Back in the day, all barbecue was cooked with wood logs as the primary source of heat and smoke.
These days we love to over-complicate things.
Take a stroll through your barbecue store and you’ll be overwhelmed by choice. You need to pick from wood chunks, chips, pellets, discs, and whole logs, and that’s before you even decide which of dozens of varieties of wood to use.
In your search for answers, you will come across plenty of conflicting information, from what woods must be matched with certain meats, to how to build a fire for smoking success, and everything in between.
In this guide to smoking wood, we will cover just about everything you need to know about using wood for smoking. We’ll even debunk a few common myths that even veteran barbecue competitors fall for.
Smoking with wood overview
While you can burn just about anything to smoke your food (In Iceland they use dried sheep dung), wood is the most commonly used material.
There are two main ways you can use wood when you barbecue.
- As the main fuel source – The combustion of the wood produces heat, while also imparting a smokey flavor to your meat. Building a fire with logs in an offset smoker is an example of using wood as the fuel source. Pellet smokers are another example of using wood as both the fuel and the source of smoky flavor.
- As the source of smoke flavor – while using another fuel source such as gas or charcoal. Examples of this include placing a wood chips in an electric smoker, or adding some chunks of wood to your lit coals.
The wood you use to add smoke flavor to your meat comes in many shapes and sizes, such as chips, chunks, pellets or sawdust. The best way to use these different forms of wood will depend on your situation.
Many barbecue aficionados out there go to great lengths to match the flavor of the wood they burn to the dish they are cooking. However, knowing how and when to use wood in its different forms is a far more worthy time investment. Understanding when and how to use chips as opposed to chunks, for example, will reap far greater rewards than memorizing a list of meats that “go well with mesquite”.
A quick word on smoke
Smoke consists of around 100 compounds. Some of these compounds exist as solids, others as gases and still others exist as liquids such as oils.
The exact makeup of the smoke you make on your barbecue will depend on the wood you have used, the temperature of combustion, the amount of available oxygen and the humidity.
Two of the gases that you might like to take note of are syringol and guiacol. Syringol is the gas that is responsible for the smokey aroma, while guiacol is the gas we can thank for the distinctive smokey flavor. These gases are only present in trace amounts, but they do a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of creating that trademark barbecue smell and flavor.
Let’s have a closer look at what is going on in the combustion process, in the hopes of understanding how and why smoke is produced. Wood goes through four stages as it combusts.
1) Dehydration – This is what is happening to the wood up to about 500°F. Dehydration takes place before the wood actually catches alight, so at this point the wood has to be exposed to heat from an external source, such as from lit kindling, or a match. By the time this stage is complete, any moisture within the log will have evaporated and the wood is left completely dry.
2) Gasification and pyrolysis – This stage takes place when the wood is between 500 and 700°F. Compounds within the wood start to change at this point. Some of these compounds become flammable gasses, so if these gases are exposed to a flame, they will ignite (at this point the wood itself is not igniting independently of these gases). So in everyday terms, this is the point at which it appears as if the wood “catches fire”.
3) Burning – Once the temperature gets to 700-1000°F, the real action takes place. The wood itself is in flames, and gases important to the barbeque cooking process are released. Once such gas is nitric oxide, the gas responsible for the formation of the smoke ring.
The best temperature range, as far as producing tasty smoke is concerned, is between 650-750°F. As the fire gets hotter, the compounds that are being broken down become bitter, and some can even be hazardous.
As gases are released from the fuel, they ignite as they combine with oxygen and are exposed to significant enough heat. If gases escape without burning, smoke is formed.
4) Charcoal Formation – Once the temperature gets above 1000°F, many organic compounds are burned off and charcoal is left behind. Not much smoke is produced while the charcoal burns.
How long should you produce smoke when cooking?
There is an idea floating around out there that meat stops taking on smoke after a certain point, and there is no reason to continue creating smoke beyond that point.
This is not the case. The meat itself will take on smoke as long as you serve smoke up to it.
What does change is the environment inside the cooker and the surface of the meat.
