We at Jake's Famous Foods have been making and managing Barbecues for the last 17 years and before that we were making barbecues when we were just knee high to a hound dog.....or at least that's how I've heard it said. All total we've been making barbecues for some 40 plus years now. One of the things people ask me most when they're not asking about managing the vents on the barbecue grill is about wood smoke. It doesn't seem like that much of a topic but in actuality wood smoke and the use of wood in smoking is HUGE!
We could easily spend time on the type of wood and where the wood comes from or what's best for each type of grill. Instead we're going to take time in this post and guide to go over the amounts used and when the quantity of wood is too much. In a nutshell the amount of wood used in a charcoal barbecue should be no more than 5 Ounces. Most people perk up when you say a specific amount...why? They say that because they've been told that the more wood you use the better. They've also been told that soaking wood creates more smoke and is the best option when barbecuing.
People I think get concerned when they see food shows with famous notables literally tossing cords of wood into long lengths of barbecue grills. On some of the shows they light off the wood using torches and flame throwers and that sets the mind to wandering...if a little wood is good why not a lot? We'll answer the question of quantity along with questions on all the other aspects of wood right here.
First off wood is the culmination of growth in layers and that growth creates soft areas as well as hard areas that stand the test of time against stresses like storms or rain or harsh temperatures. Although we tend to think of wood as hard, wood as defined by Webster's really is a porous and fibrous structural tissue found in the stems and roots of trees and other wood based plants. It is organic and a natural composite of cellulose fibers that are strong is tension and embedded between lignin that resists compression. The laymen's term for lignin is the stuff that acts like glue basically called the polymers or structure to hold the tissues together. Compression is simply the squeezing forces that are applied either by external winds, soil compaction or other factors.
The type of wood is determined primarily by location and the seed source and fuel used to grow the seeds into mature trees. Meaning you might be hard pressed to find palm trees in the hills of West Virginia or in the Mojave desert. But those same trees can be transplanted into those locations. Although their resulting seed releases is not enough to overcome the seedlings that have been blooming in those regions for hundreds and thousands of years and thus their introduction would take a significant amount of time to be considered a long term viable source of wood fiber.
Determine the correct wood smoke quantity
But more on the art of and use of wood in barbecues. In the case of Charcoal barbecue grills let's consider the amount of surface area, the type of meat used and the length of the charcoal burn. First let's spend time on the size of the grill not so much the shape of the grill. We'll start by using the calculations for an 18 inch grill. We'll also assume that the grill is equidistant on each dimension meaning that the grill is 18 inches wide by 18 inches tall by 18 inches deep. This yields a cubic dimension totaling 5832 cubic inches or more likely 3.375 cubic feet. Considering that we are recommending using 5 Ounces of smoking wood over the 3.375 cubic feet then we could assume that for each grill of larger or smaller size the best wood level would be equal to 1.481 Ounces of wood per cubic foot of volume. A smaller 12 inch grill technically classified as 1 cubic foot of volume would then use 1.481 Ounces of wood. A simple way to determine how much wood you would need without a scale is to consider filling the palm of your hand and if your figures when folded actually touch the thick portion of your palm then the material inside your palm approximately measures 1 Ounce.
Now that we've figured out how much wood we need how do we know when we've used too much? There are two ways you can figure out if you've used too much, 1 by following the recommendations of those who've used literally hundreds of pounds of wood or by using the wood yourself on your next barbecue. An even simpler way to figure out how much wood you need is to consider the type of meat and the weight of that meat.
By weight a 24 pound turkey may take more wood smoke than a 1 pound fish. Similarly a 3 pound set of BBQ ribs may take more wood smoke than a chicken thigh. If that's the case then how do you determine how much smoke is appropriate per type or weight of meat?
In the case of Chicken we typically use the full application of the 5 Ounce wood amount. We do so because we want the tissues of the meat to fully absorb the wafting smoke over the course of the cooking cycle. As a note I often tell folks that it's best to layer the smoke chips so that they give off their smoke in the first third to one half of the cooking cycle. We do that because as the skin of the chicken for example tightens and dries the absorption of the smoke layer decreases and in fact one is actually layering smoke on the skin of the meat as opposed to the meat tissue.
The smoke ring is the culmination of the smoke concentration and is characterized by the red to auburn ring that permeates the first 1/16 to 1/4 inch of the meat. When the meat is chewed the concentration of the wood smoke layer along with the newly cooked meat is combined to produce a sensational flavor level heightened by the type of wood smoke applied.
In cases where the meat is denser and more fibrous like in the use of BBQ Dry Rub Ribs and BBQ Rub steaks the application of wood smoke is desired to change the overall flavor of the meat from it's more natural taste to a mix that complements the meat with the addition of wood smoke. Example, brisket smoking combines the application of wood smoke over a very long period of time up to 14 hours. The meat is thick and thus the longer cooking period to break down the fat collagen and muscle tissue. During the breakdown process the wood smoke is absorbed into the top layers of the meat.
Brisket much like any other meat can be cooked too long and smoked too long. Friends have commented about their long labors to achieve the perfect brisket. These same friends have started their brisket cycles well into the "wee-hours" of the night in their attempts to cook their brisket for 14-18 hours thinking that the more time the brisket spends on the grill under smoke, the more the brisket will finish out in the form of room temperature butter or at least that soft is the general idea.
