- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 1, 2004

Tuscan grill masters do it. So do the asadors (pit bosses) of Argentina. In Texas and California, the practice borders on religion. I’m talking about the ultimate thrill for the grill jockey: grilling over wood.

Wood was man’s first fuel for grilling, and many chefs still consider it the best. That’s because, unlike charcoal, wood still contains all of its flavor-producing components. Charcoal may be easier to light and cook over, but it will never have the flavor of wood.

Like many home grillers, I had often added wood chips or chunks to a charcoal fire to impart a smoke flavor. But I had always assumed that true wood grilling — the sort that uses wood as the actual fuel, not simply for adding smoke — required the kind of industrial-strength grill you’d only find in a restaurant.

Enter Jerry Lawson, president of WW Wood Inc. of Pleasanton, Texas, America’s largest manufacturer of natural wood products for barbecue.

We were participating in a little friendly grill competition at a food festival, and while the rest of us were patiently lighting our charcoal in chimney starters, Mr. Lawson tossed a few paper bags filled with paraffin-coated wood chunks into a kettle grill. Within minutes, he had a big, destructive fire, and within half an hour, he was grilling steaks over fragrant, smoke-scented mesquite embers. His food didn’t possess just a charcoaled flavor. You could taste the pungent tang of the mesquite smoke.

Not that you need special, instant-light bags to grill over wood. A few weeks later, I bought a bag of hickory chunks at my local hardware store. I lit them in a chimney starter, exactly as you would charcoal. Within 20 minutes, I had a gorgeous bed of blazing embers. The T-bone steaks and asparagus I served that night were some of the best that ever came off my grill. The wood imparted a smoke flavor but also seemed to give the chops a darker, richer-tasting crust.

Grilling with wood is not without its challenges. For starters, unlike charcoal, wood flames as it burns. It certainly burns faster than charcoal. Once lit, a bed of wood embers will give you 15, maybe 20, minutes of grilling, as opposed to 40 to 60 minutes with charcoal. For extended or large-quantity grilling, you need to restoke the fire — and when you do, the fresh chunks will burst into flame.

Then there’s the question of heat control. Grilling with wood is not like turning a gas fire up or down with a twist of a knob.

You control the heat by moving the food back and forth between your grill’s hot and cool spots.

The first step is to light the wood in a chimney starter, an upright cylindrical tube with a wire partition in the center. Place a crumpled sheet of newspaper or a paraffin starter in the bottom, and light it with a match. When the chunks have burned down to glowing red embers, dump them into the bottom of the grill and rake them with a garden hoe to spread them out.

For optimal heat control, build a three-zone fire by raking the embers into a double layer on one side of the grill and a single layer in the center. Leave the other side of the grill free of embers to have a no-heat safety zone, where you can move the food if it starts to burn or overcook.

When grilling a couple of steaks or chicken breasts, a large chimney starter full of wood chunks will be sufficient. When grilling for 3 or more persons, light several chimney starters or add fresh wood chunks to the hot zone every 5 minutes so you’ll have plenty of fresh embers to replace the burned out.

The cooking process is one of waltzing the food among the grill’s hot, medium and cool zones — the hot for searing, the medium for cooking, the cool for keeping the food warm or dodging flare-ups.

Thus, even more than with charcoal, grilling with wood is an interactive cooking method, requiring near-constant supervision, tending and puttering. This is precisely why serious grill jockeys love it. If barbecue is a sport, wood grillers are its extreme athletes.

So what gives wood grilling its unique flavor? According to Ken Rogers, a wood technologist for the Texas Department of Forestry, wood contains terpenes, tannins and essential oils, which make up 3 percent to 5 percent of wood’s mass and are responsible for its color, sheen and flavor.

These volatile extractives literally go up in smoke when the wood is burned, depositing color and flavor on the food. (The extractives are removed in the process of making charcoal.) Mr. Rogers’ favorite wood for grilling is mesquite. Indeed, he has so much respect for the tree, he has written a book called “The Magnificent Mesquite” (University of Texas Press).

According to the Barbecue Industry Association, mesquite is the most popular grilling wood in the United States, closely followed by hickory. Mesquite is certainly the fuel of choice in Texas, the Southwest and Hawaii (where it goes by the name of kiave). Hickory is preferred in the South and the Midwest. Mesquite burns the hottest and has the most pronounced flavor. It also has a tendency to pop and shoot sparks, which can be disconcerting if you’re not used to it.

Alder is the traditional wood for grilling salmon in the Pacific Northwest. Apple and maple are popular in New England. Elsewhere in the country, grill jockeys cook over oak, pecan, walnut, birch, cherry and even grape vines. Oak is the preferred wood of Europe and South America.

