It's hard to beat the taste that grilling imparts upon meat, yet smoking chips take that flavor to the next level. Who doesn't love a smoked rack of barbecued ribs or a smoked salmon? Smoke flavor will enhance every type of meat from hamburger to your Thanksgiving turkey and these flavors can easily be achieved on your own backyard grill by using smoking chips.
The recent popularity of smoked foods has made finding smoking chips much easier. Most home improvement centers and even some grocery stores now carry them. Be sure to get smoking chips and not the chunks. You may want to move on to the larger chunks once you're more familiar with smoke flavoring. There are many different types of wood that can be used when smoking, but the most common smoking chips are hickory, mesquite, and oak.
One question that always comes up is whether the smoking chips should be soaked in water. Soaked smoking chips will produce smoke for a longer period of time, yet that is not necessarily a good thing. Meat itself carries its own flavor. Too much smoke takes from that flavor. Let the meat do the talking, not the flavor of your smoking chips. Treat smoke as a spice and don't over do it. Until you have experimented and begin to truly understand how smoking chips impart flavor to various cuts of meat, use your smoking chips dry.
If you have a charcoal grill, the smoking chips can be put directly on the coals once they are hot. Give the wood a few minutes to start smoking and put on your meat. If using a gas or electric grill you will need to make a smoking packet. Using aluminum foil, spread a handful of smoking chips on a large piece and fold it over and crimp the edges, making a small packet. With a fork, pierce several holes on one side of the packet. This perforated side is the top. Keep this in mind when placing it on your grill. These holes are how the smoking chips will release the smoke. Place the packet on the heat divert-er plate (under the grill cooking grate). Once the smoking chips start to produce smoke, it's time to start cooking.
It's best to use a two heat zone fire when using smoking chips. That is, charcoal off to one side or only one set of burners lit, if using a gas grill. Place the meat on the cooler side while the chips are smoking on the fire side. We don't want to really start cooking our meat just yet. Let it smoke for about 15 to 30 minutes, then continue the cooking process as usual keeping in mind that the meat has had a bit of head start during the smoking time.
Now that your meat is on the grill and your smoking chips begin to share its smoke flavor with the meat, there are a few considerations to keep in mind. First, keep the lid of your grill closed so that precious smoke doesn't escape. Second, smoking chips will do what wood does when placed near a heat source...catch on fire. This ignition may be accelerated by the grease drippings from your meat. Keep a spray bottle of water handy to extinguish any flare ups. Third, if you are using your smoking chips in a foil packet, add a few more minutes to your cooking time, since the packet is diverting some of the heat away from the meat.
As you experiment with smoking chips, you'll soon become obsessed with the flavors. Try other types of wood. Fruit wood such as apple, peach and cherry are good choices. Online sources can supply you with such smoking chips as ground up wine and whiskey barrels. Advanced techniques involve mixing various smoking chips. Try a recipe of half cherry, a quarter hickory and a quarter of maple. Soon you'll be the pitmaster of your neighborhood!
Gary Glen Chicago Barbecue Examiner