Wood chips are the key to imparting flavor during the smoking process and are most effective in charcoal and wood-fueled grills and smokers. Different types of hardwoods provide varying flavors that complement specific meats.
Preparing the Chips, Meat and Fire
Apply dry-rub seasonings to the desired meat the night before cooking and allow it to sit, draped in plastic wrap, in the fridge. This allows the seasonings to absorb into the meat, curing it.
Dump wood chips in the bowl or bucket and cover with beer, wine or water, allowing the chips to soak for at least an hour prior to cooking time.
Thirty minutes before smoking, build a small charcoal fire in the smoker or grill side firebox using about four or five handfuls of lump charcoal and an electric charcoal starter. This size fire should be maintained throughout the smoking process.
Place the cured meat on the rack of the grill or smoking chamber and close the lid. A tightly sealed lid ensures more even, stable temperatures inside the smoking chamber.
Add a handful of wet wood chips or one or two fist-sized wood chunks to the hot coals every 30 minutes to slow-season the meat with natural hardwood smoke.
Add one or two handfuls of lump charcoal every hour or so, depending on the outside temperature and wind. The heavier the wind, the faster the charcoal will burn up.
Consult smoker and/or firebox manuals, or grilling or smoking cookbooks or Websites, such as Steven Raichlen's Barbecue Bible Internet site, for recommended smoking times for various types of meat. In general, fruit-based wood chips--such as apple and cherry--complement poultry and fish. A mixture of hickory, maple and fruit woods provide flavorful accents for pork ribs and roasts, and the spicy, bold tones of mesquite work well for all cuts of beef.
Always use fire-resistant cooking mitts when feeding coals or chips into the fire, and handle meat with long grilling-style cooking tongs to avoid burns. Use only chips from hardwood trees. Pine and other coniferous woods contain oils that cause nasty flavor and impart toxins into food.