Outdoor cooking season is upon us, and many are looking for recipes and techniques for preparing the perfect steak or brisket. Among those who cook over firewood, there is much debate about the best wood to use for grilling and smoking meat.
As with any topic of good debate, there are twice as many opinions as there are opinion givers.
Since you’re here and you’re reading an article about pine—no prizes for guessing—I am going to assume that this is the type of wood you want to know more about. Let us waste no more time in formalities and cut straight to the chase!
The question is, “Can you grill and smoke meat with pine wood?” And the answer is, “No.”
Pine wood isn’t suitable for cooking, and it shouldn’t be used for grilling or smoking meat. As all conifers, pine wood is sticky and resinous. Its resin contains terpenes that can make food taste bad and, in some cases, make you sick.
That’s Mother Nature for you, folks; she’s a capricious lover. Either you abide by her rules or you suffer the consequences of your misdemeanor. In this case, the consequences are sooty meat that tastes like menthol cigarettes or an urgent visit to the doctor. In this author’s opinion, neither is worth the gamble.
Those terpenes are there for a reason—to repel insects and herbivores. Unfortunately for us grillers and meat smokers, they also give off a dirty, acrid-tasting smoke when they are burned. Once that smoke lands on your steak or brisket, it can ruin an otherwise perfect piece of meat.
For the same reasons that you shouldn’t put pine wood in your kettle’s pit or smoker’s firebox, you shouldn’t throw it in your wood stove in the house. The only situation in which burning pine wood is okay is an open fire at a campsite, as it ignites quickly and can be good for kindling.
As I explained in “Don’t Grill or Smoke Meat Over These Woods,” my golden rule is as follows: If it has needles or bears a cone, the safe thing to do is leave it alone. Fir, pine, and spruce have no place in your grill or smoker.
Which woods should you use, then?
Pick your firewood as you’d pick the seasoning for a rub. White meats and pinkish-red meats are tender, and you don’t want to overwhelm them with too strong spices or heavy smoke. Game and dark red meats need spices and smoke intense enough to stand up to their aroma and flavor profile.
Consider milder woods like fruitwoods (apple, cherry, pear, and peach) for birds, game, hams, fish, and cheeses; and stronger hardwoods like mesquite, hickory, and oak for beef, pork, and lamb.