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The Best Wood for Smoking Meat? It’s Not Complicated

It’s probably the most asked question in barbecue, what’s the best wood for smoking chicken? Beef? Pork? Fish? Turkey? Etc. We’re going to be straight up and say, there are absolutely no hard or fast rules!

Yes, the type of smoking wood used will impact it’s taste. But, the charts that say use this with that are really just a guide that shows some of the more popular flavor combinations.

Our rule is that if you’re eating it, cook what tastes good to you. Even if that means breaking away from the commonly suggested pairings. Just do what you want.

In this guide we give you suggestions on which type of wood to use for smoking beef, chicken, pork, turkey, fish, and game meats. The information you’ll read here is a mixture of our own experience and the knowledge of barbecue greats such as Meathead Goldwyn, Aaron Franklin, and Rodney Scott who you’ll find referred to in this article

Think of this as your starting point. You have permission to ignore us and do your own thing just because you want to. Your barbecue won’t break and neither will your meat.

But, read our recommendations, grab a couple of different woods to try out, and work out what you like so that you can cook your own version of the best backyard barbecue. Just remember to have fun while you’re doing it!

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Table of Contents

Why Picking the Right Wood Type Matters in BBQ

It’s true that wood is an important ingredient in any good barbecue. But, depending on how you use it, there’s actually two parts to choosing a wood for barbecue; the heat and the flavor.

Wood for Heat

If you’re using an electric smoker that’s relying on that element to create the heat then your wood chips are just providing the flavor and you don’t really need to consider the way they burn.

Similarly, although charcoal can flavor your food it’s best used for heat with wood chunks added for flavor.

But, if you’re using a pure wood fire in an offset, pit or even pellet smoker, pay attention to how the wood burns too. As Meathead Goldwyn states “controlling combustion is by far the most important aspect of the flavor of smoke, far more important than the species of wood.”

Some woods burn better than others, creating more heat and a ‘cleaner’ smoke.

And, most wood blends and a lot of what appear to be pure, prepackaged woods and pellets are actually a mix of at least two woods.

The manufacturer has already included your base wood, which is often oak, because it burns so well. The cherry, apple, maple, etc., is there for the flavor. And, that’s okay! It’s an easy option where the work is done for you.

But, if you want to really learn more and experiment with all the flavors and burns that different woods can give, you can look for pure options or cut and dry your own.

Wood for Flavor

After providing the heat for you to cook, smoke does infuse the food with it’s own, often distinctive flavor. Different types of wood will give off different flavors and which type of wood you use can really impact the end result of your barbecue.

But, there’s no rulebook saying you must pair oak with beef or cherry with pork.

Nope, barbecue is more of a creative art than a science. The type of wood you use won’t make or break your meat. But, it can shake up the flavor and really change the taste of that brisket.

So, how do you know what type of wood to use?

Originally, the type of wood used for smoking was purely based on what was available. That’s how regions got their own disinct flavors.

Now, we can buy wood online and it gets shipped around opening up a whole world of options.

There’s woods for strong, wood for sweet, classics like hickory, or more mellow bases that let the flavor of other things shine on through.

You can stick strictly to one wood type or mix and match to create your own smoky masterpiece. It’s a fun variable to mess around with and is all about making your barbecue uniquely yours.

There’s more about that below.

Types of Smoking Woods

Mild Woods for Smoking

Mild woods are the go to for smoking more delicate things like seafood and poultry. These woods tend to impart a light smoky flavor that’s often described as sweet and/or fruity.

They’re also ideal if you just prefer a lighter smoke profile, or want any rubs and sauces to be the main event.

Apple is one of the most popular mild woods and works well with all types of meat for a subtle sweet, fruity flavor.

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.

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.

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.

Peach wood adds a subtle fruity flavor that works wonders, especially with pork, chicken, and fish. No frills, just a straightforward way to amp up your grilling game with a touch of natural sweetness.

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. They’re generally used for fish, poultry, and pork.

Use spices and sauces sparingly if you don’t want to cover up the woody flavor.

Oak is one of the most versatile, go-to woods for smoking.

It’s a nice, dense wood that gives off even heat for a long time which is why it’s often used as the base for hardwood pellet blends.

I typically use pure oak as my staple and so does pitmaster Aaron Franklin, the owner of Franklin BBQ. In terms of flavor, I think of oak as your classic barbecue flavor that’s ideal for smoking and not overpowering, even for really long smokes.

Maple wood has a high sugar content which creates a sweet smoky flavor. I like it to cook poultry and pork but generally go light on other seasonings to maintain the maple flavor.

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.

