Hardwood grilling is a challenge worth facing for the added taste
It's a basic cooking technique handed down from our cavemen ancestors: Wood plus fire plus meat equals dinner.
"It's simplistic, very simplistic," says Jack Scott, chef at Down Under Boomerang BBQ in the Strip District. "And it's way better than using briquettes that you start with lighter fluid. There's no bitter, chemical taste. And lighter fluid makes food smell like diesel. You don't notice the difference until you are around it a lot."
Although propane and charcoal briquettes are the main fuels for American backyard grillers, there is another dimension of flavor to be reached that's easier, quicker and cheaper than the status quo -- pure wood.
There's no need to forage in a forest for fuel to capture smoky campfire flavors. Wood for grilling and smoking -- chunks and planks -- is available at hardware stores or can be purchased through the Internet. Choices range from alder to grape, from mesquite to peach. But nothing says you can't harvest your own, as long as it isn't pine or fir, which are too resinous.
Before even considering what wood to buy, however, cooks need a plan, according to Matt Mantini, chef/owner of Mantini's Woodfired Grill on the South Side. Mantini -- a multiple winner of Southern barbecue competitions for 13 years and a former corporate chef for international food service giant Sodexho -- cautions that grilling over hardwood, or on it, is not child's play.
Timing is essential, he says, and that means not rushing.
"You can't put out a gourmet meal in five minutes. First, you've got to let the coals burn down before cooking. Although hardwood will burn in 15 to 20 minutes" -- compared with briquettes, which take 25 to 35 minutes -- "you should give yourself 45 minutes before you are ready."
Grillers should note that hardwood fires are uneven, compared with briquettes and propane or natural gas.
"You have to be disciplined," Mantini says. "Shellfish should cook over lower heat, fish and steaks at medium-high to high."
On his indoor kitchen grill, a commercial Aztec Broiler, he maintains one section at high heat for searing, another at medium-high for cooking and finishing foods, and yet another at low to handle delicate items, such as shrimp and scallops.
A hardwood fire "involves you in the cooking," says Jamie Purviance, author of "Weber's Real Grilling" (Weber-Stephen Products, Sunset, $24.95 paperback) and two other Weber cookbooks.
"By nature, hardwood comes in irregular pieces, so you'll have an irregular fire," he says. "There will be hotter and cooler spots, and that will change as the wood breaks into pieces. It forces you to be responsive. It's not a lazy man's fire. It's interactive beyond the taste issue."
No lighter fluid is needed for a hardwood fire -- and for any fire, at that. "I haven't used starter fluid in 10 years," Purviance says. "It's petroleum-based, and I don't want that near my food."
Lighting hardwood for cooking -- as well as regular charcoal briquettes -- is as simple as adding crumpled newspaper and a match, Purviance says.
Serious cooks use a metal chimney starter, which resembles a cylindrical pitcher. Newspaper is put in the bottom, then topped by wood chunksor briquettes, or a combination for more even and longer burning. A long-handled match or lighter sets the newspaper on fire, which spreads to the wood. The cylinders cost between $15 and $25 at hardware stores.
Hardwood also can be heaped in a pyramid over newspaper in the center or to the side of a charcoal grill, like briquettes, and lit from below. After the flames die down, the coals can be spread out for direct or indirect cooking, Purviance says.
Another way to light a fire without starter fluid is to use paraffin cubes, which resemble gambling dice. "They are odorless and flavorless, stay lit for 15 to 20 minutes, until the wood can catch completely on fire, and allow the wood to burn down slowly," he says.
As with charcoal briquettes, more hardwood must be added during cooking to keep the heat going -- another challenge for the amateur barbecuist. Then, patience, endurance and experience become critical factors, especially concerning cooking methods, timing and personal taste.
Choosing the wood
Wood-and-food pairings are just as important as choosing the right wine and proper sauce.
"You need to use wood that will complement whatever you are cooking and not overpower it," says Matt Mantini, chef/owner of Mantini's Woodfired Grill on the South Side. "That's why I use only fruitwood."
His choice for Mantini's is cherry. "Hickory and mesquite used to be all the rage 15 years ago, but they can be harsh and acidic," he says. "You have to watch how much wood hits the food. It should add flavor without being overpowering."
At Down Under Boomerang BBQ, Jack Scott uses apple and cherry. "Most people use hickory," he says. "Fruitwood is gentler, and of the two, cherry is sweeter." He stays away from redwood because it is harsh. "I don't even go there," he says.
Grilling experts offer these food-and-wood pairings for firewood grilling and smoking.
Alder: Delicate with a hint of sweetness; good with fish, pork, poultry and light-meat game birds
Apple: Slightly sweet with a dense, fruity smoke; good with fish, poultry and vegetables
Apricot: Milder and sweeter than hickory; good with most meats
Cherry: Slightly sweet, fruity smoke flavor; good for meat, fish, poultry and vegetables
Grape: Aromatic, similar to other fruit wood
Hickory: Pungent, smoky, baconlike flavor; the most commonly used wood for grilling and smoking; especially complements pork, ribs, beef and lamb
Lemon wood : aromatic, similar to other fruit wood
Maple: Mildly smoky, somewhat sweet flavor; good with fish, pork, poultry, cheese, vegetables and small game birds
Mesquite: Strong, earthy flavor, a highly popular wood for grilling and smoking; good with most meats, especially beef, lamb and pork, and most vegetables
Nectarine: Milder and sweeter than hickory; good with most meats, especially beef, and most vegetables
Oak: One of the world's most popular woods, with a heavy smoke flavor; adds a distinctive flavor to beef, poultry, pork and fish
Orange: Aromatic, similar to fruit wood
Peach, pear: Slightly sweet, woodsy flavor; good for all white meats, fish, seafood and vegetables
Pecan: Pungent, smoky baconlike flavor similar to hickory but not as strong; good for all smoking, especially pork and ribs
Plum/prune: Milder and sweeter than hickory; good with most meats, especially beef, and most vegetables