Barbecue should not be rushed, but there are lots of times when I've just gotten out of work, I've got guests coming, and I want to get started cooking as soon as possible. I love the fine flavor of wood smoke, but it takes at least two hours of soaking to get good, long burning smoke from wood chips - far too much time for a regular evening's grilling.
The solution? Canned Wood.
Water bath canning gives us a chance to kill two birds with one stone - our wood chips will soak for days or weeks, submerged in perfectly-proportioned batches, and the canning process will sterilize the wood and water to keep the chips fresh.
Now, whenever we want to add a bit of hickory, alder, or any other kind of smoke to our fire, it's as simple as pulling out a can, emptying the excess water, and adding the pre-soaked chips to the flame.
In an afternoon, we can make enough canned wood chips for the whole season, and be guaranteed easier outdoor cooking every time we fire up the grill.
I've entered this Instructable in the "Outdoor Cooking" and "Unusual Uses" contests. If you like it, please vote for it!
Step 1: Why Can Wood?
We could simply throw our wood chips in a jar and cover them with water, but bacteria, spores, and other microfauna will quickly turn the water moldy and make the chips unappetizing, if not unusable. Water bath canning involves only a few simple tools and is a great way to preserve foods without refrigeration. The canning process does two things simultaneously:
- The jars are filled with boiling water, which itself is sterile and also sterilizes the wood chips.
- The canning process creates a vacuum seal, which prevents any foreign bacteria from messing up our fine work.
But wait, won't the wood disintegrate in the water?
Not for a long time. Water is actually a great preservative of wood, provided that the wood is kept submerged. In fact, trees that have been submerged under water are often prized for their quality. As long as our wood chips get saturated and sink to the bottom of our jars, they should be fine.
Step 2: Gather Supplies
This is a relatively inexpensive project, especially if you have a sawmill or a woodshop nearby that generates a steady supply of wood chips. I picked up a couple bags of Hickory and Alder chips from my local Home Depot for canning, and I added in a few cedar chips I had left over from another project.
Note: As several comments point out, cedar chips shouldn't be used for cooking because they produce a resinous smoke (like other conifers). Additionally, eastern red cedar (actually a type of juniper) produces a toxic smoke. The cedar I canned in this Instructable will be used in small batches to add a nice scent to a campfire. More info about safe woods to use is here: http://www.smokingmeatforums.com/a/guide-for-woods-used-to-smoke-food.
At the grocery store nearby I got a set of wide-mouth quart canning jars. Wide-mouth jars are best for this project because it makes it much easier to fill the jars with bulky wood chips. You could probably use pint jars instead of quarts, but you'd likely end up using two pint jars whenever you're cooking.
Besides the chips and the jars, you need a large pot with a lid, a bucket, a marker, canning tongs, a ladle, and a source of heat. A few comments point out that a canning rack is also very useful, both to make raising and lowering the jars easier and to elevate the jars from the bottom of the pot, keeping them from breaking. As sabra1845 notes below, you can make your own rack by knitting together extra jar bands with twist ties.
I did the whole process outdoors using the turkey fryer in my Backyard Kitchen (see this Instructable), but you could just as easily do this inside at you kitchen stove.
Step 3: Pre-soak
Wood chips absorb a lot of water in the soaking process - pre-soaking saturates the wood in advance of the final canning, helping keep too much headspace (the air above the water) from forming in the jars.
You can soak the chips in a bucket or in the jars themselves, whichever's easiest. I used the jars because I wanted to be sure as much of the chips as possible were completely submerged.
Soak for 2-3 hours before continuing on to the canning process.
Step 4: Canning Step 1 - Sterilize the Jars, Bands, and Lids
After your chips have pre-soaked, drain the water, empty the chips into a bucket, and clean out the jars in preparation for sterilization. Place the jars in your pot, then cover with water by 1-3 inches (the water will flood the insides of the jars as well). Bring your water to a bare simmer, and let the jars, lids, and bands simmer for about 10 minutes to sterilize. Exercise caution during this step and all following steps, as it's very easy to scald yourself in the canning process.
Be careful not to boil the lids, as it may cause the rubber sealant to fail.
Step 5: Canning Step 2 - Fill Jars
Using a set of tongs, retrieve the lids and bands, then use a set of canning tongs (or jar lifters) to lift the jars out of the bath and empty the hot water.
Once the jars are emptied, fill them with ~2 cups of the pre-soaked wood chips. Most recipes I find call for about this amount, and it fits with plenty of room for water in the quart mason jars.
Bring the water in the pot up to a rolling boil; using a long-handled ladle, transfer boiling water from the pot into each jar, filling it to within ~1/2 of the top. Use a cloth to wipe the lips of the jars clean, then set the lids on and screw the bands down until just tight - you want to allow the pressure that will be created the ability to force air out of the jar.
Step 6: Canning Step 3 - Process
Using the canning tongs, slowly lower each jar into the water bath. Once all the jars are in, allow the water to boil for about 15 minutes (more or less, depending on your altitude).
When time is up, use the tongs to carefully remove the jars and set them aside to cool. After a few minutes of cooling, the lids should seal around the edges of the jar, forming a tight vacuum seal.
If you have any jars that didn't seal (or exploded in the pot, as was the case for me), you can still salvage the chips - read on.
Step 7: Dealing With Extra Chips, Sealing Failures, and Broken Jars.
You might end up with some extra wood chips, or have a couple of your jars fail to seal or break. Here's how to salvage those chips:
If you have a seal failure, first try to get a new lid and give the jar a second pass at processing. If it still doesn't work, bag'em and tag'em - take your pre-soaked wood chips and drain them well, then seal them in small plastic bags, label the bags with the type of wood, and throw them in the freezer. The chips should stay well-preserved, and when you need to use them it's as simple as pulling out the bag and tossing the frozen chips on the fire.
Step 8: Label, Store, and Enjoy
Once the jars are cool, label each one with the type of wood (and the amount, if you like), then store them wherever it's convenient. I'd feel like you should keep them out of direct sunlight, though I don't know why....
Congratulations, you've just solved one of the biggest headaches for an amateur BBQ chef! Now's the time to enjoy the fruits of your labor - here are some tips on which woods go best with which meats.
One last thing - if you liked this Instructable, please consider voting for it in the "Outdoor Cooking" and "Unusual Uses" contests, and thanks!
UPDATE - After about 3-4 weeks in storage, I tested a batch of canned Hickory, and Canned Wood worked exactly as I had hoped! I was able to start grilling immediately using the canned wood chips, without having to wait for any soaking. The test batch, and the remaining cans of chips, are all at this moment mold-free.
There's been some discussion in the comments about whether it's actually better, or even necessary, to soak your wood chips prior to grilling. I personally think it's better to soak ("scientific" experiments to the contrary notwithstanding), and if you do too, Canned Wood is a great way to have ready-to-use chips available whenever you get the urge to grill.