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.

For a unique and complex smoked flavor, you can buy bourbon barrel wood that’s literally that, used bourbon barrels that have been broken down. The wood is usually white oak but has a delicious flavor from the aged whisky that’s infused into the timber.

Another variant of the great burning oak are red wine infused wine barrel wood.

You get the light smoky flavor from the white oak as a base with more complex flavor with aged wine notes.

Great for wine lovers who also can’t go past great barbecue.

Strong Woods for Smoking

Strong woods are typically used as go-to woods to smoke almost anything.

They’re particularly common to cook larger cuts of meat that can can and do well with stronger smokes. Most provide a definite, distinct flavor but aren’t so strong that they overpower the overall taste.

The smoke from hickory wood is a little heavier and stronger than oak and gives off a nuttier flavor.

It’s clean burning and is one of the most popular woods for smoking and is widely available around the world.

Use hickory straight for pork and beef, or to create a strong smoke profile in chicken and turkey. You can also mix it with other types of wood for a more subtle flavor.

Pecan wood is the next level up from hickory in terms of smoke strength. Although I wouldn’t classify it as agressive, it’s getting towards that level and as such, I prefer using it for shorter cooks, or mixed in with other types of wood.

In terms of flavor, pecan is sweet but smoky.

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.

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 are generally only used when cooking larger cuts of meat that can handle a hefty smoke flavor.

They’re more typically associated with the Texas style barbecue and should be used carefully to avoid creating an overpowering and possibly bitter smoky flavor.

Mesquite burns hot and fast to produce a lot of smoke in a short amount of time. And, although mesquite is widely available and used, it’s best used in small amounts and/or in combination with other woods.

Used straight it’s an intensely smoky flavor. So much so that it can leave a pungent and bitter taste.

Used moderately, mesquite can create a distinct, earthy, and unmissable smoky flavor that I enjoy with beef, game, lamb, or even duck.

It’s also a good wood for grilling steak and chicken because it’ll cook hot and fast, leaving a good amount of smoke in it’s path.

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.

 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 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.

Matching Wood With Meat

Like we said earlier, there’s no hard and fast rules for which type of woods you’re allowed to use to smoke a particular type of meat. But, just like a peanut butter and jelly are complimentary, so are some meats and wood flavors.

In this section, we’ll discuss which types of woods are most commonly used to smoke particular types of meat.

Feel free to use this as a guide and adjust what we’ve suggested based on your taste.

The Best Wood for Smoking Brisket

Using-the-MeatStick-X-in-brisket

When it comes to smoking brisket, you can go bold for this heavy cut of meat.

Stronger woods like hickory or mesquite are popular choices, giving a robust and hearty flavor that complements the rich meatiness of brisket.

But, lighter smoke profiles also work, allowing your other flavorings to shine through. Try cherry or maple for a slightly sweet scent or pecan for a nutty element.

My go-to’s for smoking brisket are oak or a competition blend of hardwood pellets.

I like the stable heat that oak provides for smoking a heavy cut like this (oak is also usually the base for a competition blend). And, I like the classic flavor that can be enhanced with a bit of dry rub. My go-to for brisket is Hardcore Carnivore Black.

The Best Wood for Smoking Ribs

Oklahoma Joe Bronco Ribs

Being a thinner cut of meat, ribs take on smoke a lot of smoke per mouthful of meat. So, most people prefer a lighter smoke profile as to not overpower them.

Cherry, apple and peach are popular choices for a slightly sweet undertone. But, pecan, oak or even hickory can work for a little bit of a stronger smoky flavor.

Personally, my go-to wood for smoking ribs is a mix of oak and cherry. I like the stable heat and classic taste that oak provides but do enjoy the light and fruity taste of the cherry. And, I always top it with Hardcore Carnivore Red. It’s a hit every single time.

The Best Wood for Smoking Chicken

Grilling a Butterflied Chicken on the Z Grills Cruiser 200A

Chicken is typically paired with practically any type of wood because it’s quite a bland base that takes on smoke well. Fruitwoods like cherry and apple are popular choices as are peacan, hickory and alder.

For smoked chicken, I prefer a lighter flavor and find the flavor that a stronger woods like hickory give is just too overwhelming for me. Instead I reach for any of the fruitwoods for smoking chicken.

The Best Wood for Smoking Fish

Being quite lean, white fish is most commonly smoked with a lighter wood like alder, apple, or cherry. These woods give a lightly smoked flavor and don’t in any way overwhelm the fish.

Some people do prefer a stronger taste from oak or nut-varieties lke peacan.

I always smoke white fish with alder as I like the delicate flavor it gives.

