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Wood to Know — Hardwood Basics for the KettlePizza

Ask any seasoned barbecue guy for his thoughts on smoking woods, and more than likely you’ll be treated to tales of “epic” moments in barbecue history. Behind all great barbecue is, among other things, great hardwood that was no doubt specially selected for the job at hand. Heat and smoke management are critical to good barbecue, and the same can be said for good KettlePizza, except in the opposite direction.

Barbecue requires a steady, low heat and a delicate flow of fragrant smoke from clean, dry wood. KettlePizza requires a steady, high heat, and the clean, unsmoky flames from clean, dry wood. Different approaches with different results.

Cooking with charcoal and wood is one of the many reasons why barbecue fanatics are perfectly suited KettlePizza fanatics. Not only are they already equipped and experienced for KettlePizza, they always need something fantastic (and not smoked) to munch on during the long barbecue process.

What makes a great blistered and charred pizza in the KettlePizza is the fiery combination of quality charcoal and dry, seasoned hardwood chunks that together create the high wood-oven pizza temperatures that the dough needs to cook fast and properly.

And once the charcoal and hardwood are burning in unison and the KettlePizza oven is running at high pizza temperatures, it’s just a simple matter of maintaining that heat by managing the flow of hardwood chunks onto the coals.

What Woods Work Best in Kettle Pizza?

KettlePizza works best with hardwoods. Oak is, hands-down, the best because it burns the hottest and cleanest. Other choices that will work include hickory, pecan, maple and mesquite. We’ve also had fine success with fruitwoods like apple and cherry popular in low and slow barbecue-style cooking, as long as you can get nice-size chunks.

You do not want to use softwoods in your KettlePizza or any fire unless it’s just a backyard bonfire. These include evergreen conifers (trees with needles and cones) like cedar, fir, pine or spruce. Evergreen woods contain a resinous sap that can be highly flammable and give off an unpleasant odor, and they’re not good for cooking.

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What Size of Wood to Use?

Size does matter. For steady, longer burning times, you must use wood chunks, not wood chips, in your KettlePizza. Fist-sized chunks burn long and steady and create the hot oven you’re looking for. Chips are just for quick smoky flavor that you might use to flavor a steak or chicken.

These days, most supermarkets, big-box stores and camping/sporting stores carry various brands of hardwood chunks. Be sure to look for brands of wood chunks packaged in clear plastic bags that allow you to see what you’re buying. Some brands feature a fancy photo on the non-transparent bag showcasing nice big chunks, but inside among the few big chunks you’ll find a pile of small chips and slices that are not useful in KettlePizza because they burn up too quickly.

Supermarkets tend to limit the bagged hardwood selection when the weather turns cold, so a late-summer stock-up is a good idea.

One more thing: Remember,  you’re cooking with wood, so whatever is in that wood will be in the smoke and on your food. If it smells bad when it starts to burn, it will taste bad. And last, never use pressure-treated wood scraps or anything that’s been treated with a preservative, paint or stain. That old ax handle or chair leg won’t do. Nor will rotting yard twigs. P.S.: Any wood cooking guy or gal will throw a fit if you toss a cigarette but into their cooking fire! Don’t do it!

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Mmmmm, a hint of mushroom and notes of dark red fruit.