Different Smokes for Different Folks

Posted By: Stover E. Harger III NBBQA eNewsletter ,

Wood pile by Louis Mueller BBQ. Photo by Stover Harger III

When it comes to picking the right wood, Kathy Pullin learned to trust her gut. Not figuratively, but literally.

“I tasted a piece of brisket at a competition for the Taste of Seguin (in Texas) and I burped that mesquite brisket for two weeks,” said the owner of Pullin Premium BBQ. “Even though it tasted good…”

Kathy lives in Texas, where many pitmasters proclaim their love for the region’s traditional smoking woods of oak and mesquite. Considering the impact those woods have on her stomach, Kathy now gravitates toward the more delicate smoke flavor produced by pecan and fruit woods for her slow cooks.

“I loved BBQ but I couldn’t deal with the acid. So I started learning and reading up and that’s one reason fruit woods are popular. They don’t create as much acid because they’re not as heavy,” Kathy said. “I use the oak briquettes, but when it comes to the wood, pecan does not create as much acid in the stomach.

“For females, oak and mesquite I have personally found, they create too much acid on a long cook. So I’ll use oak for quick-and-fast, but not for low-and-slow.”

Kathy Pullin, courtesy photo

While some wood you should never smoke with — like pine, cedar or other resinous softwoods that burn extremely hot — there’s a wide variety of hardwoods out there to play around with. Experienced pitmasters like Kathy know what woods they prefer because of practice, but newer BBQ cooks might need some time to find their favorites.

Taste is in the Nose of the Beholder

Smoke from wood is made up of many gases and particles, the lives of which vary based on what you’re burning and how. These differences all have impacts on the final product, just like a cow raised in a field will taste different than one stuck inside until the day it meets its maker. Because of the complexity of smoke, and its impact on our senses, picking the best wood to cook with is up to the nose of the beholder.

“Most of the flavor of smoke is smell,” sensory scientist Marcia Pelchat said in a The Washington Post article exploring humans’ love of smoke through our history. “In evolutionary terms, we all started cooking with fire. That smoky smell is a really strong stimulus.”

There are all sorts of reasons one person will prefer one wood over another. It could be availability, the heat, the aroma, or even tradition. Where you buy your wood also plays a role, because the land and climate that a tree is grown in will have an impact on the smoke flavor as well. There’s also various subspecies of wood, such as live oak, post oak and white oak, and each is slightly different.

What Wood You Choose?

Some cooks indiscriminately pick wood because they view it simply as a heat source, not a flavor component, something Vic Clevenger (The Cookin’ Comedian) strongly advocates against. It takes lots of experimenting to find the woods that you prefer, but experimenting is often what cooking is all about. It’s only through testing that recipes are born.

“A lot of people use wood just to use it, and I think you should use your woods for a purpose and not just tossing wood in there,” he said. “Why are you choosing that product? Is it because that’s what Walmart had or is there a reason?”

Matt's BBQ wood pile. Photo by Stover Harger.

When you’re making food, especially for others to enjoy, you want to be in control of the end result, Vic said, even in the wildly uncontrollable environment of live-fire cooking. You have to do your best to steer your cook in the right direction. Picking the proper wood is a big part of that.

Some time ago, people could only cook on the woods they had around them. In Vic’s home of Florida, that would have been a lot of citrus woods like orange, lemon and lime.

“People would use whatever was handy. Now because we don’t have to do that, we can choose what we want. We can choose with a purpose. And I think when you’re choosing a wood for your cook, then make sure there’s a reason why you’re choosing it,” he said.

For example, Vic’s favorite smoking woods are cherry and maple. He’ll go with cherry on certain foods because he found it leaves a rich color behind.

“It gives your ribs a nice mahogany color in my opinion and I think it gives a little deeper of a smoke ring,” he said.

When he wants a sweeter touch, Vic will use maple or apple woods. For those lengthy smokes, he’ll often do a base of pecan wood with some cherry on top. He stays away from mesquite, because “it adds a different flavor that I don’t like.”

Just like when you mix together a spice rub to satisfy a particular palate, choosing the right wood, or a combination, is another crucial element to finding your own unique flavors.

“Of course all of them have their own little distinct things, when it comes to adding an extra layer of flavor,” Vic said. “Each one has it’s own purpose.”