Wood and charcoal

Wood and charcoal

By
Ben Tish
Contains
0 recipes
Published by
Quadrille Publishing
ISBN
978 1 84949 715 2
Photographer
Kris Kirkham

Wood and charcoal are the means through which the dishes are cooked, smoked and flavoured. So it’s only appropriate to give some thought to sourcing the right wood and charcoal for what you are cooking – just as you would when choosing a piece of beef from the butchers, a glistening fresh bream from the fishmonger’s slab or a beautifully ripe fresh fig.

Wood

It all starts with the wood (even the charcoal). When buying lump wood, make sure it’s hardwood, as softwood tends to burn with an unpleasant, acrid note. The wood should be already seasoned or dried, meaning the moisture has evaporated and will be easy to burn. Wood chips and wood dust are a little more specialized, but are easy enough to find online.

You’ll probably buy your wood from the same place as your charcoal, so you should be able to find out what variety it is and where it’s from. There’s lots of fun to be had by experimenting with different kinds of wood, and my guide below should help you on your way.

Charcoal

So what is charcoal? Essentially, it’s wood that has been turned into coal by a fairly complex distillation process. A bag of lump-wood charcoal will generally be made from a mix of oak, beech and ash that has been heated to a high temperature in a sealed environment. Starved of oxygen, the wood releases water and gases, resulting in a light, yet concentrated fuel that is better all-round than the compressed, chemically enhanced briquettes. Because no artificial starters are used in its production, the flavour of foods is enhanced, rather than masked by a chemical aftertaste; and the charcoal burns longer and brighter, making it more economical. With transparent and ethical sourcing, it is also kinder to the environment.

Single-species wood and charcoal

If you want to delve deeper, there are many varieties of single-species wood and charcoal out there to experiment with – these can impart impressive flavours when paired with different foods.

Mark Parr at London Log Company has been slowly pioneering this movement in the UK over recent years, and is now the go-to charcoal and wood guru for progressive chefs and enthusiastic novices alike. All Mark’s wood and charcoal is sourced and produced in the UK, and he has a fascinating and constantly evolving range of single-species charcoal that really does seem to give barbecued food a special clarity of flavour.

Below are some examples of what I’ve found works well, whether you’re cold- or hot-smoking with hardwood or cooking directly over charcoal. This should be used as a rough guide and to inspire new combinations. Remember, smoking is not a science, it’s an artform!

OAK I’ve found oak to be a great all-rounder for cooking meat, fish and vegetables. It imparts a pronounced earthy/woody flavour, while still letting the main ingredients shine through.

APPLE Apple wood is quite delicate, which makes it great for cooking white fish; the wood chips are great for cold-smoking too. Perhaps unsurprisingly, apple wood has a natural affinity with fatty pork, and we love to pair it with hot-smoked pork belly.

BAY This produces a subtle floral flavour that’s good with fish and vegetables.

BEECH Another good all-rounder with a fragrant, almost musky smoke.

BIRCH A mild wood with a delicate aroma that’s perfect for cold-smoking fish.

CHERRY Try this light, sweet smoke with duck, chicken and meaty fish.

CHESTNUT A medium-strength, nutty-flavoured wood that’s nice to use during the colder months.

HICKORY A classic barbecue wood that imparts a strong flavour. I’d only use this with more robust food, such as red meats and stronger-tasting fish.

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