- Smoke will stick to the surface of the meat readily if it is cool and moist.
- Naturally, as the cook progresses, the surface of the meat will dry out and warm up.
- This can be overcome by basting and spritzing throughout the cook. Just keep in mind that if you go overboard with the spritzing, you could wash off any rubs or sauces you may have applied.
Another thing to keep in mind is that coals will not produce as much smoke as wood, so if you want more smoke later on in the cook, you will need to add more wood to the fire.
Keep in mind, however, that just because meat can keep on taking smoke doesn’t mean it should. You don’t want your meat to taste like a lump of coal. There is such a thing as meat that tastes “too smokey”.
How to use the main types of smoke wood
This chart explains the different types and sizes of wood that’s typically used for smoking.
How to add wood to your smoker
Generally speaking, a small, hot fire burning at a steady rate will produce the best smoke. Avoid the temptation to build something resembling a bonfire in your smoker. Lighting up all your fuel in one go will not yield good results.
How much wood you should add to the fire, and when you should throw it on will also depend on the type of smoker you are using, and whether wood is your primary heat source or not.
If you smoke on a Weber Smoker Mountain, for instance, wood is not the primary heat source. In this case 2-4 fist sized chunks of wood should be enough to create the right amount of smoke.
If you are using an offset smoker, wood is the primary heat source. We cover what type of wood to use in an offset smoker further on in this guide.
Building a fire in an offset is a topic for another day. This helpful video from T-Roy Cooks to give you a good overview.
If wood is not the primary heat source, many pitmasters find that adding the wood chunks to the coals once they are hot, and the meat and thermometers are all set up, is the easiest way to start producing smoke. To ensure that you start getting good smoke right away, make sure the wood is touching the hot coals.
Some pitmasters bury the wood chunks in the unlit coals, whereas others layer coals and wood chips and then light the coals using the minion method.
Matching wood ‘flavor profile’ with what you’re cooking
Judging by the number of guides and charts out there which outline the flavor profiles of different wood types and what meat it should be matched with, you would be forgiven for thinking that this kind of knowledge is imperative to pulling off a successful barbecue.
What if I told you that the evidence points to the shocking fact that this obsession with wood flavors may actually be a little over the top.
In actual fact, where the tree grew is more likely to impact the flavor profile of the smoke than the type of tree it is. Meathead Goldwyn of Amazingribs.com refers to data from the Forest Encyclopedia Network when he makes this interesting statement:
Indeed, many budding pitmasters obsess over what type of wood they are smoking with rather than the more important factor of where it was grown. Steven Raichlen in his book “Project Smoke” reminds us of yet another important point to keep in mind that may be overlooked at times.
“The wood variety matters less than how you burn it. And while each wood variety produces smoke with a slightly different color and flavor, if your new to smoking, the major hardwoods (hickory, oak, apple, cherry and maple) all work equally well.”
Believing that certain types of wood can impart different flavors is mostly wishful thinking. The tables and graphics look nice, but it’s mostly companies copying the same information off each other to create nice looking graphics for marketing.
The bottom line is, learning the techniques behind creating good smoke is going to pay higher dividends than tirelessly matching specific woods with specific meats.
Which types of wood are best to smoke with
Your choice of wood is slightly more important if you use an ‘old school’ style wood burning smoker.
In this video, Aaron Franklin runs through what wood characteristics he looks for for an ‘optimal smoke’.
The main points you need to consider:
- If the wood has been left to dry out for around 6 months, it is just right for using on your barbecue. This is because there is still enough moisture in the wood to create smoke, without being too sappy.
- Store bought woods are likely kiln dried, which means they will burn hot and fast. This may prove challenging when trying to control the temperature and length of your cook.
- Another advantage of using wood with some moisture remaining in it is that the wood will burn slower at a lower heat. Clearly, this is good news if you aim to cook ‘low and slow’.
Even though most evidence says that the belief different types of wood produce different flavors is mostly barbecue myth, there are some general rules of thumb that seem to hold true.
- Oak – Burns slow and even, has a mild flavor, and is generally a good wood for smoking.
