For the first guest blog in the Wildwood Grilling Grand Re-Opening Extravaganza we are thrilled to welcome long-time grill enthusiast Derrick Riches. He's here to talk about wood smoke and how to use it well.
Burgers, dogs, chops, and chicken.
Burgers, dogs, chops, and chicken. This is what we throw on the grill for those long Summer night cookouts. Over and over again.
These are the most popular grilled foods and while they are great, it’s a shame that we don’t do more.
The typical backyard grill, whether gas or charcoal, is capable of cooking so much. Very little of what we call a meal can’t be grilled. The problem for most people is how to easily grill all the so called "difficult" food items. Not that grilling is difficult, but small items like shrimp, vegetables, or delicate foods like fillets of fish just don’t sit well on a grill grate.
The answer, of course, is to place them on something. I know there are people that will say this isn’t real grilling. Don’t listen to them. They are foolish.
There are pans, griddles, salt blocks, stone tiles, and for our purposes, wood grilling planks that can expand our grilling to nearly limitless ends.
Here, those little or delicate items can be grilled without falling apart or falling through the grates. The additional advantage that wood planks (or wood grilling planks) offer is that they add flavor during the cooking process. Wood is, after all, where fire began, and fire is where cooking began.
Wood planks will smolder and steam over the hot fire, releasing their aromatic flavors into foods and into the air.
They also transfer flavor simply by being in contact with foods. This enhances the grilling process both in taste and in experience. Wood planks also provide a fantastic presentation since the dish can be served right off the plank, though one should be careful handling hot planks.
Now there are rules when paring wood with food. These rules are similar to pairing wine, and by that I mean more of a general guide rather than actual rules. A note wine expert I once met suggested that the best pairing of wine to food is to select a food you like and a wine you love. However, certain things do go together and consider these suggested pairings as just that:
Flavors and Parings:
- Alder: The ideal alternative to the traditional cedar plank. Alder is mild and is a great choice for mild foods like fish and seafood. It is also a neutral flavor that strikes a balance between sweet and smoky. Try Alder with cheeses and desserts.
- Cedar: The traditional wood of plank grilling. It has its origins among the indigenous peoples of the American northwest and is ideal for Salmon fillets. Use only western cedar, not eastern cedar. They are different woods. Cedar is very aromatic and can deliver a strong flavor. It is perfect with spicy dishes or any variety, but particularly hearty meats like pork, beef or lamb.
- Cherry: The sweetest of all plank cooking woods. Cherry is ideal for its mild flavor and works perfectly with grilled fruits and vegetables. Just as one would assume, this is the wood to choose for dessert dishes.
- Hickory: This is the favorite of old time barbecue champions. Hickory has a strong, almost defiant flavor. There is something inherently barbecue in its flavor and it works best with chicken, beef, and pork. It is a good choice for any dish that needs an extra hit of smoke.
- Maple: Another sweet wood. Maple works best with bacon and prosciutto wrapped dishes, but also all manner of fruit. This wood is mild but aromatic, making it the perfect starter wood for any backyard cook.
- Red Oak: Balanced perfectly between the mild and the strong flavored woods, this is a great default flavor. It works well with most any dish and won’t overpower subtle fish, but will still lend its flavor to beef, pork or lamb. This is a meaty wood and works best with main course items.
Tip: Soak wood planks in a warm water with a tablespoon of dissolved salt and a tablespoon of vinegar. This brings out the flavor of the wood before the food goes on the plank and before the plank goes on the grill.
Derrick Riches has written about Barbecue & Grilling for the last two decades. As author of one of the most popular destinations for outdoor cooking information, he has answered thousands of questions, written hundreds of articles, and explored barbecue in its widest definition. During this time he has traveled the world, grilled on almost every conceivably kind of cooking equipment, and judged the best barbecue in the world.
If you'd like to see more of Derrick's writing and recipes, and even more on planks, visit him at derrickriches.com.