Ultimate Guide to Smoking with Wood

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Best Wood for Smoking

Ultimate Guide to Smoking with Wood – Best Wood for Smoking

Changing up the type of wood you’re using is a great way to add and change the flavor of your food when smoking. The smoke produced from the wood is what can give your food the unique BBQ flavors. There’s a lot to think about when cooking with wood, you have to take into account the type, the size, the moisture level and many other factors about the wood you’re using. In this guide, we’ll break down the huge topic of smoking with wood and hopefully give you a better idea to the best wood for smoking certain foods and how to make the most out of wood smoking.

Types of Wood

Quick Overview

The type of wood you use is probably the most important thing to think about when smoking with wood. If you’re using wood to heat and flavor, or if you’re just using the wood to flavor then the final taste of the meat is always going to be very dependent on the type of wood used. Here’s a quick overview of what types of wood work best with each type of food:

All of these woods will work just fine when it comes to smoking but the ones with ticks are the wood pairings we find to work the best.

In-Depth Look

Generally, the best woods for smoking are cured hardwoods. Cured basically means it’s been dried. You’re looking for a drying period of 6 to 12 months depending on your climate. Kiln dried woods can sometimes be a bit too dry for smoking. They work best in pizza ovens because they burn very hot and clean. Very little smoke comes from kiln dried wood compared to naturally dried wood. There needs to be enough moisture in the wood to allow a sufficient amount of smoke to form. If you pick up a piece of wood and it’s like you’re holding a lump of cotton candy then it might be a bit too dry for smoking. You’re looking for a bit of weight to it from the moisture.

Woods not to use:

Any softwoods are not recommended. Also, anything that has a high content of sap will likely cause too much smoke. Evergreen woods are a no go. For example, any conifers aren’t very good because of their sap level, so stay away from pine, spruce, redwood and cedar. Cedar can be used as a plank to smoke salmon on, which we’ll cover later, but it isn’t a good wood to smoke with. Stick to hardwoods, especially from nut or fruit trees.

It goes without saying, do not ever use any wood that has been treated with chemicals or painted. No old fences or garden tables. The chemicals found in these are very likely to be dangerous when burnt and if you’re cooking with them there’s a high chance that they could make you very ill or worse. Stick to natural hardwoods.

Best Wood for Smoking

Whilst it’s difficult to give an accurate description of the taste of the woods, we’re going to provide a rundown of the type of tastes that the woods are likely to give your food. The type of meat and the rubs and sauces you use are going to be much more prevalent in the final flavor but there is definitely an enhancement from the type of wood you use which can add a great additional layer to the taste of the meat. If you’re using wood to provide the heat and the flavor then the type of wood you choose is much more important and will give a lot more flavor to the end result.

Remember that there are a lot of variables to consider when it comes to how the wood will affect the taste of the food, including where and how long the wood has grown for or amount of bark, but this is our best attempt at giving you an idea at what to expect. A lot of woods act quite similarly and give off somewhat similar flavors. Also, woods are regional and what is readily available for some might be more difficult to find for others. If you’re in a situation where you can only use a certain type of wood then you’ll be able to manage with just that. You can get away with almost any wood with a little practice and some knowledge under your belt. Having said that, we’re living in the digital age now and buying all kinds of different wood is as easy as logging onto Amazon and clicking a few buttons.

Wood Chunks for Smoking

 

Alder: This is a milder wood that generally burns quite low. Mild woods are good for whiter meats, fish and vegetables. Alder is generally used for smoking salmon as it gives a subtle, but sweet flavor and a hint of smokiness.

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Apple:  Apple is one of the classic smoking woods. It burns quite hot and gives a decent smoky flavor. It can work well with any meat or veg and gives a bit of a sweet, fruity flavor. It’s great to use with lighter meats and fish. Apple wood is a great companion to ribs and you’ll find that a lot of the best ribs around are cooked over apple wood.

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Cherry: This burns fairly hot and gives off a decent amount of smoke. It’s sweet and leaves a mild smoke taste. It’s similar to apple but we think it’s more versatile and goes better with darker meats such as beef. Also, it tends to darken the meat during cooking which makes your brisket look even better.

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Hickory: Hickory tends to burn hot and produce a strong smoke. Some say it has a fairly distinct bacon flavor which we think is fairly accurate. It definitely makes red meats meatier and gives them a good smoky flavor. Hickory is very popular and is a go to for a lot of people when smoking red meat.

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Lilac: Lilac burns quite low with a very mild smoke. It gives a subtle flavor with a floral hint that makes it a good choice for cheese, fish and poultry. It’s an unusual choice for smoking but the results are very pleasant.

