Korean-American-Southern chef Edward Lee once stated that umami is not the sixth taste, rather, smoke is.
And he has a solid argument. Smoke is a taste enhancement and food preserving method that seems to have naturally formed across all continents and cultures. Also, it continues to be a sought-after flavor in modern food preparation. So much so, that we have found a way to create things like liquid smoke to give food smoky flavor without hours of actual smoking activity.
So, it should go without saying, that if smoke is essentially its own flavor, and you’ve ignored smoke while grilling up till now – or only dabbled – you are missing a major component. Worry not, though, we’ve got the solution.
We’ve pulled together a Smoke 101 guide to have your grilling hot-and-smoky in no time.
Gas vs. Charcoal
You can smoke in both gas and charcoal grills, but the approach is different. For gas grills, you should consider investing in a smoker box. You can get around this by wrapping your wood chips in foil, but a box is just easier and causes fewer problems. For charcoal grills, you can add the chips directly to the charcoal.
Wood Chip Types
As you can imagine, not all smoke is the same. More importantly, different smokes create different flavor profiles and only certain types of wood are used in grilling. So, stick to the time-tested wood types below. Smoke flavor, however, is largely a matter of preference – so experiment.
|Wood chip type||Flavor Strength||Flavor Profile|
|Apple||Mild||Fruity, sweet taste|
|Cherry||Mild||Fruity, fairly sweet|
|Hickory||Strong||Sweet, yet strong bacon flavor|
|Peach||Medium||Slightly sweet and woodsy flavor|
|Pecan||Mild||Sweet and mild, similar to hickory|
What about wood chunks? (Or, how many chips can a chunk of wood chip, if a wood chunk is made of just chips?)
Wood chunks should not be used in a gas grill setup. They can be used instead of chips in a charcoal grill. Wood chunks take longer to start smoking but will smoke for longer once they’re going, so quite a few people prefer chunks to chips. That said, wood chips are typically easier to find.
Chip and Chunk Soaking
This is a bit of a debate. But, if you don’t soak your chips they burn up pretty fast, which doesn’t give the smoke exposure you typically want. Our recommendation: always soak chips – preferably for at least a half hour. You can skip soaking wood chunks as the size typically keeps them from burning too fast.
For gas grills, turn all the burners on high and add the smoker box with soaked wood chips to the grill. When the smoke starts, you’re ready to start food prep. For charcoal, after the coals are hot, and the grill is preheated, add the chips or chunks to the coals and let them flame up. Once they are no longer flaming – this happens quickly with wood chips, but take a little longer with wood chunks – you’re ready to start grilling.
When to Add More Wood
The goal is smoke. When the smoke stops, add more chips or chunks to add more flavor. Some argue that you can only add so much smoke flavor, but others say this is a myth and it’s best to maintain smoke throughout the cooking process.
This should be enough to get you started. Happy summer!