Some grilling purists object to propane or natural gas for grilling because it does not impart the same distinctive smoke flavor to food that charcoal does. You can add a smoky flavor when using a gas grill by pouring wood chips or herbs into the smoker box (or make your own smoker by wrapping woods chips and herbs in heavy-duty aluminum foil and piercing the foil before placing the packet inside your grill).
Hardwoods are available as chunks or chips. Wood chips light quickly and burn easily; they are the best choice for home grilling, working well for both charcoal and gas grills. The most common hardwoods for grilling and smoking have flavors ranging from intense and wood flavored (hickory, mesquite, oak and pecan) to moderate and fruity (apple, cherry and plum) to mild (alder). Resinous soft woods, such as those from the pine family, should not be used to flavor grilled foods; they add an undesirable piney, sooty flavor to foods, and they could damage and/or discolor the grill.
For a charcoal grill, soak wood chips, herbs or grapevine cuttings in water for 30 minutes, then drain before using. If using aromatics in a gas grill, do not soak them before use, as they are sometimes difficult to ignite. Scatter aromatic herb sprigs or grapevine cuttings directly over the coals of a charcoal grill. For a gas grill, place the flavoring materials in a smoker box or perforated foil packet, and place it over a heat element to ignite, releasing their aromatic smoke.
Before using any wood chips, herb sprigs, grapevine cuttings or similar materials, consult the owner's manual for your grill for specific instructions on flavoring food.
Wood and Herb Flavoring
Choose aromatic additions to enhance food in the same way that you choose spices or herbs while cooking.
Alder Alder wood chips work well for salmon and other fish and light meats.
Apple Apple wood chips enhance chicken and game birds, pork, salmon, sweet glazes and fruit sauces.
Cherry Fruity cherry wood chips, like apple wood, complement poultry and seafood.
Hickory Hickory wood chips give a slightly nutty flavor to pork, chicken and turkey.
Mesquite The fragrant hardwood most frequently used for grilling, mesquite wood is an essential component to grilled beef fajitas and also adds flavor to fish, chicken, turkey and pork.
Oak Oak chips complement pork and beef.
Pecan Similar to hickory, pecan wood chips pair well with chicken and pork.
Dried Basil Stems Infuse a wide variety of foods with the sweet herbal scent of dried basil stems.
Dried Rosemary Sprigs Use dried rosemary sprigs to impart a pleasantly woodsy flavor to beef, lamb, pork, chicken, and meaty fish fillets or steaks.
Mixed Herbs Mixed herbs create fragrant smoke that suits a wide variety of foods; dried mixed herbs are sometimes sold in tea-bag-type packets.
Grapevine Cuttings A by-product of wine making, grapevine cuttings add fruity flavor to grilled beef, lamb, chicken and fish.
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma, Essentials of Grilling, by Denis Kelly, Melanie Barnard, Barbara Grunes & Michael McLaughlin (Oxmoor House, 2003).