What exactly gives charcoal barbecued food the smoky flavor? Does smoky flavor happen if you burn wood to make coals and then use the coals to cook?

Or does it only happen when you use store bought charcoal lumps/briquettes?

  • A lot of barbecue sauces or sauce recipes contain a product called "liquid smoke" but I'm not sure that's what you're asking about.
    – Catija
    Jun 26, 2015 at 17:29

2 Answers 2


The smoky flavour of barbecued foods is best achieved through burning lump charcoal or hardwood. In the scenario you're describing, yes, burning hardwood and then cooking over the coals would give you a smoky flavour

Store bought briquettes actually probably give you less of a smoky flavour because instead of using wood, many briquettes use other materials/binders that don't give you the smoky flavour you want.

  • Yes, generally deciduous trees are hardwood. However, birch is not a widely used wood as it is sappy and doesn't burn very hot. Jun 28, 2015 at 5:00

Harold McGee's "On Food and Cooking" has an interesting explanation on the chemistry of smoke (pg 448 on my edition). This is a summary of what it says:

The three main component of wood are:







(Source: Wikimedia)

Cellulose and hemicellulose make up the "scaffold" of plant cells and ligning binds cells together.

These three compounds release specific compounds when they burn. Cellulose and hemicellulose release sweet/fruity compounds such as furans, lactones, acetaldehyde, acetic acid and diacetyl. These are similar to what you get during caramelization: indeed those hexagonal rings you see in the first two structures are common to many sugars.

Lignin, on the other hand, releases other smoky/spicy flavours, due to the presence of aromatic rings (those hexagons with a circle inside in its formula): guaiacol, vanillin, isoeugenol, phenol, syringol.

The specific amount of each compound that is released depends on the specific type of wood and the burning temperature; it obviously affects taste.

Maximum flavor production takes place at relatively low, smoldering temperatures, between 570 and 750°F/ 300-400 °C; at higher temperatures, the flavor molecules are themselves broken down into simpler harsh or flavorless molecules.

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