
Being Canadian, I'm exposed to a plethora of maple trees (hell, it's on our flag!) and on more than one occasion have used it to cook everything from fish to beef ribs. It's so widely available here in the Toronto area that if you are resourceful enough, you can usually find face cords for free.
There are two things to know about maple wood. One, is that maple has a high sap content. Once burned, that sap will caramelize and affect the flavouring of whatever it is you are cooking. The second is that there are multiple species of maple (here in Southern Ontario there are three) and depending on which one you get, the sugar content of the sap will differ. The higher the sugar count, the more caramelization will occur. The higher caramelization, the greater opportunity that your food can have a bitter taste.
Silver maple is the most plentiful in Toronto. Urban developers and the city plant this as an ornamental tree because of it's rapid growth rate. It however is frequently found in piles around the city. This is mainly because silver maple is a brittle wood with shallow and fibrous roots that cause the tree to split or collapse in a storm or strong winds. And due to the high density of the city, many of these trees are cut down to prevent damage to cars, power lines or houses. It's quite common to see arborist's removing trees on a regular basis. Talk to them. Buy them a coffee. You'll most likely leave with a trunk full of wood.
Red maple is a cousin of silver maple but it's a little bit more desirable. It doesn't have the sugar content of sugar or black maple, but it's sweeter than silver. Thus it can have an interesting affect on your cook. Because of it's low BTU's, it's often combined with oak or ash as a flavouring agent. Like silver maple, red maple is widely available and usually can can be found for cheap or for free.
If maple had a pièce de résistance then sugar maple would be it. Along with black maple, it is the tree of choice for maple syrup. It's high sugar content produces a sweet sap and when it comes to smoking, will produce a caramelization that can be quite simply, delicious. Be warned: It takes a careful cook and a fine balance for great results or else you can quickly "burn" your food.
Generally speaking I've found that maple works best with fish or pork and when paired with oak or ash, can add a depth to beef.
On to fruit woods. Most people go ape when I tell them I smoked "whatever" meat with "whatever" fruitwood. I guess because in most people's mind, whatever fruit wood you are using is somehow going to transfer onto whatever meat it's exposed to. And for the most part, this isn't entirely true. Well kind of.
The key to any fruit wood is that it all depends on what meat you are cooking. Beef? Forget about it. Skip all this. Do not pass go, do not collect $200 and go straight to oak. Any fruit wood will almost leave a bitter taste to beef let alone impart notes of cherry or apple.
Pork? Now we're talking.
Ever since I've discovered cooking with cherry wood, I almost always want to use this wood when I've got a pork shoulder on. Cherry has a very distinct sweet smell to it and the smoke will produce a distinctly sweet and aromatic note to your bark.
Because pork can withstand a lot of smoke, the more you expose it to, the stronger your results. I tend to bathe a 10lb pork shoulder in 4 - 5 hours worth of cherry smoke and the results are fantastic.
Black cherry is native to Southern Ontario, but for whatever reason finding cherry wood is somewhat of a rarity. That said It's easy to identify. Cherry wood has a very distinct bark - old trees are grayish in colour and markings resemble big corn flakes. Young trees retain the grayish colour, but have horizontal striations similar to that of birch. The heart wood of cherry is salmon in colour while the outer parts of the wood are a slight yellow/whitish colour.
The important thing to remember is that any prunus (the family of cherry) wood is good for smoking.
Unfortunately I don't have much information on pear for a few reasons. One, it's not native to North America. Pear trees are commonly found in Europe and Asia but in North America, they are usually planted to harvest pear crops. As a result, most are tended with care, monitored and consequently rarely cut down.
I stumbled on a few off cuts because my arborist had to cut one down that had been diseased on someone's property. It's a rarity to come across this wood, but if given the opportunity, take it.
Pear burns very similar to apple. It has a sweet aromatic smoke to it and will generally give you the same taste as apple. You will get notes of fruit from this wood and it tends to work best with pork or poultry.
One of the rarer of the sweet fruit woods, apricot is very similar to peach wood which is a common smoking wood in southern regions of the US but a rarity up here. This has always struck me as odd considering apricot, peaches and nectarines are widely grown in the Southern Ontario region. I would assume that like pear, much of it is planted for harvesting therefore very little of the apricot trees here are cut down.
Well lucky me. My arborist called me saying he had cut down an entire apricot tree and it was mine to claim.
Full disclosure, I've yet to cook with this wood but knowing what I do know off of cherry, apple and pear, it should yield a very sweet, fruity flavour to either pork, fish or poultry. It's extremely aromatic and almost smells like jam if you nose up against the end grain. Because it from the same family as the cherry (prunus) I imagine it will be similarly fruity and sweet like the cherry wood and will probably be best paired with oak or ash as a flavouring agent.
I use an offset horizontal cooker otherwise known as a "stick burner". The reason? Because the fire box is big enough that I just throw logs in and burn them. Most home smokers don't have a fire box that big so your best bet is to cut the wood into chunks.
The rule of thumb is that meat will absorb all of its smoke for approximately the first 4 hours of the cook. Anything after that and the smoke will have minimal impact on your food.
Green/Live vs. Seasoned
Seasoned wood burns quicker and is easier to start. It will generally burn hotter and cleaner than green or live wood. Green wood on the other hand burns slower (harder to keep lit) and can really release a strong flavour to the meat due to the live tannins. There's no hard fast rule on what wood to use. Most will prefer to use seasoned wood, while pitmasters like Aaron Franklin will choose to use a mix of both.
note: it was brought to my attention that Aaron Franklin now only smokes with live/green oak.