Maple: Maple burns quite hot and quick but leaves a very nice mild smoke flavor. It works well with vegetables, fish, poultry and can work with pork. It can be quite sweet and is sometimes even used with cold smoking cheese to give strong cheeses a sweeter taste.

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Mesquite: This is probably the strongest flavored smoke. It burns hot and fast and gives a lot of smoke. This is probably better for grilling than smoking. The smoke flavor can be overpowering and leave a bitter taste to your food if too much of it is used. We recommend burning it down to coals and then using it for grilling steaks or chicken. There are better options for smoking, but if you can only buy mesquite you’ll still get a get tasting result.

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Mulberry: Mulberry is an interesting one. It leaves a fairly mild smoke taste and is similar to apple wood. It has a bit more of a tang and reminds us of blackberries. We think this works really nicely in combination with apple wood rather than by itself.

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Oak: There a several different types of oak which all work very well. Oak tends to be our go to wood along with hickory. All types of oak burn relatively similarly and leave a mild smoke flavor. We’ve found oak to be one of the most consistent woods to smoke with.

Aaron Franklin uses oak as his primary smoking wood. Here’s what he has to say about it:

‘We only use post oak at the restaurant. Oak burns really clean, it’s a nice even heat, it’s not over powering.’ – Aaron Franklin

The consistency and the mild flavor means that it can work with anything. If you’re looking for a good all round wood then oak is the one to go with.

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Orange: Orange wood burns fairly hot and gives off a medium smoke flavor. It’s fairly light tasting and even a little fruity. We’d recommend with poultry or pork.

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Peach: Peach burns similarly to cherry. It has a mild smoke flavor and a sweet, almost fruity tang to it. Like most fruit woods, it’s better with white meats. This goes well with pork and poultry.

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Pear: Pear wood burns similarly to apple wood. It can get quite hot but produces a decent smoky flavor. Again, it’s similar to other fruit woods and can leave a slightly sweet flavor. You can easily switch out peach, pear, plum, cherry, orange and apple and get similar results. Pear wood is good for pork and poultry.

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Pecan: Pecan wood burns nice and hot and gives a strong smoke flavor. It gives off a slightly sweet taste but is noticeably different from other sweet woods as it’s much more smoky. Pecan is ideal for shorter cooks as it can give a strong smoky flavor quickly, whilst also being sweet enough to counter the full on smoke taste. This works very well with chicken and other poultry and is ideal for ribs.

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Plum: Plum wood has a medium heat burn and gives off a mild smoke. It goes great with whiter meats as it’s quite sweet. A good choice for chicken, turkey, pork and fish.

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Walnut: Walnut is another fast and hot burner that creates a very smoky flavor. It’s somewhat similar to Mesquite and it’s probably better for grilling that it is smoking. It works well with mixtures of lighter wood if you’re looking to use it for smoking. A mix of Walnut and Apple creates a nice, heavy smoke flavor that isn’t too overpowering.

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Best Wood for Smoking Brisket and Beef

We find that the heavier smoke flavored wood works much better for brisket and other cuts of beef. As brisket is generally quite a tough meat and needs a lot of time in the smoker, the best woods will be something that can burn cleanly and at moderate temperatures for a long time, whilst producing a good quality smoke. You have quite a few options here, some people tend to go straight for mesquite as it’s the heaviest smoke producer of the lot. This will probably give you a good brisket but you always run the risk of it being bitter and after 12 hours of working on your brisket you don’t want to ruin it because of the wrong choice of wood.

Our go to for brisket is oak. Oak burns well, it’s clean and consistent. It might not give the same smoke flavor as mesquite but that isn’t to say the flavor is worse. You won’t ever get that bitter smoke taste with oak, it’s generally a better wood for long smokes. If you’re looking to mix it up a bit, then hickory is a good alternative. Also, we recommend adding in some apple or cherry to both oak and hickory to add a little sweetness to the flavor.

 

Best Wood for Smoking Turkey

As turkey is quite a delicate meat, going for just oak or hickory can sometimes be a little overkill and is likely to be too much for the bird, making it bitter. Adding in other flavors such as cherry, apple, or pecan can make a nice combination of flavors that really bring the turkey alive whilst protecting yourself from a bitter bird.

If you’re looking for a single wood type to smoke a turkey then we’d probably recommend cherry. It has a mild smoke taste but it’s sweet enough to compliment the turkey nicely. Also, cherry will give your turkey a brilliant color that will look fantastic when serving. So, we’d say that the best wood chips for smoking turkey are cherry.

 

Best Wood for Smoking Ribs and Pork

Pork is an interesting meat because it can work well with any wood. Ham and thinner cuts of pork go great with apple and cherry, whilst a nice big pork butt can even be smoked with mesquite and you’ll still get a great outcome if you’re careful. If you’re looking for an all round wood that can handle any part of the pig, then our choice would be oak or apple. Oak and apple are both so versatile and consistent that they can smoke most food just fine.

