Among grilling enthusiasts, there are two kinds of people: those who prefer the convenience of gas grills, and those who equate grilling with honest-to-goodness charcoal. And within this second group, there are briquette evangelists, and equally passionate devotees of hardwood charcoal. But whether you're working with briquettes, hardwood coal, or even a gas grill, the real secret to the unique flavor of grilled food is the drippings -- plus any extra wood you throw on the heat source. In fact (and contrary to what your know-it-all neighbor may have told you), while charcoal is a remarkably consistent heat source -- and therefore a great way to heat your food -- it doesn't contribute to flavor in and of itself. Wood, on the other hand, does! And it can play a very key role in creating those flavors you know and love.
Why does hickory impart bold flavor and rich, brown coloring to steak, while the light smokiness of alder makes it a go-to for salmon? The answer is simple: Every tree or shrub contains lignin, a tough compound that accounts for between one-fifth and one-third of a wood's weight and makes it such a strong material. But every tree or shrub also contains unique secondary properties, and these properties account for the beguiling, exotic aromas of camphor laurel (used to smoke 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, hard woods produce the best results -- yielding richer color and bolder aromas than other options such as fir or pine. To get the best flavor every time, use these simple guidelines for taste and color of common grilling woods.
Applewood: Sweet and ashy smoke flavor; develops a patina of vibrant yellows and browns. Often used for smoking bacon.
Alder: A lighter smoke flavor that won’t overpower seafood or vegetables; imparts golden-yellow hues.
Camphor laurel: Exotic and pungent aromas characteristic of smoked duck in China. Light brown hues.
Cherry wood: Bold and earthy flavor characteristic of many fruitwoods. It is often blended with other hard woods. Rich yellow to light-brown hues.
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. Great for pork.
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. Great for strong game meats.
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