- Hickory – Also good for smoking, with a stronger flavor than oak.
- Pecan – With a stronger, smoky and sweet flavor, this wood is better for shorter smokes. If used for longer smokes, the flavor can become overpowering.
- Mesquite – Strong flavored wood, which burns hot and fast, and produces a lot of smoke. Best used for grilling, or to burn down as coals.
- Fruit woods – Mild in flavor, and can be used green.
Types of wood you should never smoke with
There are also some types of wood you should definitely not smoke with which we have listed below.
|Elm||Spruce||Poisonous Walnut (other walnut wood is fine)|
- You should never use wood that has been painted, stained or treated in any way. You also should not use lumbar scraps, or bits of wood from old pellets, as there is no way of knowing what type of wood it is, or what chemicals it has been exposed to.
- You can use cedar for flavoring your food like with cedar plank salmon, but I wouldn’t recommend using it as a primary smoke wood.
- Avoid old wood that is covered in mold or fungus. Molds and fungi can contain toxins that, when released in the smoke and coated on your food, could make you or your guests ill.
- Avoid softwoods. You may have deduced this when reading through our list of woods not to use. Softwoods are not a good idea because they are sappy, and contain terpenes. These can leave your meat tasting odd. Worse still, some people feel ill after eating meat smoked using these kinds of wood.
Tips to help generate a ‘smoke ring’
The smoke ring is caused when smoke from burning fuel hits your meat and reacts with the myoglobin to fix the ping / red color. While it doesn’t change the flavor, it’s still highly desirable and a sign of an expert pit master.
- Use cold meat to start with, and keep the meat moist throughout the cook. You can accomplish this by spritzing (using plain old H2O is fine) and keeping the atmosphere humid by putting a water pan in your cooker. This will help the smoke stick to the surface of your meat.
- Use a spice rub. Not only will it add to the flavor of your meat, but it will encourage more smoke to stick.
- Add your wood early, when the meat is still cool. This is when meat takes up most smoke flavor without you having to intervene. One word of caution, while you want to get the wood on as early as possible, wait until the fire is hot and the coals have stopped smoking before you add the wood.
Wood controversies people love to obsess about
Conventional wisdom tells us that wood should be soaked before smoking it. The idea is that soaking the wood will slow down the burn, and provide more consistent heat. We’ve even seen people suggest soaking wood chips in beer, wine or fruit juice to add “more complexity”.
We found this suggestion from the LA times especially laughable.
“The liquid will infuse the chips with flavour as they soak, giving the food more depth and dimension as it smokes. Try adding a little apple juice for light and fruity notes, perhaps a little red wine to add some spice notes. A touch of rum added to the soaking liquid can lend a nice hint of caramel when smoking something delicate.”
Let’s put this idea to bed for good. When in doubt I like to consult the experts, and if they all agree then there tends to be a good reason.
Soaking your wood could adversely affect the quality of the smoke that is produced. The smoke you want is thin and blue. Soaked wood produces white, billowy smoke.
If you’re still not convinced, Meathead Goldwyn of Amazingribs.com conducted an experiment to see how much water actually gets absorbed by the wood.
Certainly not enough of a difference to warrant calling off your barbecue plans because you forgot to soak your chunks.
While some pitmasters still claim soaking chips is worth it, most agree that soaking chunks isn’t. Ultimately, you may need to experiment yourself to make a call on this one. But don’t lose any sleep over it.
Should you use green or seasoned wood
Many will advise you to use wood that has been dried, arguing that too much sap will produce pungent smoke and can burn irregularly. Also, the flavors that excessively sappy wood produces can be unexpected, and not in a good way.
On the other hand, some moisture in the wood can help the wood burn slower, which can make temperature control a little easier. And if you are after a stronger smokey flavor, the extra smoke that comes off the moisture in the wood isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It really comes down to what taste you are after.
Should you leave the bark on or bark off
Many pitmasters take the bark off the wood, claiming it will affect the flavor and the way the wood burns. Others leave it on and report no ill effects. Of course, each piece of wood will have differing amounts of bark, so sometimes this decision needs to be made on a case by case basis.
