There’s nothing quite like food off the grill, with that delightful BBQ flavor that makes everything pop. But every time you want to grill, you’re going to be faced with an age-old question: should you be using charcoal or wood to cook your food? Find the flaws and the advantages of each, and find the best cooking method for your meats.
For every wood-burning BBQ enthusiast out there, you'll find someone who's every bit as passionate about using charcoal. There are some distinct advantages to using charcoal when cooking. Charcoal gets very hot and burns for a long time. It also creates its own steam. As the meat cooks and drips on the charcoal, it will sizzle and release steam to add its own flavor to your food. Charcoal also creates a gorgeous sear on meat—that browned outer layer that makes you want to sink your teeth right in.
However, charcoal detractors say that it's very messy—and that's true. You'll have to clean your grill frequently if you use charcoal because it creates a lot of ashes and debris once the fire is out. It can also be dangerous to work with because charcoal embers stay hot for a long period of time. Other negative aspects to cooking with charcoal are that it takes a long time to heat up and doesn't always burn evenly. It's also hard to control the temperature of the grill when using charcoal, and this is why some people don’t like to BBQ with it.
BBQing With Wood
What’s wrong with cooking with wood on your BBQ? Those against it will say that wood is notoriously difficult to work with, and dangerous besides. Get enough wood together and you're literally playing with fire, and that is not an element to tempt lightly. However, any foodie will tell you that true wood smoke adds an undeniable flavor to your food. The trouble with wood smoke is that too much wood smoke can create too much flavor. This is why some people use a combination of charcoal and wood chips to add just a touch of smoke flavor to their BBQ instead of too much.
When you start working with wood, the type of wood you choose matters. Each variety adds its own subtle flavor to food, and chefs have their preferences depending on what they're cooking. However, if you're going to burn wood in your BBQ, stick to hardwoods. Many softwoods, such as pine, have a resin that when burned creates a not-so-good-tasting soot. That said, there are several hardwood varieties that add great flavor. Fruitwoods like cherry and mulberry add a hint of sweetness. Choose a nutwood, such as a pecan or walnut, for a rich and savory flavor. Mesquite, hickory, and oak are common cooking woods used for BBQ because they create great flavor.
The trouble with wood smoke is that too much wood smoke can create too much flavor. This is why some people use a combination of charcoal and wood chips to add just a touch of smoke flavor to their BBQ instead of too much.
The Happy Medium?
Some BBQ experts say that wood coals are the best way to smoke meat, and that gives you the best of both worlds. Wood charcoal lumps will give you both the smoky flavor and the charcoal cooking power. There is a way to enjoy both—just be careful about your charcoal.
Coal briquettes are usually made from sawdust, so you'll get very little real wood when you use them for cooking. Lump coal, however, is made from wood. Look for lump charcoal made from hardwood, and you’ll get charcoal cooking with that tasty wood flavor. Some lump charcoals will list what type of woods they’re made from, so you can find the exact taste you want. Pay attention to your charcoal, and you can have the wood right along with it.
Build Your Own BBQ Style
Should you be using wood or charcoal for your BBQ? Experiment, and find out which method you like best. Every good BBQer got good through trial and error, so play around with different cooking methods and find out what sort of different flavors you can create as a result. As your BBQ style develops, you’ll find out which cooking technique you prefer the best and refine your technique over time.