Smoked brisket can be a hard cut of meat to master.
Trying to get that perfect smoky flavor without being too overpowering while rendering the meat so soft and tender that it melts in your mouth seems like an art form.
The type of wood you use is an important variable for mastering smoked brisket.
With all the options out there, how do you choose the right type of wood?
Different types of wood for smoking brisket
Different types of woods can give different smoky flavors. Let’s take a look at the most popular types of woods to use in smoking briskets and the flavors they tend to produce.
It doesn’t matter if you are using wood pellets on a pellet grill, wood chips on an electric smoker, or wood chunks or logs on charcoal or offset smoker, it’s the type of flavor you are impacting that you want to think about.
Medium to Strong Flavors
- Oak – A medium smoky flavor that is not too overpowering. It can burn for a long time, making it a great choice for beginners. Commonly used in Central Texas style barbecue.
- Hickory – Strong and smoky, it can be described as producing a nutty or bacon-like flavor. Be careful though, as too much hickory smoke can cause the meat to taste bitter.
- Mesquite – Another wood that produces a strong flavor, mesquite burns quickly and can produce a strong earthy flavor. If you want to make an authentic Texas smoked brisket, this is the wood to choose. However, like hickory, it can get too powerful.
- Maple – Very mild smokiness and sweet flavor.
- Pecan – Very sweet, nutty flavor. It should be combined with a stronger flavor wood so the brisket is not overly sweet.
- Apple – Very mild smokiness that produces a sweet and fruity flavor.
- Cherry – Mild smokiness with a fruity flavor. Pairs nicely with hickory.
- Olive – Mild smokiness with a similar flavor to mesquite but not as strong.
A note about wood size for smoking brisket
While it is important to give some thought to the type of wood you plan on using to smoke brisket, you should also consider the size. The size of wood you need will depend on the type of smoker and the size of the brisket that you plan to cook.
The foour most common sizes or types of wood for smoking brisket are:
- Chips – Shavings and wood scraps. Generally used for gas and electric smokers but could be used for small charcoal ones. However, they burn out quite fast so they are not recommended for large-sized briskets.
- Chunks – Small chunks of wood about the size of a fist. Generally used along with charcoal in smaller offset smokers and others (see below). Once ignited, it will last for hours. This makes it a good choice for larger sized briskets.
- Logs – Large split logs. A great choice for large offset smokers, where the wood can also be used for the main heat source as well as smoke. Also, a good choice for large-sized briskets.
- Pellets – Compressed sawdust from lumber re-purposed and used to provide heat and smoke in pellets grills. Generally made from 100% hardwood without any toxic chemicals they produce a nice clean smoke that imparts a subtle wood flavor.
This chart explains the different types in more detail.
[cropped image from https://www.smokedbbqsource.com/smoking-wood-guide/]
So which is the best wood for smoking brisket?
The best wood for smoking brisket depends on the smoker you are using, the size of the brisket, and the flavors you wish to achieve.
Hickory and oak tend to be the most popular choices and are a good starting point for any novice pitmaster.
As you get more experienced, you can start mixing a strong flavored wood with a milder one to get a deeper smoke profile, or try a combination of mild woods and see how the layers of flavor play with the meat.
It’s really up to you. You have to experiment to figure out what flavor profiles you prefer.
Wood picks from pitmasters
In Breaking Down Brisket, an article for Texas Monthly Magazine, Daniel Vaughn went through 22 of his favorite barbecue books. He found oak and hickory to be the overall favorites. These were followed by mesquite, apple, and pecan.
Let’s take a look at what a few specific pitmasters prefer to use when smoking a brisket:
- Aaron Franklin uses Post Oak as his sole fuel source mainly because it is local to Central Texas – where Franklin BBQ is located – and is readily available and abundant to the region.
- Malcolm Reed from howtobbqright.com uses a combination of hickory and pecan wood when cooking brisket. The density of the hickory wood means it burns slow and even for a long period of time, and the pecan wood adds depth with a stronger, sweeter smoke flavor in correlation with the hickory.
- Myron Mixon also uses a combination but leans heavily on fruitwoods for complex flavor variations. Mixon starts with a base of well seasoned hickory for an efficient fuel source then layers on unseasoned fruitwood for depth of flavor. Mixon states the flavor of fruitwoods comes from the sugar sap that is present when they’re green and unseasoned, but the sap from unseasoned hardwoods is bitter and can ruin your meat.
Tips for choosing your wood
No matter what combination of wood you decide on, you’ll want to follow these tips to get a great tasting brisket:
- Avoid green wood (wood that has been recently cut and has not had an opportunity to season, or dry out.)
- Avoid softwoods
- Don’t use wood that has been painted, stained or treated
- Don’t use old wood with mold or fungus
- Experiment with different types and combinations for different flavor profiles
- Keep a steady temperature
- Keep a nice clean, blueish smoke
- Don’t over smoke as this can result in bitter tasting meat
Smoking brisket in a pellet grill
Some people claim that brisket cooked on a pellet grill lacks the distinctive smokey flavor they crave from barbecue.
There’s no doubt that pellet smokers are some of the most efficient, clean-burning smokers on the market, and as a result, food tasted on them tends to have a more mild taste.
To get around this you can try using stronger wood pellet flavors like oak or hickory. You can also mix this with a more mild wood like apple or cherry.
We have a guide on how to get more smoke flavor on a pellet grill to learn more.
All wood in the hood
We hope you found this article helpful in choosing the best wood for smoking brisket. Just remember the following tips and you should be good to go:
- The size of the wood will depend on the smoker you are using and the size of the brisket.
- The type of wood you use will be based on the flavors you want to achieve. Oak and hickory are good choices to start with, and you can then add in milder-flavor producing woods to adjust it to your liking.
- It’s really up to you to figure out what smoke profile you prefer – so , go ahead and experiment!
What type of wood do you use when smoking brisket? Let us know in the comments section below and if you want to learn about the best wood for pork ribs we have a guide to that too.