|The dangers of Ignus Amplus Laetus|
I got an email the other day from Joe in Illinois who said, "You make it sound so easy, but every time I try it it, it has a funny taste, sort of bitter." Well first off I am sorry his BBQ is coming out so bitter but I can easily diagnose this as a case of Ignus Amplus Laetus or Big Happy Fire syndrome. It is actually quite common with a lot of people who either smoke or grill with hardwoods. We all know who we are, and it has happened to everyone at least once or twice when we started to cook outdoors. The temperature dropped or we got nervous because although the coals were smoldering and we had plenty of heat, there was no flame. We decide to throw on another log or two and in a few minutes we see plenty of fire and the temperature takes off like Oregon's De Anthony Thomas down the side line after breaking through the line. We take possession and pride when we cook outdoors. Just like the guy who won't give up the tongs because this is 'his grill, his domain,' there are people who are fascinated by seeing large puffs of white smoke coming out of the smoker that they created and that is just wrong.
There is something exotic, tantalizing, mouth watering and hypnotizing about the smell of hardwood smoke when BBQing. If you have ever been to a large BBQ festival, you have probably noticed a slight bit of drool coming out of the corner of your mouth when you got within a mile of the festival. Its natural and along with the camaraderie and competitive spirit is why a lot of us do it. But one thing you need to understand is that we are smelling the smoke as it is diffused into the air, outside the smoker at a much lower temperature. What is going on inside is a much denser cloud that is cooking at (hopefully no more than 225° F) a low temperature that opens up the pores in the meat just enough for the dense clouds of smoke to penetrate up to 3/4" into the meat.
BBQ is a skill that great pitmasters will tell you is more about patience then it is about cooking. Fire and temperature control are key and let me tell you from first hand experience that twenty minutes of cooking above 275° can be so detrimental to your finished product. If you can't control your temperatures then your product runs the risk being more dry and bitter than a Bills fan around Superbowl weekend.
There are a few things you need to know when cooking with hardwoods. First, "More is never better." You don't want or need smoke billowing out of you smoker. It should be a thin blue line of smoke that dissipates quickly after it leaves the smoke stack. To achieve this keep your fire around 225°F at all times. Any more and creosote starts to carry in the chamber. Creosote, which is highly carcinogenic, carries a bitter flavor that can ruin not only the meat but leave a bitter stench similar to pine tar in you smoker (This is why we do not use pine and other softwoods, they contain higher amounts of sap which when burned adds creosote to the mix). Opening and closing the dampers help to raise and lower the heat in small amounts but proper wood management is key. This can be achieved by using your wood in three ways. When in competition I always bring chips, blocks and logs with my charcoal.
Charcoal is a great base and is wonderful for maintaining a constant temperature over long periods of time. I use the blocks to add smoke as the flavor accent, not the heat source. If the temperature starts to suddenly drop, I use the chips and open up the damper. Since it has a higher surface to mass ratio, a few handfuls of chips will light faster and provide a quick heat boost. You can put charcoal on top to light and they will be ready by the time the chips burn out. I use logs for smoking larger cuts like briskets, whole hog and up. They have the longevity that I am looking for and work well with self basting meats. The point being here is that hardwood is best used as a flavoring tool and takes a lot of trial and error before using it as a primary fuel source. You need to know not only how much to use to hit a certain temperature but how long it lasts. This can be affected by many factors which brings us to the second point.
|Thin blue smoke like this is ideal, |
not a thick bellowing white smoke
The third and most important point I wanted to make is "Use the right hardwood." Use of hardwoods is a bit more subjective and there are most definitely differences in the flavor of woods regionally. The Oak in the hill country of east Texas has a much different flavor from the Oak in Illinois. This can be because of mineral content in the soil as well as other factors but you will need to decide what flavors you like. I for example like to start my briskets off with a few hours of Mesquite and switch to Pecan for about four hours. Some people like to use all Oak on theirs. Some will say Hickory was made for pork ribs and shoulder but I find that Apple and Cherry work much better. Just like dry rubs and marinades, experiment and see what you like. Below, I have included my Hardwood Matrix Chart that I have developed over the years. It is a good starting point for most BBQ enthusiasts if you want to cook a certain item and want to know what goes well with what. The key thing is to know when enough smoke is enough.
Just as easy as it is to let your temperatures fall and spike, it is easy to over smoke. Meats can only take so much smoke before it starts to get supersaturated and become bitter. I smoke my briskets at a very low temperature (about 205°F) for eighteen hours but I only use hardwoods for the first six. On thinner items like chicken and ribs, I only smoke for 60-90 minutes and finish with charcoal. Fish is another example of less is more because I only smoke for about 45 minutes and with mild woods. Anymore and its like licking an ashtray.
You see, hardwoods are comprised of three main components, lignin, cellulose and hemicellulose. Lignin is a thin but very strong material that acts like a skeleton for the cell walls in wood. It is about 25% of the total dry weight of the wood and it burns at high temperatures, somewhere around 750°F. When it does burn it gives off a sweet spicy smell like vanilla and cloves. This is what is usually left over in lightweight chunks after the fire goes out. Cellulose makes up the cell walls and is comprised of very dense glucose. It burns at a slightly lower temperature, about 550°F to 625°F, and because of its density it is what allows hardwoods to burn for long periods of time. Cellulose makes up about 50% of the dry weight of the wood. Hemicellulose is the contents of the cell and this is where most of the flavor comes from when smoking. While largest in volume, its mass is only 25 % of the dry weight of the wood and burns at lower temperatures, around 400°F. It is a make up many botanical amino acids and chemical compounds but all hardwoods have these main ones; Acetaldehyde, Acetic Acid, Diacetyl, Furans and Lactams.
Acetaldehyde when burned has a tart and citrus fruity taste to it. Acetic Acid burns and gives a flavorful bitter tang, like vinegar, to smoked meats. Diacetyl offers that warm buttery flavor. Furans have that sweet brandy smell that most of us recognize when smoking and Lactams have a sweet fruity smell that is sort of tropical. Different woods have different amounts of each compound and therefore have different flavor profiles. Some of the fruit woods also contain Syringol which has a unique smell similar to a spicy sage. This is why most fruit woods are great with pork.
|Mesquite pile aged at least one year. never use freshly cut|
hardwood. It can ruin the smoker as well as what you are cooking
Grilling and smoking with hardwood can be fun and please the crowd but remember. This isn't Iron Chef America where you are moving non-stop for an hour and your hands are moving like a blur at points. This is a relaxing activity that requires patience and a good understanding of not only what you are cooking but what you are cooking it on and with what fuel source. I once heard someone refer to smoking BBQ like raising a toddler. They can bring joy to your life but if you turn your back on them, for just a second, anything can happen. Good luck babysitting.