THIS IS PART OF THE BARBECUE CLASS.
Why does hickory impart bold flavor and rich, brown coloring to red meat, while the light smokiness of alder makes it a go-to for salmon?
The same fundamental components make up all kinds of wood: cellulose, a long chain molecule; hemicellulose, made of different carbohydrates and sugars; and lignin, another complex polymer from the cell walls. Lignin, a tough compound which accounts for between one-fifth and one-third of a wood’s weight, is what makes it such a strong material. But every tree or shrub contains unique secondary properties, and these properties account for the beguiling, exotic aromas of camphor laurel (used to cook smoked duck in China), and the intense smokiness from mesquite (the only wood that can produce the bold and pungent flavors of Tex-Mex barbacoa), among others.
Every cooking tradition is different, and the best choice will depend on what you’re cooking and how you’re cooking it. As a rule, however, hardwoods produce the best results—yielding richer color and bolder aromas than other options such as fir or pine. The chart below outlines some virtues and pitfalls of different kinds of wood.
Species of Wood Flavor and Coloring Ability
Apple Sweet and ashy smoke flavor; develops a patina of vibrant yellows and browns.
Alder A lighter smoke flavor that won’t overpower seafood or vegetables; imparts golden-yellow hues.
Camphor Laurel Exotic and pungent aromas that are characteristic of smoked duck in China. Light brown hues.
Cherry Bold and earthy flavor characteristic of many fruitwoods. It is often blended with other hardwoods. Rich yellow to light-brown hues.
Corn Cob Pronounced earthy aromas, but will only weakly color foods.
Grape Vines A lighter smoke that imparts rich, golden-brown coloring.
Heather A very unique fragrance that is best used with seafood, albeit sparingly. Pale yellow hues.
Hickory A robust and very distinct flavor. This is the must-use wood for many barbecue purists. It imparts rich brown coloring.
Juniper A bold, resinous flavor that should be used sparingly. It will develop light to medium brown coloring.
Maple Light smoky aroma; golden yellow coloring.
Mesquite Very distinctive fragrance that is unmistakable. It develops light to golden brown coloring. This is the wood of choice for barbacoa.
Oak Bold, classic smoked flavor; golden yellow and rich brown coloring. White oak (also known as post oak) is the classic wood of Texas Meat Market–style ‘cue.
Pecan Very closely related to hickory, with a similar quality of smoke.
Straw A light and delicate smoked aroma that develops bright yellow hues. Traditionally used in Normandy with sole and other mild fish.
Walnut Imparts a very intense heavy smoked flavor, which can become bitter if overdone. It will develop dark brown coloring quickly, which makes it a good blending wood.
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