Smoke is what sets barbecue apart from other types of food and gives it that delicious flavor we all crave. Some people only picture wood logs as the heat source when it comes to outdoor cooking. But, there are now several options for fuel sources that are available when it comes to your grill or smoker.
Understanding the different fuel sources is a big part of helping you master outdoor cooking. As well as selecting a new grill or smoker that you’ll be happy to use regularly. Some fuel sources are more convenient than others, while others result in more flavorful meat. Some will have longer cooking times and a higher cost than others.
One for sure thing is that they will all result in different flavors. This is because each fuel source produces different gases and byproducts during combustion. It is just a matter of determining which fuel source is right for your situation and your preferred flavor.
Let’s break down some of the fuel sources for outdoor cooking that are available today:
1. Wood Logs & Chunks
Wood is the classic, natural fuel source that has been used for ages when it comes to outdoor cooking over fire. Using wood as a fuel source not only cooks the meat over heat but also imparts a delicious smoky flavor and crispy bark. The wood you use can come in several forms, including logs and smaller chunks.
Some pitmasters will never use any other fuel source other than wood logs. You can rely on it to be consistent, usually abundant, cheap, and flavorful. No matter what shape or size of wood you use, you can even completely change the taste of your meat by using different types of wood.
When it comes to different types of wood, in general:
- Oak – Has a mild flavor compared to other woods and burns slow and even. It is generally a good wood for longer smoking sessions.
- Hickory – Has a stronger flavor than oak and also burns well when used to smoke for longer sessions.
- Pecan – This wood has a stronger flavor that is a combination of smoky and sweet. Because of this, many people prefer Pecan for shorter smokes. When used for longer smoking sessions, the flavor can become somewhat overpowering.
- Mesquite – A strong flavored wood that usually burns hotter and faster than other types. It also produces a lot of smoke. This type is great for grilling and shorter cooks or to burn down as coals. Although, some Texas-style barbecue purists love the taste of Mesquite wood when slow smoking beef brisket.
- Fruit woods – These woods, including Cherry and Apple, have a sweeter, milder flavor. They are good for long smoking sessions and can be used green.
- Avoid using softwoods. They contain a higher volume of sap and terpenes and will leave a very odd taste to the meat.
What type, size, and shape of wood you use will depend on your personal flavor preferences, what meat you are cooking, availability, and wood storage. It is important to use wood that has been left out to dry for approximately 6 months for optimal burning. Don’t soak your wood before cooking.
The thing to keep in mind is that outdoor cooking with wood takes practice to perfect. It needs constant monitoring to maintain consistent temperatures and ensure you end up with meat that isn’t charred and tastes great.
2. Wood Pellets
A newer, more economical fuel source that spun off the original idea of using wood as fuel is wood pellets. Used in pellet grills, wood pellets are all-natural, usually the size of a baked bean, and made up of compressed wood shavings or sawdust that has had most of the air and moisture removed. They come in several different varieties of types of hardwood to achieve the different flavor profiles.
In a pellet smoker, the pellets are automatically fed into a small burn pot at a controlled rate to maintain a constant temperature consistently. So, they do not need as much constant monitoring as when burning traditional wood logs or chunks in a smoker or grill.
With wood pellets, you can still achieve a great smoky flavor in a much more versatile, controlled, and less cumbersome way. Keep in mind that pellet fires don’t get really hot so they are tough to grill over.
Source: B & B Charcoal
3. Charcoal Briquettes
Charcoal is one of the most widely known and widely used fuel sources in both smokers and grills, even by champion barbecue pitmasters. It is made by partially burning hardwood until it carbonizes. The most common form of charcoal is briquettes. These are all consistent in size and shape and are engineered to provide a consistent and convenient fuel source.
Charcoal briquettes create an optimal amount of smoke, burning at low or high temperatures, which produces that great smoky flavor you are looking for. Charcoal lighter fluid has often been used to start briquettes but can leave a foul chemical taste on the food. The best way to avoid this is to use a chimney starter to ignite your briquettes without any chemical additive. Also, look for briquettes that are not pre-coated in additives to help start them.
