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Smoke Signals: A wood primer

You can't truly barbecue without wood. (Dominic Bracco II for The Washington Post)

Cooking with wood is the most primitive yet arguably the most demanding style of cooking. Unlike with an oven, you don’t simply turn the thing on, wait for it to preheat, then cook for the prescribed time. Like a temperamental child, wood demands your attention.

Everything from the temperature in the air to the moisture in the wood impacts the way the wood burns. No matter how successful you become, if you use wood, you will almost certainly have challenges from time to time. By challenges, I mean failures. Your brisket will come out rubbery, your ribs leathery, your pulled pork unpullable.

Yet cooking with wood can be enormously rewarding. With a little knowledge and practice, you can reduce the, uh, challenges and, at the same time, greatly increase the flavor, success, and overall enjoyment of barbecuing.

Three good books on the subject are “Backyard BBQ: The Art of Smokology” by Richard W. McPeaks, “Cooking with Fire and Smoke” by Phillip Stephen Schulz, and “Smoke & Spice: Cooking with Smoke, the Real Way to Barbecue” by Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison.

You can spend hours (and I have) going through the vast number of wood-flavoring charts online, virtually all of them slightly tweaked replicas of some long-lost original scroll. One that I find useful is in the forum section of

Here's a primer on the use of wood.

It doesn’t include flavorings because that information is included in my column today (and the books and website cited above). Nor does it include specific directions for use, because a) there really are no directions, just rough guidelines and b) what directions exist, you can get from the back of any bag of wood you purchase.

Oh, and, lastly, the information is intended for outdoor use. There are a lot of products on the market for indoor use, and Smoke Signals will cover those in the future. For now, though, the use of wood to smoke foods will be treated in its natural habitat, outside.


  1. Use hardwoods, such as oak, hickory, cherry, apple, mesquite, pecan, maple.

  2. Do not use pine, fir, or cedar; conifers have a lot of sap which can make your food taste like the worst Christmas ever.


  1. Rig. Is your grill gas- or charcoal-fueled? Offset or kettle? Leaky or airtight? Makes a significant difference in how fast the word burns and therefore how much you use.

  2. Food. A chicken is overwhelmed by smoke more easily than beef. If you were to cook two items the same amount of time in the same manner, you might well use less wood for one than the other.

  3. Weather. Wood will burn slower on moist, cold days than on warm, dry days.

  4. Palate. You like when food has a deep smoky flavor? Use more wood. You prefer your food delicately smoked? Use less wood.

  5. Personality. If you’re the type that likes to get things right the first time, you’re going to have trouble at the grill. Barbecuing is made for the tinkerer, the experimenter, the improviser. It’s jazz.


  1. Chips. Coins and splinters of wood, chips burn quickly and work best for fast-grilling foods, like steak and fish.

  2. Chunks. These roughly fist-sized hunks of wood are used for longer periods of smoking, such as for pork ribs.

  3. Splits. Logs that are (usually) quartered and cut into lengths ranging from 12 to 18 inches. Made for offset smokers (measure your firebox before purchasing split logs) and long cooking times, such as 12-hour-and-up briskets.

  4. Pellets. Made from compressed hardwood sawdust, these round, roughly half-inch long babies are perfect with ceramic smokers, such as the Big Green Egg and the Primo. The smokers are so well insulated that a couple of pellets go a long way. Used wisely, they can smoke everything from poultry to pork shoulders to beef.

  5. Planks. They’re cedar, so they shouldn’t work. Somehow, though, they do. Soak for an hour, set the plank over the fire, place a thick filet of salmon on it, and the smoke-steam creates a lovely, lightly crisped, moist fish.

  6. Lump charcoal. Turned into charcoal from hard wood, lump charcoal burns faster, hotter, and cleaner than conventional briquettes. Great for steaks, burgers, fish, and starter-fires for wood.


Mix it up. Okay, that’s three words. But they mean one thing: experiment.
If hickory is too strong for your taste, mix it with some oak. You want to layer some flavor onto your game bird, combine pecan and apple. Buy four or five bags of different chunks and chips – plus, if you’re feeling truly adventurous, a bag of oak or mixed hardwood splits – and pretend you’re a kid again, but one who is actually encouraged to play with fire.

-- Jim Shahin

By Jim Shahin  | October 6, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Smoke Signals  | Tags:  Jim Shahin, barbecue  
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Jim, thanks for this post and for all your good work writing about barbecue. Wood is good! I am a blogger who focuses on North Carolina barbecue and also a fundamentalist believer in wood. If you get a chance, please drop me a line sometime. My contact info is at BBQJew dot com

-Porky LeSwine

Posted by: BBQJew | October 6, 2010 8:23 PM | Report abuse

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