Smoking food is an amazing way to add intense smoky and rich flavors to your meats. But before getting too excited, it is important to know the different types of smoking woods and how to use them.
There are hundreds of different woods available on the market; however, not all of them can be used to smoke food. Some are poisonous, some add strange and off-tasting flavors to the food, and some just don’t have any smoking capabilities.
So, what are the best types of smoking woods for meats? The best smoking woods are hardwoods, such as hickory, pecan, apple, cherry, oak, and mesquite. They provide excellent smoke that can easily infuse into the food, they add appealing and interesting flavors, and some can even become a heat source that helps cook the piece of meat.
In today’s article, we will dive deep into every aspect of smoking wood. We will discuss the different types of wood you can find, their characteristics, the forms you can find them in, and finally where they can be used.
Then, finally, we will have a look at the best type of smoking wood that can be used for various types of meats including poultry, seafood, pork, and beef.
Smoking Wood – Everything You Need To Know
So, let’s first start by discussing the different types of smoking woods that there are.
When choosing a type of smoking wood, it is important to think about the following two aspects, the first being how intense the smoky flavors are, and the second being whether it will complement the flavors of your food.
This might sound straightforward, but there is a lot of important information that needs to be understood before diving in. By understanding how smoking works, you can easily adjust and adapt recipes and methods.
Hardwood vs Softwood
Always smoke with hardwood! This is wood that comes from trees that lose their leaves every year, creating a much denser tree and bark.
You need dense smoking chips because they release their flavors much slower, evenly, and with clean smoke.
Another reason hardwood should be used rather than other types of wood is because they have a much lower moisture and sap content.
Sap in trees has the potential to release dangerous toxins in the smoke that will infuse in your food.
Always make sure that you know exactly what type of wood you are using, especially if you are foraging it yourself. There are many types of wood that aren’t safe to smoke with.
Softwoods burn out quickly and usually burn with black smoke, giving your food an unappealing color and flavor, almost like a campfire would. And, even more, softwood sizzles and bubbles in the heat because of all the moisture it contains.
Like we just mentioned, sometimes this moisture (aka sap) can contain toxins that aren’t safe to consume.
Hardwood Smoking Classifications
Woods can be classified on a smoking flavor scale of mild, medium, and strong. The milder flavors are usually woods from trees that bear fruits. These woods include apple wood, cherry, peach, and pear wood.
Milder woods from fruit trees impart a slightly sweet flavor. These sweet flavors complement white meat best like seafood and poultry.
Whenever you want the natural flavor of a food item to shine above the smoky flavor, always use a fruity wood.
Then, you get more “medium” smoking woods that work great for slightly heartier pieces of meat like pork. Woods in this category include maple, oak, pecan, and hickory.
These woods can even be paired with milder-tasting game meat like venison or turkey.
Oak and hickory tend to be the stronger woods in the medium flavored category. They should be used with care as it is very easy to over-smoke your food.
Mesquite falls into its very own category, being a strong smoking wood.
The flavors it produces are extremely intense so it should be used in moderation, and we actually suggest that it be used in combination with other ingredients.
Mesquite can VERY easily over-smoke food and is best suited with meats that either lack flavor, or if you want to add extremely smoky ones. It works best with regular cuts of beef that aren’t particularly flavorful.
Smoking Wood Forms
These different types of smoking woods come in various forms that can all be used for smoking.
Usually, the piece of equipment will heavily affect the form of wood you will need to use and even the amount of time you need to smoke an item.
For example, logs are best used for pieces that need to smoke for hours, whereas chips or pellets (the smaller versions) will be best used for quick-smoking items.
Whole wood logs are only really used for large smokers. It is used to obviously create the smoke, but it also often acts as the heat source that helps cook the piece of meat.
These logs are quite long-lasting and can easily smoke food anywhere between 45 minutes to 1 1/2 hours.
Chunks are used in smaller smoking drums, small offset cookers, or kamado-style cookers. Chunks are only used to smoke the meat.
Usually, they are placed above charcoal (which supplies the heat) and slowly start to smoke.
Chips are some of the most common forms you can find because of how versatile their use is. They can be used in a wide variety of smokers, including makeshift ones made from pots and colanders!
Chips can be used inside propane-lit smokers, grills, or placed on top of the charcoal. Because of their smaller size, they do tend to burn quickly and need replacing regularly. Chips are the only form that doesn’t provide heat.
These are the smallest form of smoking wood and is made from compressed sawdust. These pellets can provide both smoke and heat.
Keep in mind that there are two types of pellets; ones for stoves and ones for BBQ. These pellets can also be used for cold-smoke foods.
What we love about these pellets is that they are often made from a combination of hardwoods and even sometimes flavored with oils! This can impart very interesting flavors to your food.