4. Hardwood Charcoal Lumps
Another form of charcoal is hardwood charcoal lumps. These are newer to the barbecue scene compared to briquettes. Charcoal lumps closely resemble chunks of wood that were burning in a bonfire and suddenly extinguished. The size of the pieces will widely vary between a small chunk the size of a golf ball to a lump the size of a grapefruit.
Hardwood charcoal lumps rarely come with unnatural additives and chemicals. They are arguably one of the most flavorful fuel sources, producing great and consistent smoke. As with charcoal briquettes, charcoal lumps are great for “low and slow” cooking sessions as well as high heat grilling.
Most hardwood charcoal lumps come as a mixture of several types of wood, but some options will specify that the lumps are from one particular type. For both charcoal briquettes and charcoal lumps, it does take practice to get used to how much to use in your grill or smoker to reach and maintain consistent desired temperatures.
Source: B & B Charcoal
Another common fuel source is liquid propane. Approximately 60 percent of grills available today are fueled by propane. The liquid propane tanks are easy to find, affordable, and portable. Making them perfect for outdoor cooking on the go.
Propane is fast to start up and makes keeping a consistent temperature easy. It does burn hot and clean, good for both smoking and grilling, but it will be less flavorful compared to charcoal or other wood-based fuel sources.
If you are cooking with liquid propane, always make sure you have a full spare tank on hand so you don’t take a chance running out of fuel mid-cook.
6. Natural Gas
Natural gas is another good option as a fuel source. It does have many similarities as liquid propane. But, unlike propane, when using natural gas for your outdoor cooking your grill would be connected to a natural gas line from your home. So, you’ll enjoy a seemingly endless supply of fuel that is always ready to go. Making it a very affordable and convenient option to fuel your outdoor cooking.
Many grills can be purchased to run on natural gas as your fuel source. Many manufacturers also offer conversion kits to turn your propane grill into a natural gas grill. As with propane, natural gas provides the ability to easily maintain a consistent temperature but you will sacrifice some smoky flavor.
Electric smokers are also an option when it comes to outdoor cooking, though less common in the championship barbecue scene. If you are tight on space, these are a great option because they are usually lighter and smaller. Electric smokers use a heating element that glows hot to cook the meat low and slow. This also results in an easy way to maintain your desired temperature without much effort.
The thing to keep in mind when it comes to electric smokers is that because there is no fire, there is no combustion to create smoke. So, unless you are using some form of wood as a secondary fuel source you will not get much of a smoky flavor or bark on the meat.
Combining Fuel Sources For Great Flavor
As you can see, a lot of the smoky flavor that everyone craves in BBQ comes from burning wood. But that doesn’t mean you have to solely use wood as your main heat source to achieve a good flavor.
Many champion pitmasters today actually use a combination of fuel sources. This provides the ability to control temperatures more easily while still getting a great smoky taste.
For example, a common mix is to use a charcoal smoker with wood chunks added. This equates to a cheaper, more portable, and easier to maintain fuel source while still getting a great smoky flavor, bark, and smoke ring from the wood. The same thing can be done with propane, natural gas, or electricity as the main fuel source and wood chips as a secondary fuel.
Wrapping It All Up
As you can see, there are several ways to achieve a rich, smoky flavor in your meat. Each of the fuel sources we touched on above will result in varying flavors. No matter what fuel source you are using, it is important to always maintain a thin blue smoke for best flavor results.
Deciding which fuel source is the best will be a very personalized choice. You should consider the cooking time, ease of use, cost, portability, and desired flavor when choosing the fuel source that will work best for you. With the right selection and/or combination, you can achieve great tasting meat that you’ll have fun cooking as frequently as you can.
Stay tuned next month for a deeper dive into wood as a fuel source!
This kind of insider knowledge straight from the champion barbecue pitmasters and grillmasters is just a taste of the kinds of things you’ll learn in BBQ Champs Academy’s online cooking classes. Our step-by-step classes, all in high definition 4K video, are packed with everything you need to know to start cooking like the pros. Check out the All-Access pass now to get the inside look!
Looking for high-quality wood logs, charcoal briquettes, charcoal lumps, and wood pellets that the pros use? B & B Charcoal is the premier provider for your barbecue fuel needs. If B&B Charcoal products are not sold in your area, reach out to them directly on their website and they’ll get them in stores near you!