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Differences between woods made into charcoal used for cooking


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When wood is made into charcoal, does the type of wood used influence the flavor of what's cooked over it?  I get that different types of wood when turned into charcoal burn hotter or longer than others, but I was wondering how it might influence the flavor. I seem to remember Modernist Cuisine saying that the flavor from grilling over charcoal is not coming from the wood but, rather, from the aerosolized fat as the fat drips onto the hot charcoal.  Has anyone read or experienced anything contrary to that?


I started thinking about this when thinking about all the different materials used for grilling around the world.  Here in the US, I believe most hardwood lump charcoal is made from oak.  Please correct me if I'm wrong.  I'm sure they're not using oak for grilling in SE Asia.  From what I've read, most grilling there is done over charcoal from coconut husks or maybe trees that grow locally.

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36 minutes ago, KennethT said:

When wood is made into charcoal, does the type of wood used influence the flavor of what's cooked over it?

If my understanding of the way charcoal is made is correct then it would seem that whatever you started with would be obliterated in the process. I have always understood that the flavour you get from grilling over charcoal is from the fat content of whatever you are cooking. But I don't claim to be an expert so I'll be interested to hear what others have to say. 

I know it is very different if you are grilling over wood.  I would give my eye teeth for a mesquite grilled steak!

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Just a thought related to hardwood charcoal in the Big Green Egg - because you are cooking in an enclosed vessel essentially - it's important to let the charcoal burn off the volatile organic compounds before you put things on the grill - wait until the smoke doesn't really smell anymore. Learned the hard way that if you don't your food tastes like gasoline. 


Some charcoals seem to take more time to burn off the VOCs and some burn hotter and some less hot. 


The charcoal I liked the most on my mini egg was a coconut charcoal that you can't seem to get in Canada anymore. Burned hot, VOCs burned off almost immediately so it was ready to cook almost as soon as it was fired up. 


But I never found any charcoal to impart its own flavor into the cook - only the smoking woods that you might throw in along with the charcoal. 

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 I vaguely remember that to make charcoal for smelting iron/steel centuries ago, dried hardwood was used. The wood like pine had too much resin and when dried and then processed to make charcoal (which is basically heating it/burning it in the absence of oxygen) the softwoods like pine was so reduced and the return was so low it was avoided. Many of the hardwoods have relatively small amounts of these resins and even used green the volatiles would quickly evaporate into the surrounding earth (it was usually processed in an earthen oven).

"Proper"charcoal should burn with very little smoke. All that is left is a very fine ash, if any at all.

It was important in smelting iron/steel that there were no byproducts to contaminate the iron. It was initially smelted in full contact with the charcoal to produce "pig iron" (which had charcoal contaminates (ash?)) that was then further refined to get iron.

Charcoal was fairly hard to get started to burn, it usually was added to an already hot fire and as started to burn and produced high heat it actually burned away the original fuel completely.


But that was well before modern methods of charcoal production. I think some modern charcoal is probably not as fully "burned" so it is easier to get started. I suspect that is why there are various grades (& prices) of charcoal


It just means that it needs to burn for a while to get to high heat and burn off all the impurities (the smoke is the impurities burning off).


I guess if you are making your own then it probably matters what wood you use because you want the best return (the most amount of charcoal) for the time and energy you used heating it. Not sure it matters in the final use as there should be no volatiles left to flavor what you are cooking.

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