Naturally, the longer you place a piece of meat in a smoker, the more smoky flavors it will absorb. Sometimes, especially with the stronger smoking woods, your meat can become completely over-smoked!
The point of smoking meat is of course to have that smoky flavor; however, you don’t want to only taste smoke.
The other purpose of smoking is the beautiful rich color that it adds to the meat. The longer you smoke it, the darker it will become which eventually will make it a bit unappealing.
A fantastic rule of thumb is to smoke your meat for half its cooking time. So if you have a cut that needs to cook for 1 hour, you only have to smoke it for about 30 minutes to achieve the best results.
Best Wood for Smoking Brisket
Brisket is already an extremely flavorful piece of meat, so using an intense smoking wood will only take away from the brisket itself.
The best hardwood for smoking brisket is by far oak and pecan.
Oak is arguably the most used hardwood for smoking, simply because of its versatility. It has an extremely high burning temperature making it perfect to smoke and cook brisket the extreme temperatures that it needs.
Oak does have a milder flavor even compared to other mild smoking woods, but it still adds an amazing classic smoky flavor.
Pecan hardwood naturally infuses meats with nuttier and rich smoky flavors that go exceptionally great with slightly spiced brisket. Many people like pairing pecan wood with another stronger one to balance out the flavors.
Cherry wood is another surprising flavor, although it does make sense that the slightly sweet flavors pair well with those of the salty brisket.
Best Wood for Smoking Ribs
Ribs are a very versatile dish and can be made with a thousand different flavors. Whether or not they have been marinated, the majority of ribs have been smoked.
The smokiness pairs great with the usually salty-sweet flavor combination of the marinade.
While this is great news, it does sometimes make it harder to choose a good smoking wood.
Hickory, pecan, and mesquite are by far the best options, and even safest options, to use for most ribs recipes.
Hickory hardwood adds more of the well-balanced savory-sweet notes that the marinade already has.
Just keep in mind that hickory does smoke a lot which might lead to over smoking your ribs, leaving a bitter taste.
Mesquite, as we have mentioned before, is the strongest flavored and most aromatic hardwood of them all. It should definitely be used in moderation and you shouldn’t over smoke your ribs.
However, if used correctly it adds wonderful earthy flavors that will enhance the sticky sweetness of the ribs.
If you have smaller pieces of ribs that don’t require as much smoking, or you simply prefer lighter smoky flavors, try a fruity smoking wood like apple, cherry, or peach.
Apple is one of our favorite fruity smoking woods to use because of the slightly sweet and floral flavors it gives.
Unfortunately, it has to be smoked for quite some time as it has very mild flavors and it is a very slow burner (meaning it releases those aromas very slowly).
These apple-smoking wood chunks by Camerons are ideal for smoking ribs. Because apple wood has a mild flavor and needs to smoke food for a while before it becomes properly infused, these chunks will help you a lot.
They have a much longer burning time compared to chips or pressed pellets, and will provide the most natural flavor possible.
Ribs also work fantastic with blended woods. Peach wood is nice to blend with as its fruity flavors are easy to match or balance. Another great blending wood is pear and has a very similar flavor profile to that of peach.
Best Wood for Smoking Turkey
Smoked turkey is becoming more and more popular every day and if you have ever had it, you would immediately understand why!
Turkey is almost always smoked with hickory wood because of the very distinctive smokiness it provides.
If you want to serve a sweet sauce with the turkey, we would highly recommend using either maple, cherry, or applewood.
Maple wood, although subtle in flavor, adds a sweetness that pairs wonderfully with the meat without taking away its natural flavor. Cherry and apple on the other hand add a fruity sweetness that can complement any berry sauce.
One of our favorite smoking woods around Thanksgiving is these cherry chunks from Weber. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Weber has a wide variety of fantastic quality smoking woods.
These chunks will burn for quite some time, produce excellent quality and quantity smoke to properly infuse your poultry, and will also last you quite a while. You can have a look at Weber’s apple chunks that will also work very well for smoking turkey.
Best Wood for Smoking Chicken
Chicken is a very easy type of meat to smoke because it easily adapts to any flavor profile, but stay away from extremely strong woods like mesquite, and even hickory.
Chicken can very easily be overpowered, so you should be precise with your smoking times.
Other than that, pretty much any type of smoking wood will work great! When choosing a smoking wood for chicken or any other poultry, rather choose one based on either the accompaniments or the sauce served alongside it.
We would recommend using maple or apple first. Both these have mild and slightly sweet flavors that bring out those of the chicken, while also being very easy to pair with accompaniment.
You should also choose a smoking wood based on its burning abilities. For example, maple burns slow so will release its flavors slowly, preventing you from over smoking the meat.
