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Adding Flavor to Your Cooking With Wood Chips and Chunks

Posted by Benny Traub on

Cooking with wood is great. Wood chips and chunks are the stuff of smoke and smoky flavors. In log form, they were once solely the domain of serious barbecue and smoke enthusiasts. Chips and planks are still a little esoteric in the States. However, now they're widely available. They also come in a dizzying number of woods, and therefore flavors. You can use wood chips and planks to smoke, grill, and barbecue on just about any backyard grill or wood-fired oven.


You can also use chunks in the same way you would use charcoal. Chunks and chips can be purchased in woods that are traditional for smoking. These include oak, hickory, maple, pecan, alder, and mesquite, for example. They also come in more recherché woods. For example, apple, peach, and sassafras woods.


Only Use Hardwoods

mesquite wood chips for cooking

Whether you're using chips or chunks, you must use hardwoods. No throwing your old pine paneling into the fire. Softwoods burn too quickly and have resins that will ruin your food. 


In addition, you need to thoroughly soak both chips and chunks in either water or even cider or beer. You must also drain the woods before putting them onto the fire. Remember, you want smoke, not flames. 


You can also use fresh herbs and grapevines the same way you use wood chips.


Cooking on a Plank

For a different way to get a woody flavor, try the centuries-old technique of cooking food on a plank. This is a method practiced by Native Americans from the Pacific Northwest. They most commonly cook salmon, bluefish and other oily fish on cedar or alder planks over open fires. 


Planking is probably the easiest, cleanest way to give food a slightly smoky flavor. This is because you have nothing to do but plop the plank on the grill and plop the fish on the plank. Best of all, when grilling season ends, you can go ahead and use the plank in your oven. Cooking with wood has never been easier!


You can buy thick cedar planks that will be good for about a lifetime. If you go this route, you might find that you start accumulating a lot of wood. If so, you might want to start thinking about keeping your wood in a firewood shed.


— Adapted from an article by Dorie Greenspan, Bon Appétit, July 2002


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