Words by Peter Dugmore
Whether you grill your food over open coals or flame, wood smoke is the essential component of the smoky flavour characterising all great campfire cooking. For a real braai, you need real wood! What many people don’t appreciate, though, is that different woods contribute significantly different flavours. It’s also important to draw a distinction between cooking with wood and cooking with charcoal. Even though charcoal is derived from wood, in the process of making it, the distillates in the wood are burned off − and with them most of the intrinsic flavour of the wood.
Different wood types give off different types of smoke and thus impart different flavours. Other points of difference include the heat given off by some woods as compared with others; the quality and consistency of coals produced by them; the relative densities and strength of the wood smoke generated; and the distinctive colouring which the smoke of woods (such as oak and orange) give to various classes of foods.
The chemistry of smoke
All woods contain minerals and trapped gases – most obviously carbon, but also potassium, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen and also trace minerals like sodium and sulphur. These trace elements are acquired mainly from the ground in which the tree is planted. In the same way that different soil and micro-climates contribute to differences in flavour of wines from the same vine stock, so do they contribute differences in the flavour of wood smoke from the same tree species growing in varying soil compositions in different parts of the country.