What Is Sassafras?
Sassafras is the name of a tree that is native to approximately the eastern half of North America. It has fragrant leaves and orange bark and produces yellow flowers and blue berrylike fruit. Although usually a small tree, a sassafras can grow as tall as 65 feet. Sassafras leaves, roots and bark have been used for centuries in medicine and cooking.
According to Scott Thomas of GrillinFools.com, a website devoted to smoking foods of all kinds, the wood of the sassafras tree produces musky, mild, sweet smoke that is especially well-suited for smoking beef, pork and poultry. At the same time, the Char-Broil company, a manufacturer of grills and smokers, recommends sassafras for smoking fish. The root of the sassafras tree in the past was used as one of the flavorings for root beer, and some say they can taste a hint of root beer in sassafras-smoked meat.
Some cooks prefer to smoke meat with sassafras logs or chips that have been soaked in water, which slows the burning process, producing more smoke and less heat. You can also use dry sassafras wood, which burns more quickly, producing less smoke and higher heat.
Some cooks warn that soft woods or wood from conifers such as pine or spruce are not suitable for smoking meat. While not a conifer, sassafras is often included in the woods that are not recommended. However, other cooks do recommend sassafras for smoking meat. Another concern is the fact that sassafras bark and roots contains a substance called safrole. Safrole has been banned by the Food and Drug Administration as an additive in foods because it was shown to cause liver cancer in laboratory animals.