Blending woods to create unique flavor combinations
People get hung up on what type of wood they use to smoke, so you can imagine the angst that ensues when the suggestion of mixing woods is brought up.
To keep things simple when you are starting out, it might be a good idea to stick with on type of wood and get a feel for the flavor each type of wood exhibits. Once you have an idea of what to expect from each variety, mix it up. Enjoy experimenting, and you might just come up with something that really works well for you.
Where to buy wood
Of course, in an ideal world, we would all have a supply of free, perfectly aged wood at our disposal. But for most of us, this isn’t the case and we will have to purchase our wood.
BBQ stores: Your local BBQ store is a good place to start. Wood is likely to be sold by weight or volume in pre-packed bags. If your local BBQ store sources wood locally, you might even be able to save on shipping costs. While hickory and mesquite can be purchased at most hardware stores, specialty BBQ stores are also likely to stock alder, apple, cherry, oak, and pecan as well.
Amazon: You will find a wide variety of smoking wood chunks and chips on Amazon, which will come pre packaged, much like you would get from a BBQ store. There is likely to be a minimum weight you will have to purchase. Make sure you have enough room to store the amount of wood you purchase. Just keep an eye on shipping costs before you buy, as shipping can often cost as much as the wood itself.
If you don’t go through a lot of wood then the wood chunks by
It’s worth shopping around though, especially if you want to stock up. This 10lb bag is a good option if you want a good sppply.
Wood suppliers: Aside from wood suppliers you may already know of in your local area (search “wood supplier + your area in Google), you can find suppliers using this list If you find a good supplier, you should be able to access more specific wood types, and the supplier may even be able to give you more information about how old the wood is and where it comes from.
Forage for it: If you’ve got the time and live outside the city, then going out and collecting your own wood could be an option. Turan from Coldsmoking Cookery School suggests going out foraging after fall or spring winds.
You will need to have a keen eye for different types of wood though, as you don’t want to accidentally smoke with some elm or pine.
If you need to use the wood straight away your best option is to harvest during the winter when the sap content is lower.
11 Tips for smoking with wood
The following tips should give you a good quick guide to using wood on your barbecue. Our suggestions have been thoroughly tested and backed up by experts, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t experiment.
If you want to try soaking your wood chips in craft beer first, by all means go ahead. Part of the fun of learning about barbecue is experimenting with all the different methods.
- Get your smoke from wood – This may seem obvious. However, if your charcoal is smoking, don’t assume that the smoke coming from it is just as good as smoke from wood. Remember that tasty smoke comes from wood. And don’t worry if your smoking wood catches alight. The thin, clean smoke from burning wood is better than fluffy white smoke from incomplete combustion.
- Store your logs outside – In order for your wood to dry out a little, outside is the ideal place for it to be stored. Keep in mind that you should store your wood up off the ground. This will stop your wood from becoming damp, getting moldy or rotting out completely.
- Consider the size of your chunks – The longer you want to cook, the bigger your wood chunks should be. For short cooks such as chicken or fish, wood chips or pellets are ideal. For a longer cook, wood chunks anywhere between the size of a golf ball and a baseball will produce consistent smoke for longer.
- Don’t use wood that smells bad – If your wood smells musty, don’t assume that the smell will burn off. It won’t, and the flavor of your cook will be affected. Remember that moldy wood is also not safe to burn due to the toxins that certain molds release.
- Learn to control the oxygen – A layer of gray soot all over your meat is not the result of good smoke, but rather the result of burning coals with insufficient oxygen. The good news is that this soot can be washed off your meat, and you can try again. Before putting the meat back in the cooker, make sure you have got your oxygen flow right. Another tip is to get rid of ash in the fire, as this can smother the coals and lead to a sooty outcome.
- Practice makes perfect – If you are new to this, don’t underestimate the wisdom of a couple of “dry runs” without food. This way you will learn to control the temperature of your barbecue, how to light it and when to add more wood to get the smoke you are after.
