Smoke is the essence of BBQ, but do different types of wood really give off different smoke profiles?
Pitmasters love to wax lyrical about how the particular type of central Texas white post oak they use gives their barbecue its unique flavor.
But should you really worry about matching different wood “flavors” with what you’re cooking?
Fear not, fellow pitmasters, we’ll answer that question for you, while also walking you through the different types of woods for smoking, the varying flavors they give off, and which woods to avoid when smoking food.
Click to jump straight to each topic
Best wood for smoking
Though every style of smoker gives you smoke to cook with, not all smoke is created equal. Let’s look into which woods give off what type of smoke.
Hardwoods vs. Softwoods
The terms hardwood and softwood refer to how the tree reproduces.
- Hardwood trees are deciduous and need to be pollinated in order to reproduce.
- Softwoods are coniferous and reproduce by growing cones.
Almost all cooking wood is considered hardwood, and for good reason. Hardwoods burn hotter, longer and have less resin than softwoods.
Softwoods are full of sap and resin, giving off a more acrid smoke and causing that flavor to inhibit the foods it cooks.
Common cooking woods
You’ll see a few common cooking woods on your BBQ journey. Texas is big on post oak. Carolina is big on hickory. Others swear by fruit woods – apple, cherry and peach among others.
Regional preferences are largely based on regional availability, but the commonality you see here is that common BBQ cooking woods are from hardwood trees.
You’ll be safe using any of the hardwoods mentioned, but we always recommend going with what’s local to your area and has been seasoned appropriately to dry out any residual resin or sap.
What types of wood to use
Your smoker will designate which type of wood you should use – mostly based on the size of the firebox chamber. Let’s look at the differences.
Chunks are an all around convenient style of cut to use with most any wood or charcoal burning smoker.
Chunks range in size from a plum upwards to a grapefruit, and are generally placed on hot burning coals to initiate clean combustion and smoke.
Chunks are convenient because you can size them to fit any firebox, whether that’s in a large firebox or in the bottom of a Big Green Egg or Weber Smokey Mountain.
If you find yourself needing more smoke after a couple hours, you can throw on a few extra chunks to get your preferred smoke concentration. You have more volume control than you would with full split logs.
Chips are mainly reserved for gas or electric smokers. They sit in a small, perforated smoker box and sit on top of the burning element. They are usually soaked beforehand to extend the length that they smolder although this has been proven to be unnecessary.
In a pinch, they’d be fine for charcoal smokers too. Throwing a handful of pre-soaked chips on the coals will give a fresh burst of smoke to the meat.
Wood chips are also convenient for delicate proteins that only need a few minutes of smoke – like fish or chicken. They really only need 15 – 20 minutes of smoke and this is easily managed with a handful of chips.
Whole logs or split logs are great for bigger smokers and fireboxes. They are generally cut in 18in – 24in segments, perfect for an offset smoker’s firebox.
Logs are specifically great when you’re cooking with solely wood. Once you get a clean, oxygenated combustion, you can simply add new logs to the coalbed for fresh fuel. This keeps a steady stream of clean smoke on the protein throughout the cook without overpowering it.
The detriment to whole logs is that they don’t fit into most residential smokers. They end up needing to be cut into shorter pieces, and by that time, you’re better off just rolling with wood chunks.
Logs have their place, and you get more of a feel for the health and seasoning of the wood, but just make sure they fit into your smoker.
Pellets are made by taking wet sawdust and compressing it into a tube roughly the thickness of a pencil. The tube is then broken off into smaller pieces about an inch or so long.
Pellets have no artificial binders in them, so you can be sure they’re safe to use on food. If they get wet, you’ll see they quickly revert back to sawdust form.
Some smokers use pellets as their main fuel source, utilizing an electric powered auger and thermostat to maintain the proper temperature.
You can also use pellets as you would chips for short bursts of smoke when you need it.
They generally come in bags of 10lbs up to 40 lbs. Be sure to read the labels, though, as most pellets are a combination of different types of woods.
Why you shouldn’t worry about matching wood
Though different types of woods do burn differently, you need not worry about the subtlety of smoke combinations.
The quality of meat, rubs, and cooking temperature affect the final taste far more than the type of wood used.
Yes, hickory will burn differently than apple, and subsequently, the smoke differs, but so long as you have clean combustion and steady oxygen intake to feed the fire, you’ll have a solid smokey flavor that acts as an ingredient in and of itself.
Dirty smoke will make your food taste acrid and sooty. When a fire is choked off from the oxygen source, or if your wood is too resiny or full of sap, you will get dirty smoke and it does not taste good.
Focus on clean combustion, steady temperature control and quality ingredients and you’ll end up with a great BBQ product every time.
Best wood for each meat type
We detest the charts you see on various websites that claim to match certain woods with different types of food.
If the chart tells you not to use apple with lamb or says oak can only be used on beef then feel free to ignore it.
That said, the reason these charts are shared so widely on the internet is because they appeal to beginners who are want to be told what to do and avoid stuffing anything up.
So with that in mind, we’ve put together a few no-fail suggestions you can stick to:
Best wood for smoking beef brisket
Brisket is a dense, tough cut of beef, so you’ll want to use a similar style of wood – one that is dense and burns hot and long.
The top choices for brisket are oak and hickory. These both give off steady heat and a strong, penetrating smoke that melds well with the tough beef fibers as they soften. Oak and hickory will yield you a great tasting brisket every time so long as you have clean combustion.
Mesquite is widely used in Texas. It is heady and thick and can quickly become overpowering. There is a learning curve to cook with mesquite as you want to wait until it has established a hot coal bed and keep oxygen steady so as not to choke off any newly added logs.
Practice makes perfect here, and if done correctly will result in a robust smoke flavor in a finished brisket, much more intense than oak or hickory.
