Barbecue just isn’t barbecue without that smoky flavor. And, when it comes to smoking, wood is just as much about adding flavor as it is about fueling the fire. You could even go as far as saying that the type of wood you use to barbecue meat acts similarly to the spices used to season it. As with spices, when cooking with smoke, aim to use enough to impart good flavor to the dish without overpowering it. To do so, you’ll want to find the best wood for smoking the cut of meat you’re cooking.
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Wood is an important ingredient in any good barbecue
Not all wood can be used for smoking but there are lots of different varieties to choose from. While some infuse the meat with a strong and distinct flavor, others boast more subtle differences that can go unnoticed, especially when combined with a powerful spice rub. The type of woods that are readily available to you will largely depend on where you live. In this article, we’ll give you a run-down of some of the more common types of woods used for smoking and how their use influences flavor.
Mild Woods for Smoking
You’ll want to use a mild wood when you’re smoking a more delicate meat like seafood or chicken. These woods tend to impart a light smoky flavor that’s often described as sweet and/or fruity. They’re also ideal if you don’t enjoy smokier meats.
- Apple – Apple is one of the most popular mild woods and works well with all types of meat for a subtle sweet, fruity flavor.
- Alder – Although alder wood is delicious when used with pork and poultry, it’s most commonly used to smoke fish, particularly salmon. Use alder for a delicate, slightly sweet woody flavor.
- Almond – For a light, slightly nutty flavor, try smoking with almond wood. It makes for a nice flavor addition to seafood and poultry but is suitable for use with all types of meat.
- Cherry – Cherry is the second most commonly used fruit wood. It offers a sweet, fruity smoke that can give a slightly rosy hue to fish and chicken but is great when used with any type of meat.
Moderate Woods for Smoking
Moderate woods are a step up from your mild flavors. They provide a slightly stronger flavor that’s usually still relatively sweet. Most are suitable for fish, poultry and pork but use spices sparingly to avoid covering up the smoking flavor.
- Grapevine – If you live near wine country, using chips from matured grapevines is a great choice for a moderate, more tart but fruity flavor. Use it to cook poultry, pork and some fish.
- Maple – Maple wood has a high sugar content which creates a sweet smoky flavor. It’s great when used to cook poultry and pork but go light on other seasonings.
- Pecan – Pecan wood offers a similar but less intense flavor to the ever-popular hickory wood. It’s a good alternative that’s suitable for all-round cooking of any type of meat.
- Olive – If you like the flavor of mesquite but find it’s taste too intense, try smoking with olive wood. It’s particularly delicious on Mediterranean style poultry dishes.
Strong Woods for Smoking
Strong woods are typically used as go-to woods to smoke almost anything. They’re particularly suitable for cooking larger cuts of meat that can withstand stronger smokes. Most provide a definite, distinct flavor but aren’t so strong that they overpower the overall taste.
- Oak – Oak is one of the most versatile, go-to woods. It’s a nice, dense wood that burns well for a long time, making it ideal to use when cooking larger pieces of meat like beef, pork and game. Oak does have a stronger flavor, but it’s not so strong that you can’t use it on seafood or poultry either. It’s particularly nice when mixed with other woods for a complex smoky flavor and will give the meat a nice smoked.
- Hickory – Hickory wood is heavier than oak and gives off a nuttier flavor. It’s one of the most popular woods and is widely available around the world. Use hickory when cooking pork and beef. It can be used to create a stronger flavor in poultry or mix it with other types of wood for a more subtle flavor.
- Beech – Beech is reasonably mild with a delicate flavor that’s similar to oak. It also burns relatively slowly and evenly, making it ideal for longer barbecuing sessions. Use it with any type of meat or when you’re after a stronger flavor on seafood.
- Acacia – The Acacia tree belongs to the same family as mesquite so you can expect a similar flavor. It is, however, much less intense and bitter making it ideal to smoke most meats. Beef and vegetables are top choices to pair with acacia smoke.
Aggressive Woods for Smoking
Aggressive strength smoking woods should only be used when cooking larger cuts of meat that can handle a hefty smoke flavor. They’re more typically associated with the Texas style of barbecue and should be used carefully as to avoid creating an overpowering and possibly bitter smoky flavor.
- Mesquite – Although mesquite is widely available and used, it’s best used in small amounts and/or in combination with other woods to prevent its strong flavor from imparting a pungent and bitter taste. Use it to create a distinct, earthy and unmissable smoky flavor. It’s suitable for cooking beef, game, lamb or even duck.
- Walnut – Walnut wood creates a strong and deep smoky flavor that’s ideal for larger cuts of beef and game. Use it sparingly or combine it with other lighter flavored woods to avoid overpowering.
- Pimento – Also called allspice, Jamaican pepper, myrtle pepper or newspice, Pimento is an exotic wood that gives off a tangy, herbaceous flavor that’s reminiscent of its berries. It’s usually used in traditional jerk-style barbecue and adds an interesting but strong flavor to poultry or fish.
- Manuka – Manuka is another exotic wood that imparts a strong, intense flavor with a little bit of sweetness. It’s a dense wood with a longer burn time and can be used to cook almost any type of meat or seafood when you’re looking to create a distinct flavor.
Types of Wood to Avoid When Smoking
Not all types of wood are suitable to use for cooking or smoking. Always play it safe by not cooking with any type of wood that hasn’t be confirmed as safe to do so. However, the following types of wood should NEVER be used for cooking:
- Wood with a high sap content – This includes things like pine, cedar and other coniferous trees. Not only does it leave an unpleasant flavor in the meat, it can make you sick. Also avoid elm, eucalyptus and sycamore.
- Green wood – Green wood refers to freshly cut timber that hasn’t been seasoned. Green wood holds too much moisture and sap, making it burn unevenly while giving off an unpleasant flavor.
- Treated wood – Never use wood that’s been chemically treated or stained for cooking. Doing so may make you sick. This includes scrap lumber and plywood.
Chips, Chunks or Logs?
When shopping for the best type of wood for smoking, you’ll find that most types are available in different sizes. The type that you’ll need depends on the cooking time that you require and your type of barbecue. Most gas and electric barbecues only work with wood chips while charcoal and wood smokers can use most forms.
As a general rule, when barbecuing at home, use chips when cooking for less than 2 hours. The larger-style chunks are suitable when smoking for more than 2 hours. Simply replenish the supply with small bits at a time so you can maintain a steady flow of smoke. Logs are usually only necessary for use in large commercial smokers.
Experimenting with the Best Wood for Smoking
The best person to dictate what the best wood for smoking is, is the diner! Experiment by cooking with different types of wood until you find one that you like. Try mixing two or more woods together to find your ideal level of smoky flavor. You’ll also want to try different spice rubs to find something that compliments the smoky flavor without overpowering it. Don’t forget to try each wood with a simple salt and pepper seasoning before you start adding other flavors. Check out our spicy coffee dry rub for some inspo.