Almost any hardwood is a candidate for grilling, but soft woods, such as pine and spruce, should be avoided. They emit large amounts of soot and resinous smoke. Never grill over processed wood, such as pieces of plywood or pressure-treated lumber, which are treated with chemicals that could be toxic.

Wood has been described as the spice of barbecue, and different types do impart different flavors.

While you don’t really taste cherries or apples in food grilled over fruit wood, I would make the following generalizations: Mesquite has the strongest flavor. It’s best suited for grilling robust meats such as beef and game. Hickory has a distinctive smoke flavor that goes well with all manner of pork, from pork loins to ribs.

The fruit woods, including apple, pear, peach and cherry, produce a milder smoke flavor that is well-suited to poultry and seafood. Oak is probably the best all-around grilling wood. It’s robust enough to stand up to beef and veal but mild enough for salmon or chicken breast. Perhaps that’s why as you travel the world’s barbecue trail, you’ll find more pit bosses grilling over oak than any other type of wood.

For the moment, wood grilling represents a small fraction of the American barbecue experience, but its popularity is growing. It’s easy to see why. Once you’ve tasted food direct-grilled over wood, it’s hard to go back to charcoal.

Wood-grilled rib steak with shiitake syrah sauce

The rib steak is a true beef lover’s steak, merging the meaty chew of an expertly grilled steak with the sanguine succulence of roast beef. It’s a monster, plate-burying steak, consisting of a Bible-thick rib-eye with a whole rib attached. A typical rib steak tips the scales at about 2 pounds and will comfortably serve 2 to 3 persons.

1 2-pound bone-in rib steak, 1 to 2 inches thick (see note)

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons crumbled dried rosemary

Coarse sea salt

Cracked black pepper

Shiitake syrah sauce (recipe follows)

2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

Lightly brush steak on both sides with olive oil. Thickly crust each side with garlic and rosemary, then season it with salt and pepper to taste. Let the steak marinate in the refrigerator while you build the fire.

Light oak or hickory chunks in your chimney starter, as described above. Once you have glowing embers, rake them into a three-zone fire.

When ready to cook, brush and oil the grill grate and place the steak on top. Grill the steak for 3 minutes, then rotate it a quarter-turn to create a handsome crosshatch of grill marks. Continue grilling the steak until the bottom is darkly browned and beads of blood begin to appear on top, 4 to 6 minutes longer.

Turn steak and continue grilling until cooked to taste, 7 to 9 minutes (14 to 18 minutes in all for medium-rare). Again, rotate the steak a quarter-turn after 3 minutes of cooking on the second side to lay on a handsome crosshatch of grill marks.

Transfer steak to a platter or cutting board, and let it rest for 3 minutes. Cut off the bone and set it aside. (If the meat near the bone is too rare, put it back on the grill to crisp.) Thinly slice the steak crosswise.

Serve steak fanned out on plates with the shiitake syrah sauce spooned over it. Sprinkle parsley over the steak, and serve it immediately. Makes 2 to 3 servings.

Note: You’ll probably need to buy rib steak at a butcher shop or order it ahead from a supermarket meat cutter because most prime rib in the United States is sold in roasts, not steaks.

SHIITAKE SYRAH SAUCE:

This red wine mushroom sauce goes great with the beefy taste of the rib-eye. Feel free to vary the mushrooms.

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

3 to 4 shallots, minced (about 3/4 cup)

6 ounces shiitake or other mushrooms, stemmed, caps wiped clean with a damp paper towel, thinly sliced

2 cups syrah or other full-bodied dry red wine

1 cup beef, veal or chicken stock (preferably homemade)

1 teaspoon cornstarch dissolved in 1 tablespoon syrah, optional

Coarse sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a heavy saucepan over medium heat.

Add shallots and cook until soft but not brown, about 3 minutes, stirring often.

Add the shiitakes or other mushrooms, and cook until browned and most of the mushroom liquid has evaporated, about 3 minutes.

Add wine, increase the heat to high and bring to a boil. Let the wine simmer briskly until reduced by half, about 5 minutes.

Add stock to the saucepan. Briskly simmer mixture until it’s reduced to about 11/4 cups, 5 to 10 minutes. If you start with very good homemade stock, the mixture may be thick enough to serve as a sauce without adding the cornstarch. If not, stir the cornstarch-wine mixture until smooth, then whisk it into the sauce.

Let boil until thickened slightly, about 1 minute.

Remove saucepan from heat, and whisk in remaining 1 tablespoon butter.

Season the sauce with salt and pepper to taste. It should be highly seasoned. Makes about 11/4 cups.

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