People go crazy over BBQ! I’ve seen children from Tennessee scream themselves to tears, quarreling over their favorite BBQ restaurant. At Wrigley Field I witnessed Gucci clad housewives quickly escalate from smile to scratch over Texas BBQ versus Carolina BBQ.
Why is it that there is a comfortable exchange of ideas over favorite ethnic foods, beer, or even vegetarians vs. meat eaters, yet BBQ disagreements seem to carry the same weight as a nasty religious confrontation? One specific element; the wood smoke.
Wood smoke, in my opinion, IS barbecue. It carries with it an olfactory representation of your beginnings; a direct link to your childhood. When somebody belittles your favorite BBQ joint, they might as well be trash talking your home town pride.
All styles of food are layered with aroma and memories, but wood smoke seems to resonate on a different level. It taps into something primordial within all of us; bringing us back to a territorial hunter/gatherer mentality.
Just as the local trees scent the air and enrich the landscape, they are also able to push your barbecue from passable to ‘transcending the heavens.’ I was fortunate enough to connect with multiple pit masters throughout the country; gathering what woods they use to create their own unique award-winning flavors. Fortunately, the creators of great BBQ are much less territorial and crazed than the rabid fans they’ve spawned; offering a wide-open forum on the subject of wood smoke.
Western United States
Coppertop BBQ (Big Pine, CA) Pit Master: Matthew Kerley-Otten
The Wood: "Our first favorite is certified angus beef prime tri-tip paired with a combo of red oak and almond. The red oak smoke is pretty intense and we like to blend it with the almond wood smoke that is a little lighter. Just red oak works as well but can make the meat very smoky, not to say that is a bad thing, just how we prefer it."
The Veggie: "Red oak with grilled Anaheim chili peppers. We then put them in the green chili with beans; our most popular side. Pairs really well with garlic, chili powder and pepper."
The Rub: "We don't like to marinade anything, we go all dry rub. Our dry rub is savory with mixtures of garlic salt, turmeric, paprika, parsley, and other spices. We really like this combination."
Smoqued (Orange, CA) Pit Master: Marc Mendoza
The Wood: "We use a blend of red oak and hickory for almost everything we smoke. Larger cuts that take longer do really well with small amounts of hickory and more red oak. The hickory tends to overpower the flavor of the meat and can leave an unappealing, almost acrid, taste."
The Veggie: "Large portobello mushrooms are so meaty and packed with umami flavors they can be treated just like a brisket in terms of smoke profile. Smoked eggplant with alder or olive wood makes an amazing base for baba ganoush, serve with vegetable chips or fresh cucumber slices for an instant hit with your veggie loving friends."
The Rub: "We forgo the traditional Texas salt and pepper only rub and add in few flavors we think are truly complementary to the meats. Granulated garlic, granulated onions, and lemon pepper are great additions to a heavy salt base that will really being some new dimensions to your meats. When working with pork you can never go wrong by sweetening up your rub a bit. Try adding in some brown sugar, cinnamon or a touch of allspice."
The Smok'd Hog (San Diego, CA) Pit Master: Chris McAfee
The Wood: "The flavor I get from Oak in general is very middle of the road, not overpowering, but strong enough to know you're at a good barbecue."
The Veggie: "White oak on tomatoes is extremely versatile. You can make salsa, bacon jam, smoked ketchup or marinara. Sky's the limit."
The Brine: "The general brine I use of course is heavy on salt, but I also use a decent amount of sugar to sweeten up chicken and turkey. In my opinion 1 to 1 salt and sugar is a good place to start and adjust your taste buds. With beef I actually brine it in our pickle juice, which uses vinegar to break down the meat."
Russell Street BBQ (Portland, OR) Pit Master: Diane Santucci
The Wood: "We started using local cherry and pecan woods, but found the smoke was too light for us. We now use local white oak for all beef, pork, turkey, chicken and tofu. Yes, tofu! It offers a protein option for those that choose not to consume meat that is incredibly meaty without much effort."
The Fruit: "We like to put a touch of smoke on some vegetables and fruits. Peaches are great and easy and can be chopped up for a relish with smoked onions."
The Brine: "Some proteins require wet brining to avoid an acrid flavor, mainly poultry. A heavy salt/sugar blend with allspice, onion, garlic and oranges is our go-to brine. The pork butts just get a basic seasoning salt, but the brisket is a brown sugar-paprika heavy blend we rub into the meat. The goal is to be balanced with sweet and salty. Our spare ribs go sweet with an apple cider brine and brown sugar glaze. Meat candy!"
The Advice: I have taught many, many hours of cooking classes of all genres. My advice is always, "Follow the directions, taste as you go and if it all goes to hell, order a pizza and try again another time!"
Central United States
Smokey D's BBQ (Des Moines, IA) Pit Master: Darren Warth
The Wood: "Pork can take the smoke, so I love to use it with pecan. Beef takes on a lot of smoke. I prefer using a milder wood like cherry. The basics of smoking says to only use a wood that comes from a fruit or nut tree. If hickory is too harsh, try pecan. The mix of the nuttiness of pecan and sweetness of cherry is my personal favorite."
The Veggie: "Asparagus is our favorite on the grill, but we like it just over charcoal with no smoke added. We prefer the smoke on the meat. While the meat is off the grill we open the vents, turn up the heat, and finish the veggies nice and quick over a hot fire."
The Advice: "The one piece of advice I always give to backyard barbecuers or newbies to the grill is not to over smoke things. Meat only takes on smoke for a little while and then any additional smoke is just building creosote on the outside of the meat. If you look at the inside of your grill or BBQ pit and it's really shiny black, you are using way too much wood. Start with just one small chunk of wood at the beginning of the cook and you'll be amazed at the flavor you can get. BBQ is a balance of meat, rub, sauce and smoke. Great BBQ is a balance of all of them without one of the elements overpowering."
The Boar's Nest (Fayetteville, AR) Master: John Hudec
The Wood: "Coming from South Central Texas, my preferred meat is brisket. The best wood for that is pecan; my favorite wood to smoke with. It has a mild nature and can be paired with other flavored woods to enhance smoking profiles. I also enjoy smoking pork ribs using pecan and apple woods. We do "low and slow" to make the meat tender and get the maximum smoke retention."
The Veggie: "I love to smoke asparagus. I coat it with olive oil, a little kosher salt and lemon juice. After marinating for an hour or two, add them to the smoker for about 30 minutes or grill them off. Fruits are a different matter. Peaches and apples are my favorite. Smoked apples served with ribs and a tangy vinegar based slaw, or grilled peaches with cinnamon and nutmeg served alongside a salad make a great side dish during the summer."
The Rub: "Beef, pork and ribs get a spicier rub of chili powder, smoked paprika, garlic and onion powders, brown sugar, kosher salt and black pepper."
Plowboys Barbeque (Blue Springs, MO) Pit Master: Todd M. Johns