Arrow-right Camera
Subscribe now

Flavored Fire By Putting Aromatic Ingredients On Your Barbecue, You Can Add Some Thrill To The Grill

Everybody knows how to toss a shrimp on the barbie, or, in Americanese, how to throw a burger on the grill.

Today, I’m going to show you how to throw assorted combustibles directly on the fire itself.

I said combustibles, not comestibles. You don’t eat this stuff; you let it smolder and allow it to flavor the smoke. Just as a fine sous chef will throw herbs and spices into the pot, a backyard barbecue artist such as yourself can season the smoke by throwing assorted herby, leafy, woody, and frankly bizarre items directly onto the coals.

Some of these items are familiar to many barbecuers, such as hickory chips. We’ll talk about different wood chips and chunks later. But other items are far more exotic or even downright outlandish.

Coffee grounds?

That’s right. You can actually throw old coffee grounds on the fire.

Or, to season that poultry, toss on a couple of cinnamon sticks.

Do you like garlic? Then you’ll love garlic smoke.

I’ve gotten to the point where I almost always throw something on the coals whenever I barbecue. Recently, I was making a citrus chicken breast recipe that called for a marinade of orange juice, lime juice and lemon juice. I had the squeezed-out lime and lemon peels sitting there, so I decided to throw them onto the fire. The result was a sweet, tangy smoke. I don’t know if it made much difference to the chicken, but it sure made the back yard smell good.

Most of these ideas work even with gas grills. You can throw these items directly on the lava rocks, or (less messily) you can fashion a little aluminum foil tray, fill it with chips or other items, and place it right on the rocks.

Anyway, I urge you to try some of these ideas:

Herbs: Almost any herb can be tossed on the fire, most commonly rosemary, sage, tarragon, thyme, mint, dill, fennel, basil or bay leaves. Sprigs of fresh green herbs work best.

One thing I have discovered in using fresh leafy herbs:< Don’t use too much, or your backyard will have a suspicious burning foliage smell, like the inside of Cheech and Chong’s bong. The neighbors will be sniffing the air, wondering exactly what’s going on at your house. Use sparingly.

If you don’t have an herb garden, use some dried herbs after soaking them in water for a few minutes.

Rosemary works especially well with pork; dill works especially well with salmon and other fish. Mint, of course, works beautifully with lamb. I tried sage leaves with Jamaican Jerk Pork Steaks (see recipe below), and the result was outstanding.

Experiment with different flavors.

Spices: Whole cinnamon sticks are excellent for pork and poultry, especially if you are looking for a Greek or Middle Eastern flavor. Whole nutmeg and whole cloves also work well. Soak them beforehand or they’ll burn up too fast.

I have even run across one chicken recipe which calls for whole allspice berries, soaked and tossed on the fire with fruitwood chips. It imparts an authentic Jamaican flavor.

Citrus peels, as I mentioned before, impart a sharp flavor to almost anything: beef, poultry, pork and even ribs.

Toss some whole garlic cloves on the fire for a surprisingly nutty and mellow flavor for beef and poultry.

Assorted bizarre combustibles: I still haven’t gotten up the nerve to dump my used coffee grounds on the coals, but the new “Betty Crocker’s Great Grilling” cookbook (Betty Crocker/ Macmillian USA) assures that it provides a “rich, musty” flavor if used sparingly (or a bitter flavor if not).

The same cookbook also advises tossing dried corncobs on the fire for beef and pork (mellow, slightly sweet), washed and dried seaweed for fish and shellfish (tangy), and the shells of almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans or pistachios for pork, poultry and fish (flavor varies with the nut).

Wood chunks and chips: Plenty of backyard chefs learned a long time ago that a handful of hickory chips will give almost any beef or pork a smoky Southern flavor. I use hickory every time I barbecue hamburgers, ribs or brisket. Soak them first for more smoke and less flame.

Unfortunately, the hickory tree is not indigenous to the Northwest. Most of us have to purchase it by the bag in the grocery store, right next to the charcoal.

However, many of us have access to excellent flavoring woods right in our back yards. The best are probably apple and cherry, which give a sweet flavor to poultry and fish. When I barbecue, I walk over to my apple or cherry trees and cut a few finger-sized prunings. They’re green and they don’t even have to be soaked.

One of the best woods I’ve ever tried came right from the grapes growing on our fence. Cuttings from the woody part of the grapevine are perfect for shellfish, fish, lamb and vegetables. They add a distinctively smooth, Mediterranean flavor.

Maple is another common wood you might have in your yard. It gives a sweet, smoky taste (although to get the true maplewood-smoked flavor, you need sugar maple). Oak is also a popular wood, for a strong smoke taste.

Not many of us have alder wood on this side of the Cascades, but it is so perfect with salmon that I sometimes pick up a branch or two while visiting the west side of the state. Alder grows everywhere over there; you can recognize it by its smooth gray bark which, as my field biology teacher used to say, has splotches that look like they came from a dirty, dusty boy climbing the trunk.

Mesquite, a Texas specialty, is popular for that classic Southwest taste, particularly with steak, lamb and fajitas. It’s milder than hickory if used correctly, but bitter if you use too much. Chips and chunks are sometimes available next to the charcoal at your grocery store. You can even buy charcoal with mesquite already in it.

