When the chips are in, the flavor comes out

Grillers who use wood smoke, with its numerous varieties, add a nuanced dimension to barbecued meat

August 02, 2006|By RUSS PARSONS

Along with the smells of ripe tomatoes and perfect peaches, wood smoke is an integral part of summer's sweet perfume. It lends depth to the flavor of chicken, sweetens the taste of pork and helps give steak its sizzle.

It's so delicious that some restaurants even build their menus around it. But until fairly recently, it was pretty difficult to get that bouquet in your backyard. Now all that has changed. Cooking with real wood flavor has become so easy you can do it every day.

You can't just go lighting any old logs you find. Fireplace wood contains sticky resins that will coat your food. Some woods will burn too fast to be any good; others will burn too slow.

Even if you did manage to find good wood, you'd have to add another hour or so to the cooking process to allow the fire to burn to coals and rid itself of the unwanted flavors most woods have.

In the interest of convenience, most grillers use charcoal, which is wood that has already been burned clean. You can find it either in its lump form or in briquettes - lump charcoal that has been ground down to dust and then stuck back together in uniform shapes so it burns evenly.

These are very convenient and work pretty well, if all you're interested in is generating heat. But they add precious little flavor to whatever you're cooking.

To get that wood-smoke flavor, the best solution for the backyard griller is wood chips. And there's good news on that front. Wood chips have been around forever, but until not so long ago they could be found only at barbecue shops that catered to the hardwood hard-core.

Lately, however, they've been showing up at even my neighborhood supermarket. These are simple to use: Just soak them in water for a half-hour or so, then toss them on the fire once it's going. They work great, pumping out smoke like there's no tomorrow.

But the sudden availability of all of these choices is a little overwhelming. Apple, cherry, mesquite - even chips made from old wine barrels. Which one to choose? To find out, I fired up a couple of grills in my backyard one day and worked my way through seven types of wood chips, using each to cook pork, chicken and beef.

The first thing that needs to be said about using these wood chips may seem obvious: Smoke tastes like smoke, and that is the dominant flavoring. If you're expecting big differences from one variety to the next, you may be disappointed. But there are differences, even if they are nuanced, and they do affect the way the smoke flavors the meat.

The first difference is intensity. Some chips make foods taste profoundly smoky, whereas others add only a grace note. The smokiest woods, in roughly descending order, are hickory, oak and cherry. The mildest are the wine-cask chips, pecan, apple and mesquite.

For strong-flavored beef and lamb, I'd recommend hickory, oak, cherry and apple. For mild chicken and fish, use mesquite, apple or pecan - and because of the others' fruity qualities, probably only mesquite for fish. For pork, use cherry, hickory, pecan or apple.

As far as I'm concerned, a chimney starter is the only way to go. These are nothing more than bigger and slightly fancier versions of the old coffee-can starters your dad may have used.

When the coals are ready, spread them evenly if you're cooking something small, which will cook quickly. That gives you the most surface area exposed to the greatest amount of heat.

More often, you'll probably be cooking things such as steaks or pork chops, which are thicker and will take a little longer. For these foods, pile the coals against one side of the grill, leaving the other side empty. This gives you a hot spot on which to sear the meat, and a cooler area where it can cook to an even doneness.

A big part of the art of grilling is juggling these two zones - moving meat from high heat to low, and occasionally back again, to get it perfectly cooked. If you want to add more coals, scatter them across the top of those that have already been lighted. They'll be ready in less than 10 minutes.

Butterflied leg of lamb is one of my favorite cuts for grilling. Have the butcher bone it for you, and if you're not getting a full leg, make sure you get the half that comes from the butt, not the shank. Grill it over oak or cherry or - even better - the chips made from wine casks; you really do pick up a subtle flavor of red wine.

Pork tenderloin has to be among the most underappreciated cuts of meat for grilling. It has good flavor, is reliably tender and stays moist (especially when brined). And it takes only minimal preparation.

The main thing you have to do is remove the tough, shiny silverskin that coats part of the muscle. Leave it on and the tenderloin will become misshapen during cooking.

Use cherry, pecan or apple chips. These are slightly sweet woods that are just a little smokier than mesquite, so they balance perfectly with the flavor of the pork.

Russ Parsons writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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