What Is Mesquite? And Why Is It on Your Chips?

There is perhaps nothing more synonymous with the whole BBQ cookout experience than mesquite. But what does mesquite mean? What is mesquite flavor? And no, despite what we all thought in fifth grade, it is not made from mosquitos. 

Mesquite is a type of small, scrubby tree—or rather, the name for a few different species of this kind of tree, that are all native to deserts and other dry areas in North and South America. The ubiquity of this plant explains why there are towns with “Mesquite” in their name in Texas, Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico, as well as the Mesquite Mountains in California.  

Their long roots gather water from far away, allowing them to flourish in arid environments, including areas in Africa, Asia, and Australia where it is currently considered to be one of the world’s most problematic invasive species. 

So how do we get to the cookout plate? Mesquite is so connected to barbeque because people use its wood to smoke meats and other food, especially in Texas-style BBQ. Along with hickory, it’s one of the most common woods used for this purpose. So, what does mesquite taste like, you may ask. Well, while hickory gives off a sweeter, almost bacon-y taste, mesquite wood burns quickly and produces a lot of smoke, giving food a distinctive smoky flavor. It’s best to use mesquite with red meats and vegetables that cook quickly and can stand up to the wood’s distinctive, somewhat acrid tone. Be careful when cooking with milder proteins such as chicken and fish, whose natural flavors can get overwhelmed.

If you’re not feeling up to sawing off some mesquite branches and throwing them on the fire, you’re in luck, because there is a whole mess of products available to you. You can buy mesquite branches, of course, as well as wood chips and charcoal made from mesquite. Because its taste is so strong, the pros generally advise mixing it in with other woods until you’re a mesquite expert. 

Of course, if you just want a dash of that barbeque taste, there are tons of mesquite-flavored products on the market. Basically every potato chip variety has its own version of mesquite BBQ, including Lay’s, Zapp’s, Herr’s, Dirty Potato Chips, and many more. There’s also beef jerky that’s mesquite-smoked, of course, but perhaps a little more surprising is mesquite-flavored ice cream. That’s about the wildest thing I was able to uncover so far, but with the popularity of mesquite only rising, it’s sure to show up in even more unexpected places. Mesquite hard seltzer, anyone?

About the Author

Matt Crowley

Matt Crowley is a comedy writer living in Los Angeles. He likes maple-flavored snacks, loves every kind of cheese, and is slowly learning to accept mushrooms.

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