Have you ever gone to smoke some meat, only to find weird stuff growing on the surface of your firewood? It’s not soft and deep green like moss; it sort of has the shape of a fungus—but not necessarily the color. And it ain’t mold either.
So, what is it?
More than likely, you’re dealing with lichen. Lichens are common on tree trunks and branches that are damp or remain exposed to moisture. Which is why it shouldn’t be a surprise if you’re using wood that still has bark on it and is exposed to wet weather. If there’s bark and moisture, you have a perfect place for lichen to thrive.
The best questions now are, can you still use the wood to smoke? Do you need to clean the lichen off, or can you put it to work as if you never noticed it was there? If you do use it, will it affect the taste of your meat? Is there a risk of it being toxic to you and the family members at the table?
All valid questions. Below, you will hopefully find the answers you’re looking for. So, let us not waste any time and get right to the meat of it.
What is Lichen?
Yes, we might as well start with the most basic of questions when it comes to dealing with lichen: What the heck is it?
Again, it isn’t moss. In reality, it’s not even a plant. It looks like one, but it doesn’t have roots, stems, or leaves.
Instead, lichens are two dissimilar species that form a symbiotic relationship. What’s that mean, really? It means the two need each other to survive in lichen form.
These two species are fungi and alga. The fungi portion gives lichen its shape, absorbs moisture, and collects minerals for survival. The alga makes food for the fungi through photosynthesis, the way that plants use sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide to feed themselves.
Why Does Lichen Grow on Tree Trunks and Limbs?
The two main things that inspire lichen to grow on tree trunks and limbs are moisture and light.
The crevices you find between bark act like natural water channels. They provide ample breeding grounds for lichen, mainly because they not only collect and funnel water, but the wood itself also acts as a natural moisture absorber. Add in the presence of sunlight for photosynthesis, and you have a perfect formula for lichen growth.
This also means that liken doesn’t survive on wood as a source of food. The wood is only a place for lichen to grow. The wood is its home.
If you cut a bunch of limbs from a tree and were storing them for later use to smoke with, did you store them in a place where they could dry out and season? Or did they get placed in an area where they were still exposed to moisture and remained wet?
If the latter is the case, this is why you have lichen on limbs that may have been cut months ago.
If you dry and season your wood, you shouldn’t have any lichen present on any of your limbs. Without moisture, lichen can’t survive. If you cover your wood up and block the sun, lichen won’t survive.
Is Lichen Safe to Burn?
There’s nothing wrong with burning wood covered in lichen, just as there’s nothing wrong with burning wood covered in fungi. A lot of people don’t like the smell of it and it will create a lot of smoke. Breathing a lot of smoke is never a healthy thing, no matter what you’re smoking.
But burning lichen in and of itself won’t hurt anything. In fact, if you need wood for heat, wood with lichen on it should be the first wood you burn if only to dispose of it.
Should You Use Limbs Covered with Lichen for Smoking?
Now, this is the question you really wanted answered.
If you want to know if you can smoke with lichen-covered wood, the answer is “sure.” This doesn’t testify to what your brisket or bird might taste like on the back end. Nor is there really any definitive testimony out there that says you shall or shall not smoke meat with lichen-covered wood.
No, the better question is should you use limbs covered with lichen for smoking?
Our answer to that is a definitive, “it’s up to you.” Personally, we wouldn’t.
We’d try to scrape off as much of the lichen as possible before even considering it for smoking. We’d also let the wood dry out for several months to ensure the lichen is dead before smoking.
In the long run, though, we prefer to just burn limbs affected by lichen for heat and smoke meat with clean wood.
If You Really Want to Smoke Meat With Lichen Wood
This really boils down to how risk-averse you are and if you’re okay with the smell and taste lichen may instill in your meat.
The Scottish, for example, have used peat for a long time to smoke fish. Peat is mainly comprised of decomposing plant matter found in places like bogs and moors. Peat is also burned for heat and has been used in the making of some distilled spirits like scotch almost as long as it has in smoking seafood.
Peat is famous for infusing an “earthy” or robust flavor. That’s a nicer way of saying it can make things taste richer and more like soil. You know, of the earth.
That doesn’t necessarily make it bad. It just means lichen, like peat, may cause a distinct flavor to become present in your meat if you choose to smoke with it. And smoked meats should have noticeable flavors but shouldn’t be dominated by them.
So, if you do choose to smoke with lichen-covered wood, perhaps break it up with some clean wood. Sprinkle the lichen stuff in rather than smoke with it alone. That way, you’ll get a better idea of how much it influences your meat’s flavor, and if you like it at all.
It’s never fun to discover the wood you were planning to smoke your ribs, roast or brisket with is covered in lichen. The easiest solution to overcome this obstacle is to simply replace it with clean wood and use the lichen-covered stuff for a normal fire or burn pile.
However, if you still want to use the lichen-covered wood to smoke, you should strip as much of the lichen off as possible. Then again, if you’re not completely risk averse and don’t mind the potential smell and taste the lichen may infuse into your meat, then that’s your call.
The Scottish have been doing it for a long time with fish and peat.