If milder is more your taste, fruit woods like apple and cherry work fine here as well as maple and pecan.
Brisket is a forgiving meat in terms of smoke penetration, so as long as your fire is clean, your brisket should turn out just fine from a quality standpoint. It really depends on how heavy of a smoke flavor you prefer that will dictate which type of wood you use.
Best wood for smoking turkey
Turkey, and poultry in general, takes on smoke flavor quickly. You’ll want a milder wood that doesn’t overpower the taste of the meat. Fruit woods are perfect for that.
My top choice for smoking turkey is cherry wood. It provides a subtle touch of smoke while not penetrating too deeply into the meat and ruining your bird. Your turkey will be a deep, golden brown when cooked over cherry and still not be too heavy on the smoke.
Other fruitwoods work well for turkey, like apple or peach, but cherry has the right balance of depth and subtly to it – sitting in between heavy hickory and lighter apple.
Best wood for smoking ribs
Hickory smoke will penetrate deep into the ribs, so you’ll need to be sure you don’t over smoke them. Color is the key indicator here as your ribs will get a dark mahogany color and tack up nicely on the surface.
If you notice the ribs getting too dry or dark on the outside, then that’s a sign to wrap them up to avoid more unnecessary smoke exposure.
Oak is also a great choice, but less of an earthy tone than hickory. Oak generates a lot of smoke, so be mindful of how long and heavy your ribs are exposed directly to the smoke.
Both of these woods will impart a deep, noticeable smoke flavor into pork ribs that is the sign of true BBQ.
Best wood for smoking chicken
Much like turkey, chicken takes on smoke quickly and easily. It is imperative you use a subtler smoking wood.
Maple is our go-to wood for smoking chicken. It gives off a light smoke that won’t overpower the bird.
Smaller, broken-down chicken pieces will take on the smoke more quickly as opposed to a spatchcocked whole bird, so again pay attention to color and if you fear it has taken on too smoke or is getting too dark, feel free to wrap in foil or butcher paper.
Best wood for smoking pork
Whether you’re doing pork butt or whole hog, you’re going to need a deep, heady smoke to penetrate into the dense meat. Bring back our old friends hickory and oak.
Pork butt has a lot of intramuscular fat and connective tissue that takes a long time to break down. Hickory will ensure that smoke penetrates deep into the meat during this process. If you use a wood with lighter smoke flavor, the pork will cook fine, but you won’t have as much smoke flavor – might as well cook it in the oven.
Similarly, oak cooks a good pork butt and whole hog. It will impart smoke throughout the meat that is appropriate and tasty.
Best wood for smoking fish and seafood
Fish and seafood are the most delicate proteins on this list, so you’ll need to be extremely aware not to oversmoke lest you risk ruining the meal.
Mild, sweeter woods like apple or peach are the best options for smoked fish. They won’t overpower the delicate, mild flavor.
Fish and seafood, such as scallops or shrimp, take on a moist, plump texture when smoked appropriately. Apple and peach will infuse into the meat quickly, but won’t overpower it.
It’s best to use smaller chunks or wood chips when smoking fish and seafood as it doesn’t need more than 15 – 20 minutes of continuous smoke to settle into the meat.
Combining multiple smoke woods
Once you get a solid feel for different types of woods and how their unique smoke properties affect specific proteins, you can start to mix and match smoke profiles with different foods.
For example, starting a turkey with a few chunks of hickory and finishing with a split log of apple will give a deep, earthy flavor foundation while the apple takes the bird across the finish line and keeps it from being too smokey to taste.
This is the fun part, really. Experimenting with your personal tastes and seeing what combinations have any effect on what type of meats.
This is also very nuanced, so you want to be sure you have a solid understanding of smoke and combustion first.
Where to get your smoke wood
Now that you know all about smoking woods, where can you source it for your cooking needs? Let’s delve into a few options.
Once again, eCommerce comes through in the clutch. You can find smaller bags and boxes usually ranging in the 4 – 10 pound range in a variety of woods.
Independent sellers and storefronts are a great way to support local communities, as there are a lot of options that sell on Amazon, not just the big box brands.
No doubt there are BBQ restaurants where you live, and they need to get their wood supply from somewhere. Don’t be afraid to ask your local pitmaster where they source their wood. You’ll be surprised to see how easily you can get smoking wood from local timber or tree service companies.
Other retailers and locally owned outdoor outfitters may offer a smaller selection of smoking woods. Big box sporting goods stores like Academy Sports, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Bass Pro Shops also carry smoking wood, but in smaller capacities than you’d be able to get from a wholesaler. Just call around and see what fits your needs.
Chop your own
If you’re feeling lumberjackish, there’s always the option to chop your own wood, but there are some things to keep in mind.
You’ll want to season your wood. Seasoning is the process of aging and drying wood so that it has the right amount of moisture for clean combustion and food-grade smoking.
Wood can be air-dried or kiln-dried. A good rule of thumb is to season your wood for 6-18 months if air-dried outdoors. Store it off the ground and cover with a tarp or wood cover. Anything over 18 months and you risk the wood losing flavor or rotting.
Kiln-dried wood is done as the name says – in a kiln. Unless you have a kiln readily available to you, leave this to the professionals.
We recommend against using green wood, or wood that has been recently chopped. The wood still contains organic resins and sap that will burn dirty and impart a bitter taste to your food. If you have to use green wood, let it burn down to a coal bed so all the organic compounds and moisture have burned off and won’t get into your food.
Knock on wood
Now that you know all about woods and the subtleties of smoke, go forth and BBQ! Play with variables and taste the results. Learn fire and combustion management, combine woods and proteins – experience is the best teacher!
We hope we gave you enough information to choose your wood supply and style. Let us know what you smoke with in the comments below.
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