- Invest in good thermometers – If you read the section on how smoke is formed, you likely picked up that the temperature has a lot to do with the type of smoke you are getting, let alone knowing where your meat is up to as far as the cooking goes. This is not something you can guess. A good digital thermometer will tell you exactly what is going on in there, and armed with this knowledge you will be able to react accordingly.
- Keep your cooker clean – Black, sticky residue will not add a good taste to your barbecue. In fact, the smoke that billows off this substance will most likely be full of creosote. Also, grease that drips off dirty grates into the fire will make some nasty smoke.
- Trust your senses – Your barbecue should smell good, and by that I don’t mean like a burnoff. The smell of the meat and the spices you have used should be distinctive, and the smell of the smoke should be sweet.
- Cook indirectly for longer cooks – Cooking indirectly means the heat source is in a chamber separate to where your food sits, like in an offset cooker. If you cook indirectly there is no chance of the moisture or fat from the meat dripping onto the fire. For shorter cooks, this isn’t such an issue. But when cooking low and slow, cooking indirectly is best.
- Drain and dry unused soaked chips – If you decide that soaking your chips is worth the effort, then make sure you drain off and dry out any soaked chips that you do not use. Otherwise you will soak the flavor right out of the chips before you get a chance to smoke them.
Get the gear
Particularly if you plan on using wood as your primary fuel source, you will need a bit of gear to make your life easier. Here are a few products we recommend.
Firewood rack – It’s a good idea to store you wood off the ground it from rotting. Check out our article on wood racks if you would like a complete run down on the benefits of using a wood rack. We really like the Woodhaven range, as they are sturdy, and come with a lifetime structural warranty.
Another great feature of Woodhaven racks is that they come with a cover to protect your wood from the elements. The clever design also means that the cover moves down as your pile becomes smaller.
We recommend the smaller 3 foot rack if you’re not turning out a lot of barbecue. It will hold ⅛ cord of wood and is about half the price of the larger Woodhaven rack.
Axe – A reliable axe and a great swing are important if you plan on buying larger logs and then splitting them into chunks. Friskars have a range of axes. For taller people, the 36 inch axe is designed for maximum efficiency. Weighing 5.85 pounds, this axe comes with a lifetime warranty.
If you have split wood before, you likely understand the frustration of getting the blade stuck in the wood. Friskars have designed an axe head that is shaped to avoid this from happening so much, as well as adding power and efficiency to the blow.
Metal scoop – Cleaning out the ash in your smoker is very important to keep your oxygen flow healthy, and your smoke sweet. A metal scoop will help you get the job done.
The Grabbin Ash Pan is an example of a quality metal scoop. Made in the USA out of heavy grade steel, this scoop will be around for a while. It has an ergonomically designed handle, which will make a task that could become tedious a little more comfortable.
The scoop itself is large, meaning you can get the job done quicker, and the closed sides mean you don’t lose half of the debris you just collected over the scoop’s edges.
The curved bottom works particularly well for cylindrical shaped cookers. While this item is not an absolute necessity, cleaning out the ash from your cooker is. A sturdy, well designed scoop is going to make this job a lot more enjoyable than if you use a scrap of cardboard you reclaimed from your trash.
Leather work gloves – It is easy to forget how much grief a simple blister can cause. It’s easy to avoid if you don a pair of gloves. Besides, when it is cold out, a thick pair of gloves will keep your hands warm too.
Gloves don’t need to be fancy, just well sewn and sturdy. These leather work gloves are perfect for the job. These gloves are made from 100% cowhide, have a reinforced palm area and a handy drawstring so you can pull them in at the wrist to fit.
Keep in mind that if leather gloves seem a little stiff at first, wear them in for a while and they will soften up.
Wrapping it up
We have covered a lot in this article! While wood is integral to barbecue, it need not be something that intimidates a new (or not so new) pitmaster. After grasping some of the basics about how wood burns, the role of smoke, and what types of wood are out there, all that is left to do is practice and have fun!
Do you have any more questions that we have not covered in this post? Or do you have any further tips and tricks that you would like to share with us? Please be sure to comment below. And if you found this article helpful, please be sure to share!