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How to Choose Wood and Fuel for Your Smoker

Choosing the type of smoking wood and fuel for your smoker doesn’t have to be difficult.

Probably the most frequently asked question we get is do you smoke with lump charcoal or briquettes?

Honestly, our answer is, “it depends.”

Both have their benefits, however, both have disadvantages as well.

More importantly, what type of charcoal you use depends more on what type of cooking vessel you are smoking with.

Here are our thoughts on barbecue fuels.

Pitmaster precautions

First of all, never, ever, never use lighter fluid on lump or briquettes.

Not all charcoal is created equal, nor do all grilling product manufacturers have a commitment to producing natural, healthy, and environmentally responsible products.

Make sure you research any brand you wish to smoke your food with.

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What is lump charcoal?

lump charcoal density comparison

Lump is an all-natural product made by burning trees, logs, or chunks of wood in a kiln with very little oxygen, eliminating most of the water in the wood.

Ironically, this process also removes most of the “smoke-flavor” compounds from the wood.

Therefore, burning lump charcoal actually imparts very little intrinsic flavor.

We supplement our lump charcoal with wood chunks to obtain a particular flavor, pairing with whatever we are cooking.

Lump is made from a variety of hardwoods: oak, hickory, or mesquite.

Each piece of lump charcoal is jagged, irregular chunks because it is made from real trees.

What are charcoal briquettes?

Although a chemist, Ellsworth Zwoyer, developed the method for forming charcoal briquettes, it was Henry Ford who perfected the manufacturing.

He used wood scraps from his Model T manufacturing process and launched the Ford Charcoal company, which eventually was sold to Kingsford.

Although some briquettes contain bits of mesquite, oak, and other woods, they actually are formed using fillers, such as coal dust, wood scraps, borax, and petroleum binders.

This composite fuel can be formed into pillow-shaped briquettes.

They are designed to impart a “wood flavor,” and some, like some Kingsford, contain lighter fluid to help spark the fire.

Duraflame does make a “more natural” briquette. It does not contain borax and instead of petroleum, uses vegetable starch as a binder.

Briquettes will burn hot at the beginning but lose their heat after about 45 minutes.

They are designed to only burn for a specific amount of time.

Also, if not lit properly, the emit a horrible chemical flavor, which will absorb into your food.

List of smoking wood

Lump versus charcoal briquettes?

Both lump wood and charcoal briquettes can be used in a gravity-fed smoker or a ceramic style smoker.

However, briquettes will produce much more ash, which results in cleaning out a smoker more often.

Also, briquettes cannot be reused, since they burn down to just ash.

If you use lump wood in either vessel and extinguish your fire, the wood will not reduce to ash and can be reused.

A gravity-fed smoker using lump can bridge.

Large lump chunks can get stuck in the gravity-fed chute, causing a bridge.

This can be remedied by using an ash tool, loosen the chucks, and allow them to fall to the firebox.

Briquettes will not cause a bridge in a gravity-fed smoker due to their smaller size.

A ceramic smoker using briquettes accumulates more ash and removing all the pieces to clean the smoker out is frustrating.

Lump charcoal will not cause as much ash and can be reused.


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What do we use?

We prefer lump charcoal.

We use Basque Sugar Maple Charcoal for its all naturalness. It has the best aroma and flavor of any brand we have tried.

It also burns hotter and lasts 40% longer and produces about 30% less ash.

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Basques contain no chemicals, fillers, or additives.

We use a propane torch to light our firebox.

Types of smoking wood

For the most part, there are two types of wood products for imparting flavor in your food, wood chips, and wood chunks.

Wood chips work fast and are ideal for quick cooks, such as pizza, chicken wings, or fish.

Wood chunks are larger and great for all-day smoking; pork butts, briskets, or turkey.

Both can be used in either a ceramic smoker or a gravity-fed smoker.

More about lump vs. briquettes on our YouTube channel:


Recently, we acquired some wild-caught salmon and could not resist the opportunity to smoke it.

We were given over 2 pounds of center-cut salmon with the skin on.

We trimmed the excess fat from the edge, and squared up the meat, then cut into ½ lb. portions.

This made for some tasty salmon tacos.

curing smoked salmon in a rub

Smoked Salmon Tacos

Adapted from Cooks Country
Make sure to trim the excess fat from the meat. For even cooking, cut fillet or side of salmon into 1/2 lb. portions. Use a mild wood chip, such as Adler or cherry.
Prep Time 15 mins
Cook Time 2 hrs 30 mins
Curing Time 4 hrs
Total Time 6 hrs 45 mins
Course Main Course
Cuisine Mexican
Servings 4 people

Ingredients
  

For the cure

  • 2-3 lbs. wild-caught salmon, trimmed and cut into 1/2 lb. portions
  • 1 cup light brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup Kosher salt
  • 1 Tbsp granulated garlic powder

For the salmon glaze

  • 2 Tbsp apricot preserves

For taco salsa

  • 1 finely chopped celery stalk
  • 1 Granny Smith apple, shredded
  • 1 carrot, shredded

Taco sauce

  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise
  • 1/4 cup dijon mustard
  • 2 tsp lemon juice
  • 1/2 tsp lime juice
  • 1/4 tsp ground cumin

Instructions
 

Prepare the salmon

  • Mix the light brown sugar, Kosher salt, and garlic powder together with a whisk, until no clumps remain.
  • Roll the trimmed salmon portions in the cure and evenly coat.
  • Place fish in a zip lock bag and pour the remaining cure into the bag. Remove the air and seal tightly. Place in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours, up to 24 hours. Flipping it halfway through the curing process.

Smoking the salmon

  • Prepare the smoker and set for an optimum temperature of 225ºF.
  • Remove the salmon from the cure. Discard the remaining cure. Rinse the salmon and pat dry.
  • Apply the 2 Tablespoons of apricot preserves, mixed with 1 Tablespoon of water and microwaved for 40 seconds, to the salmon.
  • Place the thicker part of the fish closer to the fire, it can absorb more heat.
  • Cook to an internal temperature of 135º. No need to flip the fish. Should take 90 minutes, up to 2 hours.
  • Meanwhile prepare the vegetable garnish by mixing the celery, apple, and carrot in a bowl. Chill until ready to serve.
  • For the taco sauce, mix the mayo, mustard, lemon juice, and cumin in a dish and refrigerate until ready to serve.
  • Once smoked, remove the salmon from the smoker. Tent with foil and rest for 5-7 minutes.
  • Remove from foil tent. Remove and discard fish skin. Place meat in a bowl and coarsely break apart with a fork.
  • Add a pinch of salt, if desired.
  • Serve with warmed flour tortillas, sauce, vegetable salad, and cut arugula or microgreens.
Keyword salmon, smoked salmon, tacos

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