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I normally barbecue with charcoal, but I've seen wood chips in shops, so I started wondering...
I assume the material you use gives a different flavor to the meat. What is your experience on this regard? When is coal preferable, wood, or gas (the latter IMHO ruins the point)? If wood is better, which kind of wood gives a better taste to the meat?

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! that's a good point. getting poisoned with fumes is not my favorite spare time activity indeed, but the pine may be nice for chimney, but not for bbq –  Stefano Borini Aug 1 '10 at 19:40
    
Pine isn't even good for your chimney. –  Tim Gilbert Aug 2 '10 at 2:59
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When i was a child my father used occasional pine wood. I remember the aroma as pleasant. –  Stefano Borini Aug 2 '10 at 8:21
    
pine isn't poisonous, but the resins can burn explosively, causing a major fire hazard (and if your face is over the grill, flying embers can cause nasty burns). –  jwenting Apr 19 '11 at 13:11
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3 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted

There are two main types of charcoal, briquettes and hard lump. The first comes in preformed pieces, so they are all the same size and include a filler material. They will sometimes also have lighter fluid in them already and be "easy start" or something similar. Hard lump is just charcoal from hardwoods with no filler. These will usually be in all kinds of shapes and look like "natural" pieces of wood (albeit in charcoal form). Hard lump is easy to light, burns hotter, and leaves much less ash than briquettes. It also has a better flavor. I strongly recommend hard lump charcoal.

Wood is usually used to provide smoke as a primary function rather than heat. Smoking on your grill gives a lovely smokey flavor (d'uh). The standard way to use wood is to soak it in water for a period of time prior to cooking. Packages will often say to soak for an hour, and that's ok with wood chips which are very small (but I recommend longer), but it isn't good for anything larger. I generally soak wood for at least 18 hours.

Wood also comes in various sizes, from very small chips (slightly larger than a coin) to large chunks bigger than a fist. The smaller the chips, the less heat they provide and the faster they burn up. These are generally better for shorter smoking times. Large chunks can smoke for 12+ hours if they are properly soaked. In both cases, I put the wood on to already burning coals to get them going.

You can also use just wood to create your heat, in which case you do not soak the wood. When you hear about woodfire ovens, this is what they do. However, I think this is a hassle as it's harder to get the wood lit than charcoal and doesn't provide as much smoke since you haven't soaked the wood. So it's really sub-par in my view. The exception is if you are doing low and slow smoking on some types of charcoal grill, you can use a small bed of coals to light large chunks of soaked wood. Once they get smoldering, this becomes the only source of heat as the coals go out. They smolder hot enough to get new wood going if you find you need more. Great for 12 hour smoking at 200F for Boston Butt or Brisket.

In terms of wood, you want hard woods with low amounts of resin / sap. No glue, nails, etc. It wants to be natural. This is a decent description of types of wood and the smoke they produce. Common woods for BBQ in the SE US are hickory, mesquite, and cedar. I've used old wine barrel chunks which have a really nice flavor, and also bits of rosemary branch (thick from a large plant) which didn't turn out as well as I'd hoped. You can even use the shells of nuts like pecans. This is really a question of seeing what's readily available and experimenting with your own personal taste.

You can also use wood with a gas grill by putting it in a smoking box or tin foil with holes in it, and placing directly on the heating element. Wood chips work best for this. I've never had much luck with this though. It's hard to get the chips smoking and, more importantly, gas grills don't have the airflow through them to properly move smoke over the food. I switched to charcoal pretty quickly and a Big Green Egg about two years ago, and I've never looked back.

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Excellent answer. Thanks –  Stefano Borini Aug 2 '10 at 8:23
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Charcoal is for smokeless and flavourless cooking

For a nice smokey BBQ flavour you need some dried, split hardwood. Or fresh hard wood twigs. For quick to cook meats you can even use softwoods, or even driftwood from the beach

Add bunches of greenery and twigs from scented shrubs like tea-tree, lavender, rosemary etc

This is simple BBQ at it's best. No manufactured fuel product, with unknown contents. No soaking on things. Just fresh clean wood smoke. It may sting your eyes, but it makes the food taste great

For best smoke effect have a loose fitting lid over your food while on the BBQ grill. This should trap the smoke, but not create as major oven effect

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When you say 'coal', do you mean chunk charcoal, or the type of mineral coal that comes out of the ground, or charcoal briquettes from the market? Wood chips are primarily for flavoring meat and or veg while grilling over briquettes. You soak them in water before using, and they give off a scented, flavored smoke. Chunk charcoal is very hot burning, and needs to be offset from the food for most grilling. Many types of wood give different flavors. In the USA, hickory is a favorite in the NE, pecan wood in the South, mesquite in the SW, etc. The hardwoods are the best to use, and those are frequently found as chunk charcoal (wood that has been partially burned, so the carbon is left to burn again.)

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charcoal chunks I guess –  Stefano Borini Aug 1 '10 at 19:48
    
Keep in mind that not everyone on this site is from the US. So unqualified directional references like NE, South, and SW are vague. –  hobodave Aug 1 '10 at 20:00
    
Not being from USA, I take that north-east means Main, south means Texas, and south west means California; I am not sure it's what judiu meant, nor it's what somebody else would understand. –  kiamlaluno Aug 10 '10 at 1:20
    
@kiamlaluno That's probably not what Judiu meant. NE would include everything north of VA or PA, probably. South would be southern-VA through Georgia, and maybe Florida as well. Southwest is more around Texas. –  derobert Mar 3 '12 at 9:59
    
@derobert It's quite subjective; it depends all from what you call the middle of the USA. –  kiamlaluno Mar 3 '12 at 12:51
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