A Comprehensive Guide to Charcoal and Wood Chips for Grilling

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Charcoal? Wood chips? What should you actually be using to impart the best flavor for grilling this summer? We talked to an expert to find out.

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Generally speaking, I don’t use briquettes because I’m uncomfortable with the abundance of synthetic chemicals that are added to them. But if you are interested in doing barbecue or other types of smoking over charcoal, briquettes are definitely the easier and safer way to go due to the fact that they burn at a consistent temperature for a longer period of time. When I do use briquettes, I like to use Kingsford.
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Woodchips
Now that you’ve figured out what kind of charcoal you want to use, you can start to think about giving your food a more intense smoky flavor while grilling. For that, using wood chips is the most effective method.
Wood chips are small pieces of seasoned hardwood. Wood chips can be used to add smoky flavor on a kettle grill, electric gill (as long as you have a wood chip box), in your barrel (vertical) smoker, or in an eclectic smoker. When I’m using my barrel smoker or kettle grill, I start with a pile of hot charcoal and place a layer of wood chips over the top. The charcoal slowly burns the wood chips, producing a nice clean smoke.
To Soak or Not to Soak?
When it comes to using wood chips, there’s a great debate about whether or not to soak them in water first. Both in my own experimenting and in the opinion of chefs and barbecue professionals I trust, the soaking doesn’t make much of a difference. Soaking the chips gives the appearance of generating more smoke, but what you’re actually seeing is more steam. This steam can have its own benefits, depending on what you’re smoking; it generates more moisture, which can help offset the drying effect of the smoke and temperature. This can be useful for keeping sausage casings from drying out too much, for example. Generally speaking, I don’t soak my wood chips. If I’m concerned about the meat drying out, I like to either use a water pan on my grill or in my smoker, and spraying the meat every once in a while with vinegar or water.
People tend to have strong opinions about what kind of wood they like to smoke with, as well as which cuts and types of meat go best with which kinds of smoke. I am not one of those people. I have my own preferences (I tend to use a combination of oak and cherry), but that’s what they are—personal preferences, not hard and fast rules. That being said, each kind of hardwood has its own characteristics that are worth noting. With that in mind, I encourage you to experiment and see what works best for you. Try doing a smoke with just cherry and then do one with just oak to see if you notice a difference, and if you have a preference for one or the other.
Wood Type Profiles
Fruitwood
This is a wonderful commonly found fuel for smoking. It lends a slight sweetness and subtle fruity flavor to meat. Cherry can even add a slightly rosy hue to whatever you’re grilling. Because of the subtle flavor of fruitwood smoke, it’s perfect for mild meats like fish, poultry, and even pork.
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Oak
This is probably the most commonly used fuel source for smoking.

The qualities that make oak a sought-after wood for wine barrels are also what make it sought after for smoking: It gives a slightly woodsy, nutty flavor. It also burns evenly and for a long time, making it a steady source of heat. I use oak for its even heat, in conjunction with another wood for flavor, like apple or cherry.
Maple
Maple generally has a lot of wood sugar, so it imparts a sweet flavor to the meat you’re grilling. It’s on the milder side, so its effects can get lost on strongly flavored food. It also creates a nice steady source of smoke, due to the density of the wood.
Hickory
This is another very popular all-around wood, with a very recognizable smell. Many people associate the smell of hickory with good barbecue. It has a slightly stronger flavor than oak, with a more pronounced nutty flavor. Like cherry it also can give the meat a nice rosy color. This is a great wood for food with a stronger flavor profile, like beef or lamb, or for something heavily seasoned. Because it has a slightly more robust flavor than oak, I don’t use it for poultry or fish.
Mesquite
This is a wood with a lot of allure —maybe a result of nostalgia for the Old West? It has a strong sagebrush flavor that can be slightly bitter. The wood burns hot and fast, so it’s best used as a flavor source when it has already burned down to coals. I would reserve mesquite for beef.
Pecan
Pecan is a member of the hickory family. In fact, it offers a milder version of hickory flavor, plus some sweet nuttiness. This is a great wood to use with fish and poultry. If you want to intensify the nutty flavor, throw some pecan shells into the fire, too.
Walnut
Walnut brings big flavor that can be a little overpowering. Black walnut, in particular, has high levels of tannin and can leave a slightly bitter taste. This is a wood best used for beef—and perhaps not until you feel confident about your smoking skills.
Beech
Similar to oak, it has a mild flavor and burns slowly and evenly. This is a wood that I cut in with others to keep the fire burning consistently.
Birch
Much like maple, birch imparts a slight sweetness. It’s a little softer than oak or maple, though, so it doesn’t burn for quite as long.
Alder
This is a great wood for smoking fish. It has a light, delicate, and slightly sweet flavor. In the Pacific Northwest, it’s commonly used to smoke salmon.
Old whiskey and wine barrels
Most whiskey and wine barrels are made from oak. Employing the used barrels as a source of smoke adds a whole other flavor element, depending on what was aged in the barrel. One of our local distilleries sells chunks of used whiskey barrels specifically for this purpose. If there’s someone in your area making whiskey or wine, I recommend befriending them and seeing if you can get your hands on some of their old, broken barrels.
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