Demystifying wood chips—find the variety best for your meal.
The image of a 1960s-era American family grilling together doesn’t involve wood chips. All they needed were hot dogs and hamburgers, some lighter fluid, charcoal and a traditional kettle-style grill. But as our cultural interest in cooking like the pros has increased—even when it comes to grilling and smoking—so have the choices on the grilling aisle. These days, it doesn’t have to be as simple as grabbing a bag of charcoal on your way home. If you’re interested in taking your outdoor cooking to another level, you have a host of options for your grill or smoker—pellets, chunks, hardwood lump charcoal, and wood chips.
Wood chips are probably the easiest way to begin experimenting with your grilling heat source, and there are tons on the market to tempt you. You can use them with that classic kettle-style charcoal grill and charcoal, but they can also be used with smokers, kamado grills and even gas grills with the right accessories.
Wood Chips Explained
But what kind of wood chips do you choose? Pecan? Apple? Cherry? Mesquite?
Before you consider the wood, you first have to consider the food you want to grill, according to Taylor Garrigan, operating partner and chef of Home Team BBQ of Charleston, S.C., who just celebrated 10 years in business and recently opened a restaurant in Aspen, Colorado.
“At the end of the day, you want the food to still taste like what it is,” says Chef Garrigan. “We’ve all had food that is over-smoked, and then there are times when the food doesn’t have enough flavor. Considering the food you’re grilling is essential to getting the flavors you want. Any wood can work to get a smoke; it just depends on what you are going for.”
Choosing the Right Variety
At Home Team BBQ, Garrigan always considers two things: what “food my food eats” and what he is pairing meat with. First, he loves pecan chips for sustainably-raised pork because “it can impart a little nuttiness and be reminiscent of the nuts that many pigs eat or are finished with. I’ve even done it [smoked] with the pecan shells themselves and thrown them in under porchetta. It’s relating all that together,” he explained.
He also thinks about what he’s pairing with the protein and how he’s serving it. When he’s considering pork, he knows applewood will impart a little sweetness along with the smoke (and so will cherry). Those two kinds of wood might be something he’ll use to smoke bacon, since it’s going on a burger at Home Team, and a little sweetness would be a good counterpoint. The subtle nuttiness of the pecan smoke would get lost in the burger’s bolder flavors of beef, mustard, and ketchup, “and I wouldn’t go with mesquite because that would be too strong of a flavor for that prep,” he says.
However, Chef Garrigan suggests that mesquite might be just the thing for some poultry if you want to really want to inject some flavor into what can sometimes be a bit bland, or if you hunt and have a lot of game. “Mesquite can really stand up to that strong flavor and impart something,” he says. “It’s kind of like dressing on the natural flavor of the game.”
Preparing Wood Chips
No matter what chips he chooses, Chef Garrigan goes against the traditional advice that you need to soak them. “Adding water to a fire doesn’t seem to be the thing you want to do to keep your temperature constant,” he says.
Instead, he suggests that you make sure that your wood chips are fresh, which can include keeping them in a sealed bag or container so they don’t dry out. The specific flavor of the chips comes from the oil and other natural moisture in the wood, and storing open in a dry place (like a garage) can evaporate those oils.
How do you get that beautiful bark-like Garrigan gets on his smoked brisket? Go low and slow and smoke on the front end.
“Smoking is indirect heat, so we’ll smoke at the beginning of the cook until the bark has matured to the place we want it, then we’ll wrap the meat [in foil] to actually stop the smoke penetration. That way you get the smokiness, but at the end of the day, it still tastes like a great piece of beef.
Good technique, knowing your food, and paying attention to the grill will give you great results no matter the wood chips choice. Garrigan says, “Play with the product and experiment with different chips to find your preferred flavor pairings. That’s part of the fun.”
Stephanie Burt is an expert for Home Depot on grilling and outdoor cooking. She is also the host of The Southern Fork podcast. Her favorite food to grill is marinated chicken thighs, but she will never turn down a piece of beef brisket hot out of the smoker.