The Best Wood for Smoking Salmon

Hot Smoked Salmon on Masterbuilt Digital Electric Smoker 140B

While alder and cherry are still a popular woods for smoking salmon and other more fatty fish, it’s more robust taste means that it can handle those stronger woods as well.

Hickory, maple, and mesquite are some of the more popular choices for smoked salmon.

As for what’s my favorite, I use a mix of predominately oak with a bit of manuka for a distinctive, robust flavor with a touch of sweetness. It wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea but when I’m cooking for myself…

The Best Wood for Smoking Turkey

Turkey on a pellet smoker in the Best Smoker for Turkey review

Like chicken, turkey is a lean meat that takes on smoke well. As such, most people prefer to use woods with a lighter smoke profile so that the flavor of the bird isn’t overpowering.

Cherry, apple, pecan, maple, and alder are all popular choices.

I can’t go past a mix of oak and apple for turkey. I like the classic flavor the oak gives my turkey with the light fruitiness and sweetness. In my opinion, it’s enough smoky flavor to know that it’s smoked without dominating the turkey’s delicate flavor.

The Best Wood for Smoking Pork

Pulled-Pork-on-the-Pit-Barrel-Cooker

Just like the ribs, pork works well with a lot of different types of woods.

Your fruitwoods including apple and cherry give a lighter flavor when the spice and sauces are the real show stoppers. For a stronger smoke profile, hickory, maple, and pecan work well too.

I actually tend to go oak for low and slow smoking of larger cuts of pork. I like it’s steady heat base and I usually have a brisket on the barbecue alongside it so want something that works well for both.

But, like Rodney Scott, I do like to throw a bit of hickory and pecan in there for a stronger flavor, particularly for thicker cuts like pork shoulder so there’s good flavor throughout the meat after it’s pulled.

The Best Wood for Smoking Venison

Venison and other game meats generally have quite a strong flavor and, as such, most people seem to prefer at least using a strong wood like hickory or pecan, even if it is mixed with another type to avoid that bitter flavor.

In saying that, some hunters prefer apple and cherry to balance out the gaminess with a bit of sweetness.

I tend to go oak with a bit of manuka for a robust flavor. You could sub the manuka for mesquite for a similarly strong profile.

The Best Wood for Smoking Bison

Bison meat is quite similar to beef so anything that’s good with beef will be good with bison too.

Oak with a bit of hickory or mesquite gives a flavor that really says it’s been smoked, while cherry is a popular choice for a milder flavor.

I love straight up oak for bison simply because it tastes like it’s straight from the woods as it should be.

The Best Wood for Smoking Cheese

You’ve got quite a bit of flexibility in what you do with choosing the best wood for smoking cheese.

For a light flavor, a fruitwood like apple or cherry gives the cheese a delicate flavor. Or, go bold with something stronger like maple, hickory, or pecan.

Personally, for cheese I like to go with the flow and have a bit of fun with it. I find stronger tasting cheeses too much with a strong wood as well so tend to pair them with a lighter flavor while something like a plain cheddar transforms with a bit of hickory.

The Best Wood for Smoking Vegetables

Smoked asparagas

With a higher water content, vegetables tend to take smoke on quickly so I would avoid using a strong or most moderate wood for smoking them.

Cherry, alder and apple are good choices that won’t leave you feeling like you’re eating pure smoke. Maple is another popular choice but does turn out a little stronger.

But, keep in mind that most of the time you’re smoking vegetables, you’re also smoking or at least finishting off your meat. So, you might never truly choose your wood based on your veggies and that’s okay too.

I’d just try to avoid putting a fresh chunk of something strong on just before you add the vegetables.

Regional Wood Preferences

Back in the days before Amazon, barbecue was about simply using what you had and the regional styles of bbq were somewhat born out of using the wood that was local to them.

If you like to be true to a particular style of barbecue, use these woods to create that authentic flavor.

Alternatively, it might be practical and affordable to use locally dried hardwoods instead of trying to source something online.

Texas-Style

Memphis-Style

Kansas-Style

Carolina-Style

St Louis-Style

Alabama-Style

Georgian -Style

Kentucky-Style

Santa-Maria-Style

Types of Wood to Avoid When Smoking

Not all types of wood are suitable to use for cooking or smoking. The following types of wood should NEVER be used for cooking: 

This includes things like pine, redwood, cyprus, fir, cedar and other coniferous trees.

They contain high amounts of sap and terpenes which not only taste bad but have even been known to make people sick. Also avoid elm, eucalyptus and sycamore for this same reason.

