By Mike Thayer
I’m a charcoal grill enthusiast. Charcoal grills deliver better flavor than gas grills every time. Don’t get me wrong, gas grills have their place, but along with the great flavor charcoal delivers, charcoal has other advantages like the flexibility of using it to give big steaks that high heat sear, or using it to cook ribs low and slow. Another advantage charcoal grills have over gas is that you can easily add wood to the fire, putting another layer of flavor on that great looking piece of meat. You can add wood to a gas grill, but you’re pretty much restricted to using wood chips and you have to keep those chips away from the gas burners, almost forcing you to buy one of those gas grill accessories - the wood chip box. In my experience, the gas grill and those little wood chip boxes just don’t measure up to the flavors you can add using a charcoal grill setup.
My preferred brand of charcoal is Kingsford and I buy the competition briquettes when it’s available. They tend to burn a little hotter and a little longer. I like briquettes because they also deliver a more consistent burn vs. lump coal which comes in different shapes and sizes, doesn’t stack as well and perhaps most importantly, quality lump coal tends to run quite a bit higher in price. Pro-lump coal enthusiasts say it provides better flavor, but if that’s the case, then you might as well just throw the real wood log on the fire.
Wood: You can really add a whole other dimension of flavor by using wood in your grilling. Fruit woods are excellent for adding some sweetness to meats, and all woods suitable for grilling give you that nice smoke ring of flavor that is craved by grill masters, weekend grillers and food enthusiasts alike. Some woods are better with certain meats than others, experiment with different woods and have fun with it. Below is a list of the more commonly used woods. You can use logs to grill or smoke with exclusively, or mix them with charcoal briquettes or lump coal. I like to use a combination of charcoal briquettes and wood logs when grilling low and slow for bigger cuts of meat, and a combination of charcoal and wood pellets when grilling thinner cuts over direct heat, lid-on preparations.
Apple and Cherry woods: Probably the most popular of all the fruit woods, both giving off a mild sweetness. Excellent for poultry and pork, with cherry being particularly good when grilling or smoking ham.
Hickory: The most popular wood for smoking meats, delivering a strong flavor. Don’t overdo it if you haven’t grilled with it before and use with the bigger cuts of meat, it can be overpowering. Good for all meats, but better with beef and lamb.
Mesquite: The trendy wood right now. It burns hotter and faster than hickory so it’s an excellent choice for the weekend griller. It delivers a nice, lightly sweet flavor. Good for all meats, fish, vegetables, especially good with ribs.
Oak: The second most popular all purpose wood. Like hickory, it delivers a strong smoky flavor but not as overpowering. It’s good with beef, fish and pork butt.
Pecan: Doesn’t burn as hot as other woods, delivering a more subtle smoky flavor. Excellent for all meats, good with just about anything you want to grill or smoke.
Other woods to consider: You really can’t go wrong with just about any fruit wood, most of them are mild and sweet. Citrus woods are all good, don‘t hesitate to use them. Peach, pear and mulberry all deliver another dimension of flavor. Maple, birch and ash are nice changes of pace and even seasoned grape vines or lilac branches are nice flavor enhancements for the grill.
Woods to AVOID: Anything in the Pine family (terrible flavor, burns too fast and hot), walnut (heavy, bitter smoke flavor, can be used with other woods but why bother…), elm, cypress, redwood.
TIP: The best smoke comes from the coals of the wood, so when grilling, let the log or logs burn down. Wood in smokers is a different story.
Wood chips and chunks: Wood chips and chunks are great because not everybody has a big backyard to store a cord of wood in. You can store a smaller size bag of wood chips or chunks on an apartment balcony, you can mix chips/chunks in with charcoal briquettes and they are readily available most anywhere grills and grill accessories are sold. Many of the wood flavors previously mentioned are available, apple, cherry, oak, hickory and mesquite. TIP: Soak wood chips in water for at about 30 minutes prior to placing over hot coals. This creates better smoke and extends the burn time. Another thing you can do with wood chips - an added flavor trick - is to soak them in fruit juice instead of water. Be sure to use a REAL juice that’s naturally lower in sugar content, because fake juice with a bunch of added sugar will quickly caramelize into nastiness and create a bitter taste. Wood chips are excellent for lower and slower style grilling, such as with chicken, thick cut chops and ribs.
Wood pellets: I love these things. They are truly versatile, add great flavor and they’re so easy to use. No soaking necessary! They are an excellent addition to charcoal briquettes, or mixing with wood logs, kicking that great taste level up another notch. You can add a handful or two depending on how heavy you like smoke flavor. Like wood chips, wood pellets are designed to add flavor through their smoke. They last longer than wood chips - another plus - but also like wood chips, you’re not going to want to try and cook with pellets as your lone fuel source in a typical patio grill setup if you‘re just doing a couple burgers or hot dogs. They‘re best used in a mixed fuel source preparation. TIP: If you only have one type of log wood to grill or smoke with, say, oak, pick up some apple wood pellets to add to the fire. Layers of flavor! I really like this mix when grilling pork, cherry is excellent as well.
Venting: No, I’m not talking about being able to rant at someone about how bad your day went……. I’m talking about giving your charcoal grill set up a chance to breathe. This is believe it or not one of the most under performed but vital task in grilling. It impacts the heat, the level of smoke (and hence affecting the flavor of the food), and the burn time. Whether you are using charcoal, wood, or a mix of fuel types, don’t forget to vent your grill properly. You’re creating a fire, and fires need to breathe. Vents are your friend. Most grills have at least two sets of vents. There’s typically a set in the lid and a set, if not two, in the base. The vents in the base are essential for letting your fire breathe, the vent in the lid is there for two reasons, to regulate smoke and to work as a draw. Opening that lid vent lets the hot air escape, allowing the lower vents to draw in the cooler outside air with fresh oxygen for the coals to breathe. I’ve seen guys grilling with all the vents closed and they wonder why their fire never really got hot enough, the food took longer to cook and in some cases, the fire prematurely burned out. They didn’t let the coals breathe, the only oxygen the fire got was when the lid was off or opened. If there’s no wind and you’re just grilling burgers and hot dogs, leave your vents wide open. I personally like to leave the lid off in that case until it’s time to melt the cheese for the burgers. If it’s windy, you want to shut your vents a bit, perhaps nearly closed all the way depending on just how windy it is, but never completely closed. If you want a little more smoky flavor on whatever you’re grilling, shut the lid vent a bit. If it’s raining and you don‘t have the luxury of being in a covered area, you may want to close that lid vent a bit. If it’s raining a lot, get out the umbrella. If you don’t have an umbrella, it sucks to be you.