Use These Ingredients to Imbue Your Barbecue Smoke With More Intense Flavor

Think beyond wood chips and charcoal.

Barbecue is all about the smoke. Whether you’re cooking over coals, using a redhot cast iron pan, or firing up with wood chips, smoke -- alongside rubs and marinades -- is the backbone of every signature barbecue dish. That being said, the way smoke tastes varies depending on what’s being burned. There are pitmasters who argue the merit of cooking over coal versus burning wood chips -- or using both. Is maplewood better or will hickory do? 

The conversation around smoke, however, doesn’t have to be limited to types of wood or appliances. Whether you’re cooking with gas, electric, or over an open flame, using and burning ingredients -- like rosemary, coconut chips, or banana leaves -- can infuse even more flavor into your food than if you were just barbecuing over a standalone pile of mesquite.Here are some ingredients that will impart depth into your dish next time you’re barbecuing.


Sprigs of rosemary bathed in a pool of butter makes for the perfect thing to baste a steak in. But rosemary doesn’t have to just be infused in butter or tossed with chicken; the fragrant herb works well in an open flame to infuse its signature, evergreen flavor into the smoke. When heated, the needles that make up the leaves on a rosemary bush release that unmistakable floral flavor. Use rosemary-tinged smoke with chicken, lamb, and beef. Pro tip: use the sturdiest stems you can find as a skewer for kebabs.

Bay Leaves

Bay leaves are one of those ingredients that, for the longest time, I questioned how effective they were. If a recipe called for bay leaves, I wondered if I could get away with leaving them out. The answer is sure, you can, but bay leaves certainly bring an added earthy, full-bodiedness to a dish. you can really taste the difference. Bay leaves are often used to infuse flavor into soups and rice, but if you toss them straight on top of coals during barbecue, you’ll get that herbaceous flavor in your smoke, and consequently, your food, too. So yes, we do recommend stocking your pantry with bay leaves and no, do not skip them when the recipe calls for it.


Grated Coconut

This is a classic Thai technique recommended by Chef Derek Lucci of makebistro. In Thailand, the by-product of pressed coconut milk -- essentially the leftover grated coconut -- is sprinkled onto hot coals to release a nutty, smoky flavor. Because fresh grated coconut might be a bit harder to come by, Lucci suggests using dried coconut flakes. “You use this in combination with charcoal and wood and sprinkle it onto the coals which will impart coconut smoke flavor onto what you're grilling. It's quite nice!”

Allspice Berries

Firing up cinnamon sticks for barbecue sounds nice -- fragrant, spicy, warming -- but can actually leave an intensely bitter taste in your smoke. Instead, try allspice berries. They have similar qualities to cinnamon, but won’t burn as intensely. Make sure to opt for berries over already ground all-spice to get a nice, longer-lasting burn. A sprinkle of the spheres over hot coals will go a long way.


Corn and open flames are a match made in heaven. It’s why corn on the cob and elotes are some of the best and most coveted barbecue sides out there. Instead of throwing away your cob when you’ve finished gnawing it down, toss it into heat (or grind it down to a powder) for a subtly sweet smoke. Better yet, use your smoking corn cobs to grill even more corn and continue a never-ending cycle of flavorful barbecued corn. 

Banana leaves

Okay, so we’re not actually recommending you burn banana leaves, but this is a bonus suggestion. Wrapping fish and chicken in banana leaves is a traditional method of cooking that can find its roots across the globe: Southeast Asia, Latin America, and central Africa are some of the places that use the paper-like leaves for grilling. Not only do the leaves, when wrapped around proteins like chicken and fish, protect the meat from the ashy smell of too much smoke  but they also ensure proteins don’t stick to the grill. Bonus? The fragrant and gentle scent of banana leaves lingers on whatever it encases.

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Kat Thompson is a staff writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @katthompsonn