How to use smoking wood & charcoal

How to use smoking wood & charcoal

Samantha Evans, Shauna Guinn
0 recipes
Published by
Quadrille Publishing

Smoke produced from charcoal will only offer a very slight smokiness to food – that’s why wood is intrinsically important to get that full, classic barbecue taste.

Grilling and smoking with wood affords you the opportunity to add flavour that just can’t be accomplished to the same degree inside a kitchen – messing around with liquid smoke is a slippery slope in terms of giving an authentic tasting smoky flavour. Knowing which woods to use and when will require a bit more experimenting on your part as different woods vary in intensity of flavour, and overall colour. That being said, here are some suggestions based on what we use. Every pit boss will have a different take, but here’s ours.

Chips chunks, logs & pellets

Let’s start by choosing the right size of wood from four basic options: chips, chunks, logs and pellets.

Chips are scraps and shavings of wood that ignite quickly, but also burn out pretty fast. The biggest advantage being that they’re available in a wide variety of places, from your supermarket to garden centres. We used to use chips. But the fact that many people believe you need to soak them, and their burnout rate, saw us move on to chunks.

Chunks are usually about fist-sized pieces of wood that are our choice for a long, slower hit of smoke. They take longer to fully ignite than chips, but can burn for a good hour in a grill, and hours in a smoker. For city dwellers, who may not have a natural supply of wood to forage from, chunks are sold pretty inexpensively all over the internet.

Logs are full pieces of wood, like you would use in a fireplace, or to build a campfire. These are best reserved for barbecuing in a pit or with an offset smoker. They take a long time to get to the point where you cook with them and produce more smoke than you’ll probably ever need when grilling. If you’re smoking with logs, it’s fine to leave the bark on, but make sure they’re dry and well seasoned.

If you fancy trying your hand at ‘stick burning’ (a technique using only wood to smoke, usually with an offset smoker), then logs are the fuel for you. Ideally, you’ll want uniform-sized logs to make it easier to gauge burn time and temperature control.

Smoking with logs is all about getting a really hot ember bed. First, you’ll want to burn down several logs to achieve a good start bed. When it’s all glowing, spread the coals out. Arrange the wood as if they are pieces midway through a game of Jenga, allowing oxygen to move freely between each piece. When these have turned black and wonderfully charred, close the door and let that fragrant wood smoke really start to work its magic. Keep an eye on your temperature. Need the temperature higher? Open the door and vents. Need to maintain and regulate the heat? Close the door and work the vents to control the temperature. Try to stack your wood near the firebox to get them warm – a warm log will catch quicker than a cold log. And don’t put wood on top of your firebox and walk away as it will ignite. Take that from people who know!

Pellets are a processed wood made from highly compressed sawdust, our friend tells us they look like cattle feed. You can’t use any pellets for smoking, they need to be classed as ‘food grade’. They come in several wood varieties and are mostly imported from the US. Pellets are used mainly, but not exclusively with pellet-style smokers. Here, they are poured into a pellet hopper, fed down a moving auger into a little firebox, which ignites them, in turn creating fragrant wood smoke. Though pellet-style smokers are undoubtedly pricier than your other fuel sources, they are relatively economical and are built for both ease and efficiency. We’ve also spoken to people that have both pellet-style and offset smokers who use a handful of pellets the same way you would use chips.

Charcoal lumpwood & briquettes

There is a time and a place for using both lumpwood and briquettes when making barbecue. Perhaps one of the main points to consider is what’s available to you and what you can afford.

The principal difference between briquettes and lumpwood is processing. Lumpwood is raw, burned wood and briquettes are processed forms of lumpwood and coal dust compacted into uniform shapes.

Natural lumpwood charcoal is faster to light, therefore reducing the time it takes to preheat your smoker. So if you are in hurry, in some ways, lumpwood charcoal lets you barbecue in an instant. If you are planning on cooking some chicken, burgers, steaks or anything else that cooks relatively quickly, then lumpwood charcoal will be an ideal choice. We smoke and grill over lumpwood as opposed to briquettes just because it suits what we do. However, pound for pound, we use more lumpwood than we would if we used briquettes, impacting on the costs: we add more fuel more frequently to our grill cooker. The benefit of using lumpwood is that it’s less smoky than briquettes.

Some folks feel that charcoal briquettes are more versatile, and, as they’re mainly uniform in size, it’s easier to use them for coal-stacking techniques like ‘the snake’ or ‘minion method’ in bullet- and kettle-style barbecues. Charcoal briquettes take longer to burn down, but less is required. They can hold their heat longer, negating the need to top up as frequently as with lumpwood.

