IN the beginning, there was wood. And it was good. But it was awfully inconvenient.
The appeal of wood smoke is almost primal. In fact, just those two words by themselves are enough to make you hungry.
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, unless you were a barbecuing insider, 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.
Finding wood for grilling has always been a problem -- especially in urban Southern California. You can’t just go lighting any old logs you find. Fireplace wood -- mostly pine and cedar -- 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.
And as a friend who is chef at a restaurant where a wood-fired grill is central to the kitchen says, to use it well you have to learn to cook not only the food, but also the fire at the same time. Getting the fire to the right point and keeping it there, and juggling the daily changes in hot spots are every bit as tricky as judging the exact moment a pork chop is done.
In the interest of convenience, most grillers use charcoal, which is wood that has already been burnt 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.
Picking the perfect chip
WOOD chips -- they basically look like what you might sweep up off a carpenter’s floor -- 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. And a visit to a gourmet grocery last week turned up six kinds of wood chips.
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? Should you go with hickory, the traditional choice of most pit barbecuers? Or would oak -- the California wood of choice -- be better? Should you use the same wood for a beefy tri-tip as for a delicate chicken breast? And what about fruit woods, such as apple and cherry?
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. By the end of the afternoon I was sweaty and pretty well smoked myself, but at least I had some answers.
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 dramatic differences from one variety to the next, you may be disappointed. It’s not a mustard and ketchup thing, but more like the differences between different types of mustard.
But there are differences, even if they are nuanced, and they do affect the way the smoke flavors the meat.
The first big 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.
Another difference is an elusive quality that I suppose you could call “sweetness,” though that seems like an odd attribute for something such as wood smoke. This isn’t true sweetness -- like sugar -- but maybe the absence of the harsh qualities you sometimes find in wood smoke. The sweetest woods are mesquite and apple. That same quality is also there in cherry and hickory, though it’s a little harder to discern because they are so smoky.
Also, some chips have distinctive flavor notes. I found a peculiar nuttiness in pecan wood, but to me it tasted more like peanuts than pecans. The wine cask wood actually did carry an undertone of red wine.
There was an elusive characteristic in the flavor imparted by oak smoke that I found appealing but had a hard time describing. Finally, it occurred to me that what I liked about it was that it seems to be smoky but always in a graceful way. It’s more Chanel No. 5 than Brut 33.
So which woods go best with which meats? 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.
I started the fires in the usual way. 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.
As for the charcoal, grilling purists usually prefer lump because it burns a little hotter and leaves less ash to clog the grill’s vents. Briquettes don’t get to quite as high a temperature, but they last much longer. The bottom line is that for the 30 minutes it takes to grill most foods, the two work about equally well.
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, though, you’ll probably be cooking things such as steaks, pork chops or even roasts, 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, in order 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.
Match your meat
AFTER all my experiments with wood chips, it was time to turn theory into practice (and dinner), coming up with three main courses that highlight the best combinations of wood smoke and meat.
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. There’s much more meat and a lot less sinew.
One of the great advantages to a butterflied leg is that there is a wide range of thickness in the meat. This translates into a wide range of doneness. When the thick part from the back of the leg is rosy medium rare (about 115 degrees), the thin parts from the front will be medium. Perfectly cooked meat for both you and Uncle Earl.
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. The tapenade served with the lamb is an especially good complement; it gets an herbal complexity from fennel seed and a little bit of Pernod liqueur that is stirred in right at the end (add it too early and it loses its fragrance).
Because halibut is so lean, it can be a tricky fish to grill. It dries out almost instantly. And with so little fat to lubricate it, it tends to stick to everything it touches. That’s an easy problem to solve, though: Wrap it in a sheet of prosciutto.
The prosciutto renders a little fat, moistening the meat and keeping it from sticking. More important, the salty pork taste is a wonderful complement to the subtle flavor of halibut. Mesquite is the best wood for this recipe, because it adds a mild, slightly sweet taste of smoke that doesn’t overwhelm the fish.
Serve the fish with a bright salad of gold and red grape tomatoes. These are among the earliest varieties of tomatoes to ripen, and considering all of the weather-delayed planting this spring, they are among the best-flavored in the market right now.
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. It’s easy to remove: Slip a paring knife under one end of the silverskin, grab a good hold and then pull up, scraping against the silverskin with your knife. You’ll have to repeat a few times until it’s all gone.
Use cherry, pecan or apple for the tenderloin. These are slightly sweet woods that are just a little smokier than mesquite, so they balance perfectly with the flavor of the pork.
Serve the pork with this Tuscan version of home fries. Cook quartered potatoes on the stove top very slowly with red onion until the onion caramelizes and the potatoes crisp and brown on the outside. For the last 10 minutes, add just a hint of rosemary to balance the sweetness of the onions.
Though steaks and hamburgers are great for every-night meals off the grill, these dishes are worthy of being the centerpieces at your next big-deal dinner party, and without requiring much additional effort.
Early in the day, prepare the meat and fix whatever side dishes you choose. Then just before the guests arrive, start the fire -- it’ll be ready to cook on by the time you’re done with drinks and appetizers.
Put the meat on the grill and breathe in that mingled perfume of wood smoke and sear. That’s the sweet -- and now even convenient -- smell of summer.
Wood chips are available at selected barbecue supply stores, hardware stores and supermarkets including California Charcoal & Firewood in Commerce, (323) 780-6000, www.calchar.com; Barbecues Galore stores; Orchard Supply Hardware (OSH) stores; Lowe’s stores; Ralphs markets; and selected Bristol Farms markets. Online sources include www.barbecue-store.com and www.amazon.com.