Some people do like to use cedar planks to sit salmon on while smoking. This is generally considered alright because the wood isn’t burning as such. Some people prefer to avoid it nevertheless.

Green wood is freshly cut timber that hasn’t been seasoned or dried. It holds too much moisture and sap, making it burn unevenly while giving off an unpleasant flavor.

Never use wood that’s been chemically treated or stained for cooking. Doing so may make you sick. This includes scrap lumber and plywood.

Timber that’s been painted is also off the list for smoking because the paint is not safe for consumption.

Mold spores are incredibly bad for your health. If there’s any visible sign of mold on your wood, do not use it to smoke food.

Expert Tips for Smoking With Wood

Chips, Chunks, Logs, or Pellets?

When shopping for the best type of wood for smoking, you’ll find that most types of wood are available in different sizes or forms. The type that you’ll need depends largely on what type of barbecue you have and a little on your preference.

  • Logs

    Larger hardwood logs are generally only used in offset smokers. Most will burn for about an hour depending on their size and heat. Their larger size means they provide good, stable heat without any other heat source like charcoal.

  • Chunks

    Wood chunks are usually used for flavor in an offset, drum, or kamado smoker where charcoal is the main source of heat. They're placed on top of the charcoal to burn slowly, creating smoke but not much in the way of heat.

  • Chips

    Wood chips come in a variety of sizes but are generally small and thin pieces of hardwood. Because of their size, they burn quickly to generate quite a lot of smoke. Wood chips are often used in electric or propane smokers where the heat is already taken care of and do need replacing frequently throughout the cook. They can also be used in a smoking box on gas grills.

  • Pellets

    Smoking pellets are made from sawdust from hardwoods that's then heated and compressed with no other additives to form a small pellet. Pellets are the type of wood that's used for both heat and smoke in a pellet smoker. But, they can also be used to cold smoke in a pellet tube, or be placed on any type of smoker or grill to create or boost smoke levels.

Blending Wood Types

As we have mentioned, not only is it perfectly fine to use more than one type of wood when you’re smoking, if you’re using logs or pellets for heat, it’s the best and only way to get both the type of burn and type of flavor that you want.

If you’re using a pellet smoker and want to use a blend of woods buying a premixed bag is an easy and sure-fire way to go.

Traeger Grills Signature...image Traeger Grills Signature Blend 100% All-Natural Wood Pellets for Smokers and Pellet Grills, BBQ, Bake, Roast, and Grill, 20 lb. Bag $17.95 buy3
Pit Boss (20...image Pit Boss (20 pound Competition Blend) All Natural Hardwood BBQ Wood Pellets for Pellet Grills and Smokers $34.17 buy3
Bear Mountain Premium...image Bear Mountain Premium Woods 100% All Natural Hardwood Pellets, Gourmet Blend for Pellet Smokers, or Any Outdoor Grill Rich, Smoky Wood, 20 Pound Bag $18.99 buy3
Z GRILLS Wood...image Z GRILLS Wood Pellets for Smoker Grill and BBQ, 100% All-Natural Hardwood Competition-Blend Pellet, 20lbs buy3

If you’re smoking with hardwood logs for flavor and heat, start with a good burning base like oak and experiement with adding to it to see what works well for you.

Smoak Firewood 12inch...image Smoak Firewood 12inch Length Premium Cooking Wood & Firewood Logs - Used for Grills, Smokers, Pizza ovens, firepits or fireplaces - USDA Certified Kiln Dried (White Oak - 12in pieces (45-50lbs)) $89.99 buy3
Smoak Firewood 12inch...image Smoak Firewood 12inch Length Premium Cooking Wood & Firewood Logs - Used for Grills, Smokers, Pizza ovens, stoves, firepits or fireplaces - USDA Certified Kiln Dried Cherry - 12inch Pieces (36-41lbs) $89.99 buy3
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I’d also recommend trying new woods with a simple salt and pepper seasoning before you start adding other varieties. That way you can truly see how each wood is affecting the flavor without having strong rubs or sauces covering it up.

Should I Soak Wood Before Smoking?

It’s another of the most frequently asked questions about smoking and people have divided opinions as to what’s the right or wrong thing to do.

But, lets just think about this for a minute.

Are unseasoned, wet woods good for smoking? No, we’ve already covered that. What does water do to fire? It puts it out or at least disrupts the even burning if it’s a smaller amount of water. And, what does water do when it’s heated up? It steams which isn’t the goal in barbecue.

So, we don’t think that soaking wood chip or chunks before smoking is ever a good idea.

