What wood to use for smoking is a common question asked by those new to smoking meats and there are several factors to consider.
These factors include:
- Hardwood vs Softwood
- Mild vs Medium vs Strong Woods
- What kind of meat you are smoking
- Personal Taste
Hardwood vs Softwood
Hardwoods come from deciduous trees such as oak or maple. Most of these woods are, at the very least, OK for smoking. All of the wood that is good or great for smoking comes from this category. They can vary in the intensity of the flavor they impart to your food.
Softwoods come from conifer trees such as pine or spruce. These woods shound never be used for smoking. Their saps contain toxins that could make you hill. Worse, they would make your food taste horrible!
Milder woods are excellent for smoking meats that have a more delicate flavor such as fish and chicken. Some of the milder woods include:
- Alder: This wood produces a subtle sweet smoke flavor and is good for most foods. It is particularly good for fish and poultry.
- Birch: A wood similar to maple, but milder. It works well with fish and poultry. Many like it for smoking pork as well.
- Maple: The smoke from this wood is sweet and mild. It’s great for poultry. It is also really popular for cheeses and vegetables. Meat smoked with maple tends to have a darker color.
Most of your fruit woods fall under this category. They are generally good for most types of meat. Some of them can be a little strong for fish and a little weak for beef though. Woods in this category include:
- Apple: Apple wood smoke has a sweet and fruity flavor that goes well with just about everything. It is particularly good on pork and poultry
- Blackberry: This wood produces a mild sweet and fruity smoke. It works well with poultry, especially game birds.
- Cherry: Another sweet and fruity wood, cherry is great for pork, chicken, and turkey. Meat smoked with cherry wood tends to be a dark brown on the outside and the meat tends to have a pinkish coloring to it.
- Pear: Similar to apple but with a more subtle flavor, pear wood is ideal for pork and poultry. Depending on where you live, it can be a little more difficult to find though.
Stronger woods tend to be good for smoking pork and beef.
- Hickory: Hickory is a very popular wood for smoking. It is commonly used when cooking pork, especially bacon and ribs. It is used for bacon so often that some people tend to associate its taste with bacon.
- Mesquite: This wood is strongly associated with Texas style barbecue and is one of the strongest flavored woods out there. It works really well with beef, pork and chicken, but due to its strong taste is poorly suited to fish and lighter poultry. If used incorrectly, it can produce a harsh bitter flavor.
- Pecan: A member of the hickory family, pecan wood produces a very distinct flavor that works well with poultry, pork and beef. It’s one of my favorite woods to smoke with.
- Walnut: Walnut smoke imparts a strong bitter flavor, and is often mixed with other woods to help cut that a little. It is ideal for beef and game meats.
Mixing woods when smoking is a common practice to get some unique flavor combinations. It is also sometimes used to cut down the strong bitter flavor of some of the stronger woods. The key here is to identify which flavors might complement each other along with the meat you are smoking.
Staves from wine and whiskey barrels are often broken up to be used in smokers. These provide their own unique flavors depending on what kind of wine or whiskey was in the barrel.
There are some safety factors to take into consideration when acquiring wood for smoking.
First as was stated in the Hardwoods vs Softwoods section, never ever use softwoods.
Any wood that has been painted, pressure treated, or in any other way treated with chemicals should never be used due to the toxic effect those chemicals can have.
Wood that has any mold, mildew, or fungus on it should also never be used.
If you are gathering your wood instead of purchasing it, make sure you are able to correctly identify which type of wood it is that you are gathering.
In The End
It is ultimately up to you which wood you want to use when smoking. Hopefully these tips here will help you to make your decision on which ones to choose for which meats. You could check out our review of Grill Master’s Club for a subscription box that among other things contains various types of wood chips to test out and see which ones you enjoy.
If you have and tips, comments or questions of your own, please feel free to leave them in the comments below.