Cooking your food over a fire fed by wood is not a novel thing. Our ancestors did it, and today it’s still an element in most weekend barbeques or outdoor adventures. Of course, there’s a world of difference in the role that wood plays in cooking today. It’s not merely a fuel-source to get the fire going. Today, it can even change and affect the kind of flavors you get from your food.
What wood should I use for cooking?
There are over 60,000 types and genus of trees in the world today. While we need not get into the specifics of species, it’s good to know that we generally classify them as hardwood and softwood. Hardwood is the better cooking choice for any cooking work because they generate more heat and don’t burn as quickly as softwood. Softwood, on the other hand, is more useful as lumber and wood products.
Examples of hardwood can include alder, ash, hickory, maple, oak, willow, etc. And softwood comes in trees like fir, redwood, juniper, spruce, pine, etc. Not all hardwoods have the same qualities. But the best woods for smoking or cooking are all hardwoods.
As your cooking and smoking skills advance further, you’ll realize that certain woods go better with specific meats. So, whether you’re smoking lamb, grilling steak, or making your favorite brisket recipe, there are ideal woods for any cooking style.
Best types of wood for cooking/smoking
There is a wide variety of hardwoods that work great for any cooking needs. If you’re a fan of slow-smoking, you’ll know that the wood choice also matters a lot in the final taste. The specific type of wood you use can depend on the meat, smoker, preference, and the general situation.
We won’t be going into excessive details on every type of hardwood here, which is not only impractical but unnecessary. However, it’s essential to have a general understanding of what these woods offer and how they affect your food.
Here are some common types of wood that add value to any cooking style:
Applewood provides a sweeter taste to the whole mixture. It can also have an ashy-smoky flavor that is crucial for those grills and barbeques. Some users also feel that they add that rich brown or yellow coloring effect.
Alder wood is on the lighter side of the flavor spectrum. So, try and use it when you don’t the taste to be overpowering. Personally, I feel like it goes great with veggies or seafood.
Unlike Alder, Cherry wood will give a more robust and bolder aroma to the food. It’s better to use it in combination with other milder woods to dominate the aroma.
- Camphor Laurel
Camphor Laurel gives an aroma that’s as exotic as the name suggests. It can also have a pungent smell that goes well with specific dishes.
Heather wood can give off paler, yellowish hues as it burns. It’s another great companion to seafood, but you have to use it in moderation.
Hickory is an all-time favorite for a lot of chefs and amateur cooks. The taste is distinct, and the flavor is a robust tone. Barbeque purists will insist that this one’s a must if you’re going for the real deal.
Maple wood is an excellent addition to any smoking session. It works great with other hardwoods as well as alone. It does have a resinous and bold flavor that not all people enjoy.
The golden-brown hue of Oakwood is a classic in any smoking and grilling session. It gives that classic flavor of smokiness and aroma to any meat of your choice.
In my experience, walnut wood is arguably the best wood for combining and blending different wood types. It has a rich smoky flavor and a solemn, intense tone. So, it can also be overpowering if not used carefully.
This brief list is undoubtedly not an exhaustive list or a rigid rule to follow. And remember that the wood choice is essential, but you shouldn’t get lost in the details.
Difficulties in choosing the right wood
Wood varieties and types can go off the charts if you try and put them down on text or paper. If you feel overwhelmed by all the flavors, tastes, and aromas of each wood type, you’re not alone. My advice here is: Don’t sweat it!
It doesn’t even matter a lot for beginners because it takes some experience to get the correct use of each wood. For starters, just pick a reliable hardwood and stick to it till you can notice variations.
There is a whole range of other factors that affect the final taste and quality of the meat. And all of these factors probably matter more before you get into the specific type of wood. You can first focus on the best kind of smoker that will suit your situation.
If you’re a more experienced smoker, you already know that wood choice is not as simple as it seems. Some variations can be hard to trace sometimes. And ultimately, it’s not the only influence of taste and aroma. Your cooking temperature, rubs, spices, sauce, recipe, etc., all matter here. It’s only after you get the right balance of all these elements that wood also becomes a crucial choice.
For general cooking/smoking, the specific wood you use is not as important as cooking. So, don’t lose sleep if you haven’t quite got it right yet. You first have to understand meat quality, temperature levels, cooking time, etc. Once you’re there, your wood preference can depend on the kind of technique and style you prefer. Later on, you can even focus on preparing the wood the right way before smoking.
As you can see, cooking wood is essential but not confined to universal rules. The best approach? Let your cooking style and choice of timber organically evolve as you learn about it more and more.