Unfortunately, all too often they've found that their desire to achieve the perfect meat ended up in a expensive, wasted mess. The meat finished in an almost black color and was much too dry, and too smoky with a very distinct bitter taste. And when they perform their postmortem they discovered some basic facts. Effectively they learned that less is more both in time and in seasonings as well as smoke. When they cut their cooking cycle to 12 hours and their smoke amount to 5 Ounces as well as reduced their cooking flame to 250 degrees the resulting meat was tender with an almost buttery textured layer with just the right complement of smoke.
And at the cost of brisket today they've now learned some valuable lessons about heat management along with simplest lesson about smoking woods. They've now moved on to applications that involve differing types of woods almond, alder, pecan, oak, hickory and other types to create just the right flavors along with their mastery of the meat.
Timing the wood smoke release is as important as the amount of wood smoke that one uses. We mentioned about changes in the meat as heat is applied. Therefore it is important that the wood smoke flavor be applied during the formative transition stages of the meat when the meat is capable of absorbing the flavors deep within. I suggest placing the wood chips within the first 1/3 of the cooking cycle. I do this because maximum wood flavor can be applied at that time. The remainder of the cooking cycle is simply a roasting process to finish the meat.
Oftentimes we will prepare our charcoals in the Snake Method format which is to say that two to three charcoal briquettes are continuously layered around the bottom ring of the grill. After the layering of briquettes wood chips and thinly spread along the top of the briquettes. As I get near the end of the wood chips I leave a small gap of about two inches for the placement of the remaining chips. I leave the gap so as to allow the main ring of wood smoke to reach its full cycle on the grill as it is applied. After 10 to 20 minutes of grilling or roasting a final layer of wood smoke is applied. This final period of smoke can last up to 20 minutes and acts as a sort of seal in the process. The results are always wonderful when done this way.
Let's consider the role that wood plays in the creation of color on meats. For example the golden to dark brown color of a whole chicken when wood smoke is used. Wood smoke can range from bluish to black and much like clean burning logs the most desirable of wood smoke is almost bluish and is recommended for long cooking cycles for meats like brisket.
The color of the smoke is most determined by the release of particles in the wood and the reflection that is achieved that we view. Therefore if you are colorblind then it might be hard to discern the differences in smoke color. Your best best is in determining the amount of smoke leaving the grill over time. Some precautionary notes during the wood smoke process is the noticing of black or very gray smoke. These colors occur when fire is starved of oxygen and the result is bitter tasty almost soot laden foods. Wood goes through a series of stages during the burning process until it reaches the stage known as the burning bush combustion. The burning bush means that the wood smolders and produces an even white to pale white smoke. To drive that smoke closer to the preferred bluish color we'll need to pay special attention to the amount of oxygen in the grill. Ensure that your bottom vents are wide open for maximum draw and flow of air. Afterward the top vents are then focused on for temperature management.
Let's summarize. We know that wood smoke is important to meats in barbecue especially toward the importation of flavors to meats. We also know that there are a series of components that need to be managed to allow for even delivery of the smoke. Namely, one must manage heat, time, fuel source, wood type and the amount of wood material to achieve the perfect smoke. We believe that one can achieve the perfect amount of smoke when they use a minimum of 5 Ounces to evenly cover a volume of 3.375 cubic feet of grill. We also believe that staging the wood chips in segments such that the bulk of the chips is laid out in the first 1/3 of the cooking process will deliver maximum wood smoke flavor to the meat. The remaining segment of wood is separated by a small gap and then allowed to yield its smoke which then acts as a sort of smoke seal in the process.
By following these steps and using wood smoke frugally we believe you can achieve a world of maximum flavors from whatever your meat type. To help you in your search and understanding of wood types we've added in a wood definition list below. Also, we don't sell woods but we sell some pretty nice dry rubs that will help you achieve the flavors you desire. Checkout out our listing of dry rubs as well as our standing product discount.
See how we manage wood smoke on our How To Make BBQ Ribs video:
POULTRY: Chicken, Turkey, Duck, Cornish Game Hen, Quail, Goose. (Alder, apple, maple, pecan)
FISH: (light) Cod, Flounder, Halibut, Monkfish, Turbot, Sea Bass, Sole, Trout, Clams, Oysters, Shrimp, and Scallops. (Alder, mesquite, pecan)
FISH: Salmon, Tuna, Swordfish, Mussels. (Cherry, grapevine, maple, oak, pecan)
BEEF: (Cherry, grapevine, hickory, maple, jerky, mesquite, oak, pecan)
PORK: (Alder, apple, hickory, maple, oak, pecan)
LAMB: (Alder, cherry, mesquite, oak, pecan)
VENISON, ELK: (Cherry, grapevine, hickory, maple, mesquite, oak)
Best BBQ Rub Types for Wood Smoke:
Tri Tip Steak and Rib Rub (Almond, Red Oak, Cherry, Peach, Plum, Maple)
Santa Barbara Rub (Alder, Apricot, Grapevine, Mesquite, Orange, Pecan)
Awesome Carolina Rub (Red Oak, Almond, Peach, Grapevine, Mesquite, Pecan, Pear)
Santa Maria Dry Rub (Almond, Peach, Red Oak, Mesquite, Hickory, Lemon)
Memphis Blues Dry Rub (Almond, Peach, Grapevine, Hickory, Cherry, Maple, Grapefruit)
California Chicken Dry Rub (Almond, Red Oak, Mesquite, Cherry, Apple, Grapevine, Maple, Mulberry)
Chipotle Dry Rub (Peach, Plum, Cherry, Apple, Grapevine, Red Oak, Almond)
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This product was added to our catalog on Wednesday 19 September, 2018.