Over the years of barbecuing, I think I’ve had more discussions over the type of woods used than the cuts meats barbecued, and that’s saying something. Some people even tow the hard line that its not real BBQ unless its done over hickory, post oak, even mesquite for that matter, but in my opinion you should use the best woods available to the areas in which you live. In Australia it can be extremely expensive to use imported wood and many species aren’t available here, but we have some very unique native woods which are suited for low and slow cooking.
When I choose any wood I have to first work out what I am barbecuing and for how long etc. Obviously, the denser and heavier the wood the hotter and longer it will burn, which will help temperature control and also means less refuelling of the pit (which therefore means a more economical burn). Also, I take into consideration the desired smoke flavour I want.
When I first started trying different woods I was looking for a heavy, strong smoke, but as time went on I backed right away from the heavy smoke and started looking for something more subtle, which still retained the heat. Some of native Australian hard woods will burn hot but will give you a bitter, acrid smoke which is completely undesirable and inedible. This can be due to the type of wood it is and also not being seasoned enough, and it will also contain higher levels of resins. You would need to be an arborist to know all of the available native species as there are so many varieties of gums etc, just remember if the smoke has a strong bitey smell to it, that’s how it will taste on the meat you have in the pit.
By all means, play around with different woods and see what you prefer. For example, I sourced a heap of yellow box to try but personally I found it unsuitable for barbecuing; way too strong in smoke and also smouldery, so it was burnt for heat in my fireplace. There are some woods you do need to avoid such as pine and cypress etc. Do your homework if you are not sure on the wood you are using, there are plenty of resources online. I’ve always thought of smoke as an extra level of seasoning for the meat – cook with the heat , season with the smoke.
As for my own preferences, it took some experimenting with different hard woods and fruit woods that i can source here in Australia to find out the ones I found suitable to my taste , but I believe it’s not so much about the wood you choose, but how you use it. A few of my favourites include:
• Black wattle
By a long shot for me, the pick of the bunch is ironbark or oak for all red meat cooking. I prefer it because of its burning qualities and subtle smoke flavour, it has a good all-round flavour and long hot burns, although oak does has a stronger smoke flavour.
For pork, chicken and sausage links I use a few different woods but mainly a mixture of apple or cherry for the smoke, plus some ironbark for the heat due to the fruit wood burning quite fast. Peach also works really well. Again, be careful of the fruit woods being quite light and fast burning – for some of them you’ll definitely need a good solid base of charcoal to even out the burn, but the smell of apple wood burning in a pit will always win me over, every time.
Manuka wood is also one of my favourites, it permeates a distinctive smell, which is hard to describe, almost sweet, and musky, awesome for all meats and definitely a go-to.
These are a few tricks I’ve developed that get the maximum out of the woods I use:
- If you’re using hardwood such as gums or boxes etc , make sure that it is seasoned really well [Editors note: this means drying it out and lessening the moisture content] and also strip it of the bark .
- Try to get a clean burn in your pit, not a smoulder nor a raging fire, but in between will work best.
- Always refuel when the pit is still at the optimal temperature. Refuelling when the logs crash down and temps are falling will result in the wood smouldering too much when trying to catch on.
- If your wood is still green try and split it to reduce seasoning time.
- Most fruit woods and nut woods can be used half seasoned, but not freshly cut.
- Soak fruit woods to slow down their burn rate if desired , as they will burn quite fast.
- ALWAYS clean out the firebox after each cook to get the cleanest burn.
I personally believe that stick burning is the only pure and true way to achieve the best bbq possible. Although more labour intensive you will be rewarded with the end result. There are no shortcuts!
Story by Paul Reitmier, Silver Creek Smokers