The Nature of Wood

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About

Wood consists of three primary materials: cellulose and hemicellulose, which form the framework and the filler of all plant cell walls, and lignin, a reinforcing material that gives wood its strength. Cellulose and hemicellulose are both aggregates of sugar molecules. Lignin is made of intricately interlocked phenolic molecules—essentially rings of carbon atoms with various additional chemical groups attached—and is one of the most complex natural substances known. The higher the lignin content of a wood, the harder it is and the hotter it burns; its combustion releases 50% more heat than cellulose. Mesquite wood is well-known for its high-temperature fire, which it owes to its 64% lignin content (hickory, a common hardwood, is 18% lignin). Most wood also contains a small amount of protein, enough to support the browning reactions that generate typical roasted flavors at moderately hot temperatures. Evergreens such as pine, fir, and spruce also contain significant amounts of resin, a mixture of compounds related to fats that produce a harsh soot when burned.