There are also a multitude of charcoal-based products on the market that will help your fuel burn more efficiently or even hotter for longer, from heat beads to hexagonal charcoal sticks. These seem expensive compared to regular charcoal barbecue fuel, but the cost is outweighed by their burn efficiency. In our opinion, a few bags of these could pay for themselves over a few bags of lumpwood or briquettes.

To soak or not to soak?

This is only a relevant question for chips. Never soak chunks and logs.

To soak or not to soak is usually a split decision in the barbecue community. Argument for: they take longer to burn and release smoke flavour, apparently, at a lower rate, negating the need to top up every 15 minutes. Argument against: it’ll lower the temperature of your pit and smoulder as opposed to burn.

We’ve never soaked chips, simply because it doesn’t make much sense to us. We simply throw handfuls on as and when they burn out or every 45 minutes to an hour. It’s your call: do whatever gives you the result you’re looking for, try both techniques and see which one you like best.

Types of wood

When picking a wood to grill or smoke with, you always want hardwoods. Softwoods like evergreens create a sooty smoke that have the potential to be dangerous to your health and can make your barbecue taste like an air-freshener. Choose your wood based on the level of smokiness and colour it will impart on your barbecue. We break smoking woods down to three general categories: mild, medium, and heavy. Also see our wood variety recommendations below.


These include alder and fruitwoods like apple and cherry. The smokiness in these woods tends to be mild, with hints of fruit or sweetness. The mild woods pair best with more delicate meats like chicken and fish.


Oak and hickory are the workhorses of medium woods. These are our go-to wood for almost anything, imparting that distinct smoke flavour without being overpowering. Hickory is heavier than oak, with a stronger flavour that’s great for larger cuts of meat and long smokes. Both hickory and oak work really well with bacon, pork, beef and lamb – these are meats that can withstand stronger smokes.


Mesquite is like the Muhammad Ali of woods; it punches hard smoke flavour into your barbecue and is the strongest in flavour intensity of all the smoke woods. Beef and lamb are really the only meats that can hold their own against the heavyweight smoke flavour. Done right, it’s amazing.

These examples are only the tip of the iceberg, and there are many more woods to mess around with. With any wood, especially ones falling into the medium and heavy categories, take care not to use too much. Smoke can quickly overpower all other flavours so if you’re just getting started we recommend using one chunk in the first instance and increasing the amount as you find the right balance of smokiness.

How to add smoke to the fire

Here are some of the ways that people add smoke wood to the fire:

Place the smoke wood on top of hot coals. Our preferred approach is to distribute the wood chunks evenly before putting the meat in the smoker. If using the minion or the snake method make sure some of your wood touches the hot coals in order to generate smoke immediately.

Bury smoke wood in unlit charcoal. This method is only possible when firing the cooker using the minion or snake method. You’ll want to bury wood chunks through the unlit fuel, with a few chunks on top. Distribute the hot coals evenly over the unlit fuel, making sure some wood touches the hot coals to start generating smoke right away.

Ignition take off!

Like charcoal, hardwood needs to be ignited and properly burning before food is introduced. To do this, place the wood on top of hot coals and let it burn until the flames die down, make sure you’re getting clean smoke. Meaning: watch your smokestack. Is a light blue smoke gently releasing or are thick white plumes billowing out? You want the former. If you’re getting the white smoke every time you add wood, check that it’s seasoned well and super-dry, otherwise it may be that your fire bed isn’t hot enough, causing the wood to smoulder rather than ignite. It’ll take practice. That’s why, when starting out, using smaller pieces of wood reduces the margin for error.

Side note: The smoke ring

A smoke ring is a pink discolouration of meat just under the dark surface crust (called bark). A good smoke ring is around 5–10mm in thickness, but this can vary between meats. Beef shows a great smoke ring, whereas chicken and turkey the least. Plus it can freak people out seeing a pink tinge to their poultry. The smoke ring is caused by nitric acid buildup on the surface of meat, which is then absorbed inwards. This nitric acid is formed when nitrogen dioxide from wood combustion in smoke mixes with the water in the meat. A smoke ring is a sure-fire way to tell if something has been properly smoked, and when you achieve it, it’s definitely something to brag about. However, it’s a little bit of vanity, too. We went through a stage of obsessing over achieving perfect smoke rings. Now we’re only focused on flavour and technique, the smoke ring being a by-product of those two things working out for us.

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