Here’s another idea you can often find in specialty shops or catalogs: wine-barrel chips. These are made from the wood of used oak barrels. You’ll get an oak flavor and a wine flavor all in one package. (Use the cabernet chips, naturally, for red meat, and the chardonnay for poultry and fish).

For an especially convenient method of using wood chips, a Hayden Lake, Idaho, company markets the Gourmet Smoker. It’s a small aluminum can full of wood chips, with a hole in the lid. Put the entire thing right on the fire, and you have instant smoke. Flavors include hickory, mesquite and apple-cinnamon; it’s available for $3 to $4 at various specialty and gift stores in Spokane and North Idaho, including Copper Colander, the Valley Huckleberry’s and Harry O’s Fresh Market. (You might find a plainer version, under the Flav-R-Smoke label, in Rosauers supermarkets.)

By the way, the experts at the Web site called Barbecue’n On the Internet ( advise people never to use pine, spruce or other evergreen wood. They say those woods are unacceptable due to harmful tar and resins. Millions of Northwest campfire cooks might disagree, but for flavoring purposes, evergreen smoke does tend to be acrid.

Here are few recipes that call for some creative smoke:

Jamaican Jerk Pork Steaks

From “Betty Crocker’s Great Grilling Cookbook” (Macmillan, 1997). Fresh sage on the coals and on the pork gives a Jamaican country-style touch to these spicy steaks.

Jamaican Jerk Seasoning (recipe follows), or prepared jerk seasoning

4 pork boneless blade or butt steaks, 3/4 inch thick (about 1 pound)

3 sprigs (6 inches each) sage, plus additional sage leaves for garnish

Prepare jerk seasoning and rub into pork. Cover and refrigerate at least 30 minutes but no longer than 1 hour.

Reserve 12 leaves from sage sprigs. Cover sprigs with water and set aside.

Prepare medium-hot fire in charcoal or gas grill. Drain sage sprigs and place directly on hot coals or lava rocks. Quickly place pork on grill, cover immediately and grill for 4 minutes. Turn pork and place 3 reserved sage leaves on each steak. Cover and grill 4 to 8 minutes longer, or until slightly pink in center.

To serve, remove sage leaves from pork and garnish with fresh sage leaves, if desired.

Yield: 4 servings.

Nutrition information per serving: 280 calories, 21 grams fat (68 percent fat calories), 8 grams saturated fat, 80 milligrams cholesterol, 3 grams carbohydrate, 20 grams protein, 320 milligrams sodium.

Jamaican Jerk Seasoning

2 teaspoons dried thyme

1 teaspoon ground allspice

1 teaspoon packed brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon cracked black pepper

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon ground red (cayenne) pepper

4 cloves garlic, finely chopped

Combine all ingredients and throughly mix.

Yield: About 2 tablespoons.

Mint Smoked Lamb Chops

From “Betty Crocker’s Great Grilling Cookbook” (Macmillan, 1997). You need to work quickly to capture the fragrant, fresh mint smoke.

2 tablespoons dry white wine or chicken broth

2 tablespoons honey

1 tablespoon margarine or butter, melted

1 teaspoon chopped fresh mint leaves

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon pepper

1 cup whole fresh mint leaves

8 lamb rib or loin chops, about 1 inch thick (about 2 pounds)

Prepare a hot fire in a charcoal or gas grill. Meanwhile, mix all ingredients except the whole mint leaves and the lamb chops.

Sprinkle mint leaves over hot coals or lava rock. Immediately place lamb chops on grill, cover and grill for 6 minutes. Brush with wine mixture. Turn lamb and brush other side with wine mixture. Cover and grill about 6 more minutes for medium doneness. Discard any remaining wine mixture.

Yield: 4 servings.

Nutrition information per serving: 380 calories, 22 grams fat (53 percent fat calories), 8 grams saturated fat, 140 milligrams cholesterol, 4 grams carbohydrate, 41 grams protein, 290 milligrams sodium.

Rosemary-Smoked New Potatoes

From “All on the Grill,” by Michael McLaughlin (HarperCollins, 1997). Not only does the pungent smoke flavor the spuds, it seems to repel mosquitos.

3 pounds small red-skinned new potatoes (1 to 1-1/2 inches in diameter)

2 large bunches fresh rosemary branches (about 4 cups)

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Place potatoes in a medium saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Cook, partially covered, until just tender, 10 to 12 minutes; drain. (Potatoes can be prepared 1 day ahead; wrap well and refrigerate.)

Soak rosemary branches in water for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare a hot fire in a charcoal grill or heat a gas grill to medium-high.

Divide potatoes among 6 flat metal skewers. Brush all over with olive oil. Grill, covered, until crisp and browned on the bottom, about 5 minutes.

Drain the rosemary. Lift grill rack and scatter rosemary branches evenly over the heat source. Turn skewers and grill until potatoes are crisp and browned all over, another 5 to 6 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and serve hot or warm.

Yield: 8 servings.

Nutrition information per serving: 248 calories, 10.9 grams fat (40 percent fat calories), 4 grams protein, 40 grams carbohydrate, no cholesterol, 21 milligrams sodium.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Staff illustration by Warren Huskey