There is a better option for ribs though. The best wood for smoking ribs is pecan. Pecan burns quite fast and is ideal if you’re looking for a shorter smoke that still has a strong smoke flavor. This is idea for ribs. Pecan also a sweet taste to counter the heavy smoke taste. Again, this is perfect for ribs as many times you’ll be adding a sweet sauce or rub to your ribs. Pecan is the perfect match for ribs.

 

Best Wood for Smoking Lamb

If you’re thinking of smoking lamb then we’d recommend first getting yourself a piece of mutton or older lamb. Most lamb will work better not smoked (still great smoked though) but a tougher cut of lamb with more connective tissue will work just great low and slow. A wood that is too heavy with the smoke will almost certainly ruin the lamb as it’s quite a mild meat. The heaviest smoke we’d go to is oak again, but we’ve had the most success with apple. Apple is sweet enough and mild enough to let the lamb’s natural flavors come through without too much intervention from the smoke flavor.

 

Best Wood for Smoking Salmon and other Seafood

With any type of seafood, it’s best to use a wood that provides a very mild taste. If you add too much smoke you’ll easily ruin the fish because it tends to be very delicate. One of the best woods for smoking salmon and other seafood is alder. Alder produces a very mild smoke flavor and doesn’t burn too hot which is ideal for salmon. An alternative for salmon is maple wood. Maple burns hot and quick which is good for smoking fish as they tend to smoke for shorter times. It gives a sweet taste that accompanies salmon very well.

 

Best Wood for Smoking Chicken

Chicken, like pork, is very versatile when it comes to which wood smokes it best. It can work well with almost any wood except the very heavy smoking woods such as mesquite. You can get a lot of very nice flavors going using some of the fruit tree woods, such as apple or cherry. Chicken is a light meat so it can benefit from a lighter, sweeter, sometimes fruity flavor. But our favourite is probably pecan again. Chicken tends to smoke and grill much better at shorter times so to get a proper smoke taste in a shorter time pecan is perfect. It also has a nice sweet taste to it which helps balance out the smokiness.

 

Best Wood for Smoking Vegetables

This is also quite dependent on the vegetables you’re using. As a general rule of thumb, you’re going to want to give the veg a nice smoky flavor without overpowering it, whilst also trying to match some of the sweeter flavors in the veg. If we’re smoking up just vegetables we’ll go for maple wood. It’s quick burning, which tends to be better for veg, and has a nice sweet taste that accompanies the vegetables well. Don’t get too caught up with vegetable smoking wood as most veg will be fine with most wood. It’s fine to smoke some veg on the same wood as you’re doing a pork shoulder, for example. But if you’re smoking up just veg then maple is a great choice to give you maximum flavor.

 

Best Wood for Smoking Venison

Venison is usually smoked for a very long time. Sometimes up to 24 hours. This requires a wood that doesn’t have an overpowering smoke such as mesquite. We’ve found the best wood for smoking deer meat is probably hickory or oak. Either of these will give that rich, earthy flavor that makes venison so tasty. You’ll get a good smoke taste without it being overpowering and as the smoke will be for a long time it’s more likely that you won’t taint the meat with hickory or oak as they are both more manageable than mesquite. If you’re doing a shorter smoke then we’d definitely recommend trying mesquite as it has a natural earthy flavor as well. If done right this can really enhance the flavors.

 

Shapes of Wood and how they affect your smoke

Using wood for your BBQ isn’t as simple as throwing a few logs onto the fire and hoping for the best. There are several different shapes and sizes that wood can come in. All of them react differently when burned and are used for different scenarios. In this section, we’ll go over the different styles that you can buy and use wood.

Logs

Logs are generally used if you are cooking on a stick burner. A stick burner is simply a grill or smoker that uses only wood as its fuel source. In this scenario, the type of wood that is being used is very important as it has a much greater impact on the final flavor of the food. The logs are burned down to embers before any of the cooking takes place. Through adjusting dampers a temperature of 275°F is required for ideal smoking. This is a bit higher than other smoking because wood will produce a better smoke at higher temperatures.

Read More: ‘Best Smoker Thermometers’

Other than using stickburners and pizza ovens, logs should never be used. They are too big and too unpredictable. They will likely cause uneven cooking areas and create undesirable smoke.

Chunks Wood Chunks for Smoking

Wood chunks are roughly fist size lumps of wood that are used as flavor enhancers when smoking. They will be placed on top of the charcoal in your smoker and will slowly smoulder to give off a flavored smoke. The benefits of using chunks of wood is that a couple of chunks is all that it takes to flavor a small load of food. They burn slow and steady and give off a consistent smoke. This means that chunks are generally one of the best choices of wood to enhance the flavor of your food. They’ll only need to be added at the start of smokes and you won’t have to keep opening up the smoker to add more.

