How To Select The Best Wood For BBQ Smoking?

Wood, the most important spice in the world of BBQ. Build an efficient fire, burn quality hardwood, use wood that has been properly seasoned and you have a recipe for quality BBQ.

What’s an efficient fire for BBQ?
Before you select the proper wood, you need to understand the importance of an efficient fire. By building an efficient fire you burn off all of the impurities in the smoke and you are left with the best smoke to flavor your food. An efficient fire for BBQ is one that has sufficient oxygen to burn the wood as completely as possible. If you have dampers on your smoker, leave them wide open. If you have a door to your firebox, leave it open. By letting as much oxygen as possible to your fires, they will burn hot and complete. When you look at the smoke coming out of your chimney it should look almost colorless except for a light blue hue. If you see white smoke it means that you have larger particles that have not been burned off in the form of creosote and impure carbon. Since the particles are larger, they reflect more light and it shows up in your chimney as white smoke. Blue smoke is made up of vapor, which does not reflect much light and is almost colorless. That blue smoke contains all of the flavor compounds of good BBQ smoke. We could go into much more detail about this, but it gets a little geeky, so if you have any questions about anything in our blogs please leave a comment on the Saddleback BBQ Facebook page. Nothing makes us happier than to talk BBQ.

How does your primary heat source impact your wood selection?
We all know technology keeps moving forward (even though I can’t keep up) and of course technology has impacted BBQ over the years. In the beginning, smoked BBQ was all done with wood to provide the heat to cook the food in addition to providing the smoked flavor. This process is traditional and we personally think it provides the best possible BBQ. However, it can be very difficult to control the heat and flavor when you are using wood as your heat source. It requires us to have someone monitoring the fire at all hours of the night. For example, as I write this blog post (12/14/2016) I just returned from stoking the fire at 1:23am in 12 degree temperatures.

Nowadays, most BBQ smokers use gas, charcoal or electricity as the heat source. Then they add in wood pellets, wood chips, logs or sawdust for the flavoring. Since the heat source is more controlled in these smokers, it is much easier to control the temperature. This makes it much easier to manage and in most cases doesn’t require constant monitoring of the fire. Like Ronco used to say, you just- “Set it and forget it!

The reason we mention all this is because the primary heat source of your smoker has a big impact on what kind of wood you want to select.

What is seasoned wood for BBQ?
Since we are using wood as our heat source and for flavor, we prefer seasoned wood. Wood that has been dead for a period of 6 months or longer depending on the species. It is difficult for us to find the good seasoned wood we are looking for because almost all of the other BBQ joints in this great state use green wood in their smokers. Which means that the wood supply doesn’t have long enough to dry out and be seasoned like we prefer.

Why do these smokers use green wood? As we discussed above, they don’t need to burn wood for heat, most of these smokers use either gas or electricity for heat, and because of this they need lots of smoke to flavor their food. Green wood contains a lot of moisture which makes it burn inefficiently. This produces a lot of white smoke and burns longer to give them the flavor they need. But since we here at Saddleback are using the wood for both heat and flavor, we prefer seasoned wood that has been dead for a while. The important part here is to know your smoker and that will help you pick the right wood.

What type of wood do we use and why?
First things first, Uncle Remus: No, you can’t use lumber scraps in your smoker. That crap is treated with chemicals.

In general you want to find a good hardwood without a lot of sap. Nut and fruit woods are great. Since we are in Lansing Michigan, in our perfect world we would use all cherry wood. It produces a light, sweet smoke that we love. The challenge is, it can be hard to find in large quantities seasoned for 6 months or more. Typically, we use a blend of cherry and either hickory or white oak. Hickory and white oak burn clean and produce a nice even heat because they are very dense. They have a little more powerful taste, but they are offset in our other choice of cherry. Basically, in the BBQ world, you use whatever is readily available in your area. In Texas they use a lot of post oak, in Georgia they use a lot of peach, in Michigan we tend to use a lot of cherry and apple. #PureMichigan!

Sure we spend a lot of time talking about spice rubs and their importance, but the importance of good smoke vs. bad smoke will have a bigger impact on your food. The type of wood that you burn, how much moisture it has, and how much oxygen reach your fire will make all of the difference in the world in creating good BBQ. Craft BBQ

~Matt Gillett of Saddleback BBQ. #RespectThePig