Interestingly enough, Meathead Goldwyn has tested how much water wood can actually absorb when soaked for 24 hours before smoking. His findings are pretty surprising. The wood absorbs pretty much nothing. All you’re doing is wetting the outside which needs to steam off (which can look like smoke) after which is can truly start to heat and produce smoke.

Basically, it’s extra work and time that just delays the smoke production anyway.

Keep things simple, use your wood dry and you’ll produce far better smoke without wetting that delicious bark.

Proper Storage of Smoking Wood

Once you’ve got good quality wood for smoking, storing it properly is cruicial to make sure it will burn well and produce good smoke.

First off, store your wood in a cool, dry place. Moisture is the enemy here, as it can lead to mold and affect the wood’s combustion properties.

Wood chips, chunks and pellets can be safely stored in the plastic bag they come in. But, once they’re open always place in an air-tight container. We go into all the details on how to store your wood pellets properly here.

If you’re using logs in an offset smoker, consider building a dedicated and ventilated woolshed or stack it up in a covered area to shield your supply from the elements.

If you’ve got a sizable wood supply, organize it by type. This not only streamlines your selection process but also ensures that each wood type maintains its unique flavor profile.

Lastly, keep an eye on pests. Termites and other critters might fancy a feast on your wood supply. Elevate the wood off the ground and make sure you’re using your wood regularly (oh yes, it’s bbq time again), to thwart any unwanted guests.

By following these storage guidelines, you’ll lenghten the life of your wood and make sure it perfects properly.

Where to Buy Wood For Smoking?

If you’re after wood chunks, wood chips, or hardwood pellets for smoking, you should have a fairly decent range at your local barbecue shop or hardware store.

But, of course you can also get them and a wider variety delivered to your door buying online.

As we’re a reader supported website, if you’ve found this guide useful, we’d really appreciate you buying your smoking wood through any of our links. It won’t cost you any extra but helps us feed the fam!

You can buy hardwood logs for smoking online too. But, they are bigger and bulkier so sourcing them locally can be the way to go. You could always cut and dry your own too which is what we do most of the time.

Photo Title Price Buy
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Putting It All Into Action

As we wrap up this guide on the best wood for smoking meat, remember that barbecue is more than a science, it’s an opportunity for you to get creative.

Whether you like the bold taste of hickory, enjoy the earthy notes of mesquite, or prefer an undistracting applewood, the key is to make it yours.

There’s no rulebook governing wood choices. Experiment, blend woods, and do more of what tastes great to you.

So, while regional traditions and expert tips offer guidance, just pick a wood and try it.

Cheers to the endless possibilities of smoke and flavor!

FAQs About the Best Wood for Smoking Meat

If I had to choose any one type of wood for smoking to use for the rest of my life in any type of smoker, I’d go with oak.

It’s a clean-burning wood with a classicly distinctive flavor that’s not overpowering and will compliment anything.

Soft woods from trees such as pine, fir, cedar, redwood, spruce, plus more are not safe to smoke with. Instead you want a quality, well seasoned hardwood. If in doubt, buy a wood chunk, chip, pellet or log that’s advertised as suitable for smoking food with.

Texas-style barbecue is marked by strong, bold flavors. A big part of that comes from their dependence on strong and aggressive woods including mesquite, oak, pecan, and hickory.

Wood for smoking should be properly seasoned or kiln dried before use. Green wood that’s not properly dried has too much water which makes it hard for it to burn hot enough and also doesn’t produce great smoke.

Apple and cherry woods give some of the lightest and most delicate smoked flavor. But, in general, any fruitwood will have a milder smoke profile that won’t in any way overwhelm the meat.

You should not soak wood before smoking with it. Dry wood burns the best to produce the cleanest and best flavored smoke.

Oak burns hot but hickory burns hotter. Hickory will also create a stronger flavor than the quite mild oak.

Not only can you create great, uniquely customizable flavors by mixing wood for smoking meats, using more than one type of wood can be the best way to create the optimal heat and burn rate for cooking while giving the particular flavor you’re after.

Jared Brown, an avid lover of all things meat has a fearless enthusiasm for experimenting with anything that's grilling, smoking or outdoor cooking. With a wealth of experience across a range different barbecue types, Jared's got a real knack for helping others make a decision they're happy with, ensuring they find the perfect fit regardless of conventional notions of the 'right' choice. This unique approach has made Jared a trusted guide in the world of barbecue.

About Burning Brisket

Burning Brisket is one of the leading, independent authorities on all things barbecue. Family-owned and run, it's our mission uncomplicate the art of smoking to help you enjoy making incredible food at home for your family and friends to create memories over.

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