Chips Wood Chips for Smoking

Wood chips are pieces of wood smaller than chunks. They are usually around the size of poker chips and are one of the most common ways of adding flavor. Chips burn much quicker than chunks because of the increased surface area to volume ratio so it’s likely that you’ll have to add more to your smokes part way through. They tend to be good choices for smaller smokes that have shorter cooking cycles. As they will need to be replaced for longer smoking cycles we’d recommend chunks over chips for anything over 4 hours. Chips also tend to be more expensive per pount. They still work great and come in a huge range of flavors but you’ll likely get more for your money if you buy chunks instead.

Pellets

Wood pellets are small, cylindrical food-grade wood pellets that are about ¼ inch wide. They are generally made from compressed hardwood sawdust that has been squeezed together and heated. The squeezing action is so effective that the wood begins to leak a natural bonding agent that binds together the pellets in the desired shape. Therefore, they usually contain no extra fillers or additives and burn very clean, efficiently and hot. They also produce very little ash. Pellets come in several flavors and can be used in pizza ovens as well as dedicated pellet smokers.

Pellet smokers can regulate the temperature very accurately and automatically. They can auger in more pellets when needed which makes pellet smokers some of the best smokers available today.

Pellets can of course be used as just flavor enhancers rather than the fuel source as well. What’s good about pellets for flavor is that they come in many different flavors, including Jack Daniels. They burn for a decent amount of time but are very controllable. It’s much more accurate to add a couple more pellets than it is to add another chunk.

 

Tips and Tricks

  • Should you soak wood for smoking? We used to soak wood when we first started out because all over the internet and in some books, it tells you to soak your wood. The idea behind it is that you’ll get longer and more consistent smoke produced from wood with a higher moisture level. Others argue that you shouldn’t soak your wood because it doesn’t do much and actually slows down the time it takes for your smoker and the wood to heat up. This is correct, it does slow down the time it takes for the wood and the smoker to heat up and start smoking properly, but we don’t see this as a problem if you’re already looking to be smoking for 8 to 12 hours. The reason we stopped is because we can’t really tell the difference in the final product or the process. We didn’t find ourselves having to tend to the wood any more if we kept the wood dry rather than wet and we didn’t find waiting longer to get a hot smoker a problem. We’d recommend finding wood that has been air cured for about 6 to 9 months and burn that dry. This leaves a bit of moisture in the wood naturally which will give you more than enough smoke. This way you won’t have to deal with finding the best way to soak the wood etc. Keep it simple, don’t bother messing around making your job harder or complicating things.
  • Always place the wood onto the fire or hot coals with a pair of tongs to keep it as safe and easy as possible. Wood Chunks for Smoking
  • If you’re looking to create more smoke on your gas grill then we highly recommending picking up Mo’s Smoking Pouch. It’s a stainless steel pouch designed to hold wood chips. There is limited air allowed into the pouch so the wood can never properly combust, instead it smokes. And it works really well! Placed on top of a cooking grate on a gas grill it’ll start smoking within a few minutes and really add flavor to your food. Another option to increase your smoke output is the A-Maze-N Pellet Smoker. This is a small metal basket that is filled with pellets to give you heaps of smoke. It works great and can produce smoke for up to 11 hours.
  • Always use a good digital thermometer to measure your temperatures. You could also use an automatic temperature controller if you have a charcoal smoker. Don’t trust the thermometer on your smoker. A digital thermometer will give an accurate reading of the inside of the meat and the inside of the smoker. This information is invaluable and will greatly improve your BBQ. It’s even more important if you’re cooking with just wood as the temperatures are so volatile. Use our times and temperature tables to make sure whatever you’re cooking is cooked to perfection.
  • If you’re cooking salmon then another way to use wood to enhance the taste is to plank it. This is where you take a plank of cedar that has been soaked in water, place the salmon on top of it and then put the wood on the grill. This will heat the wood, water and salmon. The salmon will almost steam instead of smoke from the steam released from the wood and the wood won’t burn because it’s full of water. This is a really interesting and fun way of cooking salmon and we’d recommend everyone try it out. Here’s a simple recipe.
  • Experiment and practice with different types of woods. Whilst we can give you some advice to what we like, you might not enjoy the same taste as us. We’d highly recommend picking up several different types of wood and mixing and matching them to different types of food to see what you like the most.

We hope that this has helped you out if you were having problems with your smoking wood. If you have any other questions then please let us know in the comments below.

Thanks to eyeflyer on flickr for the featured image.

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