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The Best Woods for Grilling

I often (several times a week) grill my food with the gas grill, adding charcoal and wood, such as hickory. My question is what woods do chefs cook with? Can cherry wood or pear wood be used for grilling and/or smoking foods?

In our experience, chefs are always trying to find something new and exotic that no one else has thought of, so most of them are probably using driftwood or sustainably harvested teak now. But, in general, the rule is that hardwoods are great sources of fuel for grilling and smoking, and softwoods, with all their pitch and sap, are not.

People who grill or flavor with wood lean towards the following:

  • Alder — the wood of choice for Pacific salmon, but also good for most seafood, pork, poultry, and other white meats, because of its light and sweet flavor.
  • Apple — light and fruity, and works well for the same foods as alder, except for swordfish.
  • Cherry — also a mild and fruity wood, suited to almost everything from beef to chicken and pork to salmon, but again, not swordfish.
  • Grapevine — described as tart, and good with poultry, red meats, and wild game, but not lamb or fish.
  • Hickory — tends to impart a stronger flavor, and is better suited to red meat and game.
  • Maple — sweet and mild, good for pork and poultry; less popular for fish.
  • Mesquite — a strong wood, also described as sweet, particularly good for red and dark meats. Not so good for lamb, and imparts a bitter taste to swordfish.
  • Mountain mahogany— hard to come by, but mild and well-suited to poultry, beef and salmon.
  • Oak — for many, the wood of choice for beef, but also good for any full-flavor meat, including mutton and wild game.
  • Pecan — another mid-range wood, with more flavor than the fruit trees, but less than hickory and mesquite. Good for white meats.

Various other fruit woods have become, if not exactly popular, more readily available in recent years, including pear, peach, and nectarine. Just be sure to keep them away from that swordfish.

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