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What is Mesquite?

Mary McMahon
Updated Feb 22, 2024
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Mesquite is a form of hardwood which is notable for its aromatic wood. In smoking, the wood is used to create a sweet flavor and a rich aroma; it can also be used in barbecuing. In addition to producing culinarily useful wood, the trees and shrubs also generate pods with edible seeds which can be used in a variety of ways. The flavor is so distinctive and sought after that many markets carry mesquite chips for grilling and smoking, along with artificial flavorings which are meant to mimic it.

The word comes from the Spanish mezquite, which is in turn taken from a Nahuatl word, mizquitl. More formally, the plant is known as a member of the Prospis genus, in the pea family. Several commercially valuable species are cultivated, including Honey Mesquite and Velvet Mesquite.

Depending on one's point of view, mesquite is either a commercially valuable plant or a weed. It is adapted for the hot, dry conditions abundant in Central America, and it has a specially designed root system which is designed to tap deep water tables. As a result, the plant can endure in conditions where others cannot, potentially choking out other species. Because mesquite is rather spiny, ranchers and gardeners often find themselves struggling to contain it.

Like other legumes, these plants produce distinctive pods. Native Americans ground the seeds into a flour which was typically mixed with other flours in baked goods for a rich nutty taste and aroma. The pods can also be fermented to make wines, and they can be specially treated to create a distinctive jelly. The leaves were used historically as animal fodder, while both the branches and the roots can be burned as an aromatic cooking fuel.

In addition to being used in cooking, mesquite can also be used in furniture. The plants sometimes develop very intriguingly grained woods which can take a high polish and a great deal of abuse as household furnishings. Mesquite furniture is sometimes available in regions where the plant grows wild, as is untreated wood for the purpose of making craft projects.

If you plan on using mesquite in cooking, you can purchase it chipped, which is ideally suited to smoking and grilling. It also comes in the form of grilling planks; make sure to use food-grade mesquite, as wood for carpentry is sometimes treated with chemicals to make it water and insect resistant. For best effect, soak the chips and planks before use, ensuring that they heat slowly and impart their flavor over an extended period of time.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By seag47 — On Jul 27, 2012

I have a friend who makes and sells mesquite jelly packages at flea markets. Since she is the only person in the area doing this, she sells quite a few packages every time. People are eager to try something they have never heard of before, and she has repeat customers since the item is hard to find.

She takes the juice of mesquite beans and mixes it with lemon juice and sugar. She uses a packet of gelatin designed to be used when making jelly, also.

I've never seen her do this, but she did tell me that she only needs these four ingredients. That makes what she does really cost effective, and she can easily make a profit.

By healthy4life — On Jul 26, 2012

My uncle lives in a city where mesquite wood is available for projects. He makes a lot of furniture by hand, and he gets a lot of money for the pieces.

I have seen tables that he has made from mesquite. They have a very distinguished wood grain pattern, and one side of the table surface seems to reflect the other.

Sometimes, he leaves the knots and gaps in the wood as they came. Other times, he will insert turquoise to fill the gaps, and this makes the pieces worth even more money.

By Perdido — On Jul 25, 2012

@feasting – The only mesquite flavored item I have ever eaten is potato chips, and I have to say that this is the best kind I've ever tasted. There is something more intense and piercing about it than regular barbecue potato chips, so I always try to find these at the supermarket.

There is nothing better than a ham sandwich on wheat bread paired with mesquite chips. This is what I take in my picnic basket when I'm going to the lake for the day. I even take it to work for lunch a couple of times a week.

It's hard to believe that I ever ate regular old potato chips. Now that I have tasted the mesquite variety, I can never go back.

By feasting — On Jul 24, 2012

I think that mesquite food is so delicious! I have eaten everything from mesquite flavored potato chips to mesquite chicken, and I love it all.

My neighbor grills with mesquite chips, and the scent was so enticing that I made it a point to become friends with him. Now, I get invited to his barbecues, and I don't have to stay home drooling over the awesome smell.

I like his mesquite chicken breasts. They have an excellent grill flavor, along with the pungent quality of mesquite.

His wife makes french fries with a mesquite dipping sauce in keeping with the theme of the meal. If there is any sauce left over, I get to take some home, and I am always happy about that.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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