Skip to main content

Horticultural Grilling

Written by Rhonda Ferree, retired horticulture educator

Horticultural Grilling

What do plants have to do with grilling – other than eating vegetables? Well, great chefs use many "tricks" to get just the right taste from their grill and many of those tricks involve plants.

First, chefs swear by certain types of wood chips to smoke their meat (or vegetables) on the grill. You'll find the chips in hardware and homes stores. They include oak, mesquite and hickory for a bold taste, and fruit woods and vines for lighter flavor. Avoid soft woods, such as pine, which give off a not-so-tasty resin.

The wood is usually soaked in water before cooking begins, so it burns more slowly and creates a moist, penetrating smoke. Although you can use a fire made solely of the flavoring wood, most people build a bed of coals with wood or charcoal, and add pieces of smoke wood.

Some chefs will use smoke alone, while others use smoke in combinations with the marinades and other techniques before cooking to enhance the taste of smoked foods. For fun, try your meals both ways and see which you like best. To start, toss a few chips on the coals while cooking burgers.

Learn to pair woods to particular meals. For chicken or light-flavored fish, for example, consider the sweeter tastes of fruit woods such as cherry or apple. Stronger flavored foods, such as beef, pork or salmon, benefit from the assertiveness of hickory and mesquite.

Second many chefs have a secret marinade, mop, or rub recipe, which add flavor to meats. Rubs are blends of dried herbs and spices that flavor the exterior of meat as it cooks. Marinades, made with herbs, spices and an acidic liquid such as wine vinegar or lemon juice, enhance the flavor of meats. A mop is a sauce that keeps the rubbed meat from drying while it is smoke-cooked. A mop can be anything from a bottle of your favorite barbecue sauce diluted with vinegar to a rub that you've held aside and combined with beer or another liquid.

And, don't forget the veggies. Since I grow several herbs, I often add fresh springs to vegetables on the grill. I particularly like rosemary in a potato packet with onions and peppers. Try adding zing to your next corn on the cob by grilling it in the husk with some basil, thyme, or cilantro stuffed inside. Or, consider a veggie-only meal using a basket (or foil packet) to grill a combination of squash, potatoes, onion, and peppers tossed with a little olive oil, herbs, salt, and pepper.

If you have a cookout planned for July 4th, try something new. You'll impress your family and friends and enjoy a great meal too. Happy Grilling!



As horticulture educator, Rhonda Ferree inspired citizens in local communities to grow their own food and improve their home landscapes. She focused on high quality, impactful programs that taught homeowners how to create energy-efficient landscapes using sustainable practices that increase property values and help the environment.

After 30 years with University of Illinois Extension, Rhonda retired in 2018. She continues to share her passion for horticulture related topics as “Retro Rhonda” on social media.

ILRiverHort is a blog that helps people connect to nature and grow.