For years, I’ve used wood chips for fuel and wood chunks to add a smoke flavor when cooking on a gas or charcoal grill. But it never occurred to me that I could grill on an all-wood fire at home. I always assumed that wood grilling was meant only for restaurant food-something to be done over an industrial-strength grill and therefore beyond the reach of the home cook.
Then I met Jerry Lawson. Jerry is the president of W W Wood, Inc., of Pleasanton, Texas, and an avid griller.
His company sells a line of natural wood products-hefty chunks of hickory or mesquite packaged in flammable paper sacks. All you do is lay the sack flat in your grill and light the corners in 10 or 15 minutes, you have a dandy blaze for grilling.
I’ve since learned that many companies sell wood chunks in affordable bulk packaging. (Look for them at the sources listed below.)
Wood chunks turn out to be a cinch to light in a chimney starter. Simply ball up three or four sheets of newspaper in the bottom section (or use a paraffin starter), place the wood chunks in the top (filling it most of the way up), and light the paper. You should have blazing coals in 10 to 15 minutes. Dump them out into the grill and use tongs or a spatula to spread them out evenly over the bottom. Let the wood burn until glowing red, 3 to 5 minutes, and get ready for one of the best taste sensations of your life.
Cooking with wood is pretty much like cooking over charcoal. But keep in mind that wood can burn hotter, so you might not need quite as much. Because of the high heat, it’s best to leave the grill uncovered. (Use any recipe that calls for direct grilling.) Use only dried natural hardwood. Softwoods, like pine, produce an unpleasant resiny flavor, and lumber scraps may be treated with carcinogenic chemicals.
What Wood to Use
Does it really make a difference what sort of wood you grill on? Charlie Trotter thinks so. Chicago’s preeminent chef varies the woods in his grill according to the season. "In the winter, we use heavier woods, like oak and hickory," explains Trotter, "moving to lighter woods, like alder and locust, in the springtime, and fruitwoods, like cherry, in the summer." The fact is that woods are to grilling what spices are to rubs they add flavor to whatever you cook over them.
Alder: A good clean wood from the Pacific Northwest. Good for salmon, turkey, and chicken.
Apple: Tangy and clean-flavored. Good for chicken, pork, and game.
Cherry: Sweet and fruity, with distinct cherry overtones. Use for duck and other poultry.
GrapeVine Trimmings: The preferred fuel in France. Burns at a high heat, imparting a clean, dare I say vinous, smoke flavor. Grape wood is well suited to steaks and other meats, seafood, and escargots.
Hickory: Rich and smoky. The traditional wood for American barbecue. Good for pork.
Maple: Mellow, mild, and sweet. Use with poultry, seafood, and pork.
Mesquite: Robustly flavored and smoky. The ultimate wood for beef in the style of Texas and northern Mexico.
Oak: A European favorite, and the wood preferred by professional chefs. Its clean, well-rounded flavor is equally well suited to poultry, seafood, and meat.
Pecan: A southern American favorite. Similar to hickory, only milder.
Where to Buy Wood
W W Wood, Inc.
P.O. Box 398
Pleasanton, TX 78064
P.O. Box 1240
Columbus, GA 31902
Nature’s Own/Peoples Woods
75 Mill Street
Cumberland, RI 02864
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