Memorial Day is here, and summertime is officially underway. One of the first things I'm going to do is get my grill all cleaned up, replace a few old parts, and get it all fired up. And as Chef Jerry Pellegrino of Schola Cooking School often says, when it comes to grilling where there's fire... there isn't necessarily smoke. And that's a shame. Click on the picture for more info.
Smoke adds flavor and color to your grilled food, and like any technique it can be manipulated to provide differing results. Before the days of propane and charcoal, wood was the only fuel available for grilling, so smoke was an inevitable part of the package. But today with our so-called cleaner-burning options, smoke has become a stranger to many people.
Heat, light and smoke
Three things contribute to grilling: heat, radiating light and smoke. Of the three, smoke can deliver the most nuanced flavor, since it adds to the meat, and not merely transforms it. And the interesting thing is that different woods have different impacts.
There is a debate in the grilling community if there really is any true flavor difference. I think so, but I'm not an expert. But it's easy to see that hickory smoked bacon tastes a lot different that applewood smoked bacon.
Into the woods
What is true is that different woods create different intensities of smoke. The fruit tree woods are the lightest. These include apple, cheery, peach and pear. These are good with lighter foods, including fish and poultry.
Medium intensity wood includes hickory, maple, pecan and oak. These can cover anything gutsier than a chicken breast (what comes to mind is a chef here in Baltimore who loves to grill leg of lamb over oak.)
Then there is mesquite, which is so strongly flavored that it is in a class of its own. I like to think this comes to us from out of the Wild West where it was laying around on the ground. The flavor is sweet and exotic and if you've never had a mesquite grilled steak, you are in for a treat.
Beyond flavor, smoking adds color to your meat, particularly if you are grilling long and slow. Hickory and oak are the darkest, the fruit woods are the lightest. But be aware, there is a school of thought that forbids the use of mesquite for long smoking (something about chemicals in the smoke.) We think long smoking with mesquite is too much of a good thing.
Chips or Blocks?
As for technique it's pretty simple. You have a choice of woods, and you have a choice of sizes. There are bigger blocks of wood and then there are wood chips. The blocks will last a long time, so if you're slow-grilling a leg of lamb, the blocks are your choice. (And you only need a couple to get the job done.) For quicker cooking cuts such as fish or steaks, wood chips are ideal. There are purposed built perforated metal boxes built to contain the chips and limit the flow of flame-inducing oxygen.
Finding wood blocks and wood chips for smoking is very easy. Many hardware stores carry bags of assorted wood, and the Internet is loaded with sites catering to this market. They're cheap and you can afford to buy several different types to try at home.
Ready, set, grill
For quick grilling, get your fire started, place your basket of chips on the grill, cover it all up for a few minutes. As the chips start to smolder the smoke will build up. When you're ready, toss your t-bone on the grill, close it up once again and cook normally.
On the shopping list
I like to visit the Woolsey Farm stand in Waverly Market and pick up a nice tender leg of lamb, which ought to be in good supply just about now. A little cherry wood smoke, and I'll be good to go.