It also burns hot and will aid in the cooking of your chicken.
Because you need t smoke chicken slowly and delicately, you can use these maple wood chips. These chips will start smoking very quickly and will create a soft smoke that won’t over-smoke your chicken.
Best Wood for Smoking Salmon and Other Fish
Fish is an extremely diverse category of meat to smoke. Just like red and white meat, there are a ton of varying flavors of fish and seafood.
Alder wood is the best all-rounder type of smoking wood that will pair with most seafood. It has very light and sweet smoking qualities that don’t overwhelm the natural flavors of the fish.
Our favorite alder smoking wood product is this one from Smokehouse. It is a very affordable product that will ignite quickly and infuse evenly and effectively.
You will see that these chips will last you some time as they produce a lot of smoke by only using a little.
Other very popular smoking woods that are often used for seafood include pecan and maple. Maple especially adds a familiar sweetness to the item and pairs exceptionally well with salmon.
Pecan wood we would only recommend when using other nutty or earthy elements in your recipe.
For seafood like mussels, clams, and even crab, fruitier woods like apple or cherry compliments it nicely and balance out the sometimes intense fishy tastes.
Our personal favorite wood for fish and other kinds of seafood is blended. We love using 50% fruit wood like apple and 50% oak.
Best Wood for Smoking Pork
Pork is arguably the most smoked type of meat you can find. Not only is fresh pork meat smoked to add flavor, but there are actually products that are almost exclusively smoked.
Pork belly, bacon, and gammon are only a few items that are regularly smoked.
Processed pork meat is also regularly smoked with a wide variety of materials to create entirely different flavor profiles. These include sausages, hams, other sliced meats, and even ground products like Vienna’s.
Woods that generally go great with pork include applewood, oak, and maple. These are lighter woods that complement the saltiness of pork perfectly and even sometimes balance it out.
A fantastic oak wood you can try using are these Western Premium BBQ oak chunks. These chunks are larger in size compared to regular chunks so can be used in a wide variety of smokers and grills.
It has a much lighter flavor compared to other processed oak wood products and will leave your meat with a beautifully balanced flavor.
The best thing about smoking pork though is that it is very difficult to mess up. You can virtually use any type of smoking wood and even any combination.
It is the best meat to start experimenting with when it comes to mixing woods for flavors.
Best Wood for Smoking Beef and Prime Rib
Beef is another very versatile meat to smoke even though very few cuts regularly get smoked. Ribs, which we have already discussed in their own category, are most often smoked, followed by mostly processed beef products such as pastrami.
Hickory is a great wood to start smoking beef with as it blends perfectly with the flavors of the meat. It is quite potent to you will definitely need to take care with the smoking times to prevent over smoking the beef.
Mesquite is another great wood to smoke beef with despite being extremely intense. Any cut of beef should be able to handle its flavor and even complement it well. You can also blend it with other lighter woods like oak or apple.
Prime rib specifically is already a very flavorful cut and shouldn’t be paired with a strong flavored wood like hickory or oak. These will completely overpower that of the cut and will be better suited to more “flavorless” pieces of beef.
Rather use fruity wood like cherry, apple, or peach. They will enhance the meat’s natural flavors and all a subtle sweetness. You can apply this to any other flavorful beef cut like fillet.
If you are looking to practicing smoking with fruity wood, try these Western Premium BBQ peach smoking chips. They are easy to work with and provide fantastic flavor.
|Chicken||Most woods except strong smoking woods|
Now that we’ve gone over the best woods to use for smoking, let’s answer some related questions on the topic!
Should you soak wood before using it to smoke food?
Soaking your wood chips or chunks before using it for smoking purposes is not necessary, despite common knowledge. Wet wood actually reduces its natural smoking abilities and can even dilute the flavor.
Rather, try to use only dry pieces of wood, chunks, or chips.
Are there poisonous woods to avoid smoking with?
There are a few types of wood that are poisonous to food when used for smoking. Any woods covered with vines are usually toxic in one way or another. This includes poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac.
As we have already mentioned, you should avoid any type of softwood like cedar, fir, redwood, cypress, or pine. These woods contain a ton of sap and terpenes which creates a very off taste and can even make people ill.
Is smoked meat bad for you?
Smoked meat isn’t necessarily the harmful part, but rather the charred black areas. Charred areas like this contain carcinogens that have the potential to cause cancer. Do not overcook or over-smoke your meat to reduce this risk.
Can you smoke other food items?
You can definitely smoke much more than just meats. Cheese is also often smoked to add a new interesting flavor profile that is often paired with woody-aged wines.
Other than that, most porous food items can be smoked. This includes fruits, vegetables, and even desserts like cakes or pastries.
Up Next: How To Cook Oysters From A Jar