Smoking with wood opens up opportunities to experiment with unique combinations and techniques to draw the most flavor from any cut of meat. Wood can be used in addition to charcoal or you can smoke directly with wood for the most intense flavor profile. But choosing the right type of wood for the meat you want to smoke can be complicated.
From logs to chunks to chips and pellets, knowing what type of wood works best depends on what you are cooking and how you want the wood to add flavor to your meal.
The Best Wood for Smoking
First, you'll want to start out with the best wood. You want to pick a hardwood or a fruitwood that has been kiln-dried. Avoid smoking with green wood, wet wood, or softwood types like pine, cedar, and spruce. Save that stuff for the fire ring.
Popular hardwoods for smoking are oak, hickory, maple, and mesquite. Many nut tree varieties are popular, including pecan and almond. Walnut is usually avoided because of its intense and bitter flavor.
Fruit woods are also excellent for smoking and they are easily some of our favorites. Almost any fruit wood will work. Applewood and cherry wood are the most common. Citrus wood like lemon, orange, and grapefruit are also good choices.
How to Use Different Kinds of Wood Chips
You'll find wood chips for smoking available in a variety of sizes and each has its intended purpose.
Pellets are common these days. Pellet smokers use these compressed hardwood sawdust nuggets for heat and flavor, but you can use a pellet tube to use them in a charcoal smoker, barbecue, or gas grill.
Various types of hardwoods are sold in small chips about the size of a large coin. These wood chips are used in charcoal and gas smokers and grills. The best way is to use a pellet tube or a smoker box to prevent the chips from simply burning up. The trick with chips is to get the wood just beginning to smolder without igniting.
Larger chunks and logs of hardwood are intended for charcoal smokers. These chunks can completely replace the need for charcoal and will add continuous flavor for long periods of time.
Like the wood chips, chunks should be smoldering, not burning. Often, this is a matter of controlling the airflow to allow just enough to keep the heat up.
Different Kinds of Wood Chips and Their Flavor Profile
Understanding how to use different types of wood chips for smoking takes a little trial and error. Thankfully, though, it's actually pretty hard to go so completely wrong that your food isn't edible.
Sure, some types of wood offer a specific flavor profile that can enhance certain meats and only a few are universal, but you'll find that most versatile options are also the easiest to get.
Hardwoods and How to Use Them
Hardwood trees grow slowly and have very little sap when dry. They are common all over the world. In the US, the most common are the ones that grow here.
- Oak Wood: Oak provides a mild flavor and has a medium smoky flavor. It is best on its own with lighter-flavored meat like pork shoulder and chicken breast, but also enhances the natural flavors of beef and wild game. Oak is commonly combined with stronger flavors to add depth and dimension to the flavor profile. It is the most popular wood for smoking.
- Hickory Wood: Hickory wood chips provide the classic flavor many people associate with bacon. It is a strong, slightly acrid flavor that can become too heavy when overused. It is best with pork, chicken, and other lighter-flavored white or pink meats. Hickory tends to overpower beef unless combined with oak.
- Maple Wood: Maple is another popular choice for pork because it compliments the earthiness of the meat with a subtle sweetness similar to the flavor of maple syrup. Maple is particularly good for smoking sausage.
- Ash Wood Chips and Alder Wood Chips: Both of these species make excellent choices for fish, pork, and other light flavors. The wood contributes a slightly sweet flavor with a delicate balance of bitterness. Ash and alder are classic woods for smoking salmon and cold-smoking cheese.
- Mesquite Wood: Mesquite is a common wood that has a very strong, spicy flavor. It also burns very hot and can be difficult to manage in some smokers. It is popular for smoking chicken and pork, but it must be used carefully in order to keep the meat from being saturated in flavor.
Fruit Woods and How to Use Them
Fruit woods are known for a subtle sweetness and a delicate smoky flavor that is somewhat reminiscent of the fruit that comes from the tree.
- Apple Wood: A sweet and slightly fruity flavor makes apple wood perfect for smoking bacon, cold-smoking cheese, or smoking chicken. It is abundant, inexpensive, and works great in combination with oak wood chips.
- Cherry Wood: Cherry is another common fruitwood. Cherry wood chips add a tartness and a distinct sharp smoky flavor to meats and cheeses. Cherry wood chips are particularly pleasant on lamb and wild game but also are a great choice for duck and game birds.
- Stonefruit Wood Chips: Peach wood, apricot wood, plum wood, and other stonefruit woods are excellent for adding a light smokiness to cheeses and chicken dishes. Peach wood is great for smoking a peach cobbler.
Nut Woods and How to Use Them
Nut woods are not as common as other types of wood, but can offer some unique flavors not found in other products. Nut woods are often used in combination with other wood flavors to add depth to a recipe.
- Pecan Wood: By far the most available nut wood is pecan, perhaps because this nut tree grows very large and in nearly all parts of the US. Pecan gives a mild smoke and an earthy flavor with a soft nuttiness. Pecan wood smoke can get harsh if it is overdone. Beef, chicken, pork, and even fish all benefit from smoking with pecan wood chips.
- Nut Shells: Nut shells contribute light, smoky flavors. They are usually added to an oak, hickory, or combination fire to enhance nuttiness, but they also work well to balance the sweetness of fruit woods which helps provide a more pronounced smoke profile. Nut shells burn hot and fast.
Q: What are the top 3 types of wood chips used for smoking meats?
A: Oak, hickory, and apple wood are the most popular varieties available.
Q: What wood gives the most smoke flavor?
A: In terms of raw smoke flavor, mesquite is a strong competitor. It is such a strong flavor that it is often used in open barbecue pits to smoke chicken. Hickory is another common wood that can become very pungent when too much smoke flavor gets into the meat.
Q: What is a sweeter wood for smoking?
A: Apple wood is known for its delicate sweet smell that has the essence of a fresh sliced apple to it. Apple is one of our favorites to use on just about everything. The wood will produce smoke that is clean and fragrant without becoming overpowering, even on long smokes.
Tips and Tricks
Trick #1: Buy quality hardwood. It might not be easy to tell one wood from another, so you trust the company packaging the wood to put the right type in the bag. Buying from a reputable company will give you the highest quality.
Trick #2: Start small and work your way up. Start by adding a few small chunks of oak or apple to your coals and experimenting with different amounts at different times during the smoke to see what adds flavors that you enjoy. Then, get bolder until you hit a point it doesn't taste good anymore.
Trick #3: Never soak wood before smoking. Soaking the wood only produces steam and increases the amount of time it takes to smoke your meat. Soaking will also reduce the flavor and could wash out lighter flavors altogether.
Trick #4: Be creative. Eventually, you will trust your wood smoking skills enough to smoke with nothing but wood. Combining different types of wood and adding wood at different times in the process will enhance flavors. Experiment with adding stronger flavors like mesquite and hickory with fruit woods or nut woods. Add nut shells to oak and cherry wood, or get in touch with local orchards to see what types of wood you might be able to harvest and dry. Getting unique wood flavors is one of the things that sets smoking meat apart from any other type of cooking.
Last Tip and Final Thoughts
Over-harvesting of native timber is a problem in some parts of the country. When you are shopping for a wood chip supplier, try to find companies that sustainably harvest from local areas – it's the right thing to do. Have fun trying out different types of wood with different recipes and you'll soon discover how fun using different types of wood for smoking can be.
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