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Best wood for smoking meat is a phrase that a lot of backyard grillmasters search up, especially if they’re either new to smoking or are looking for a new type of wood to try.
There’s no one answer to this question, as different types of woods produce a different flavor in different meats.
Consider smoking with wood similar to pairing wine with food. Certain types of woods pair better with certain types of meats.
Today, we’re going to talk about the best wood for smoking various meats as well as woods you should never use to smoke your foods. I also share a handy best wood for smoking wood chart at the end for you to print for future reference.
So let’s dive in.
The Basics of Smoking
There are a few things you need to know right off the bat before you begin thinking about choosing a wood type to smoke your meat.
First a foremost is this: only use hardwood for smoking. Hardwoods are basically any trees that lose their leaves in the fall like oak or hickory, while softwoods are evergreens like pine.
There are a few reasons that we always smoke with hardwoods instead of softwoods.
Hardwood trees grow more slowly and tend to be denser. Density is key to smoking meats because, when properly dried, these dense woods burn and smolder far more slowly than softwood, releasing a clean-burning smoke that imparts tremendous flavor to the food. Speaking of flavor.
Softwood Tastes Awful
Softwoods burn far faster than hardwoods. The reason they burn faster is also the reason that the smoke from these woods isn’t good for cooking meats. Softwoods burn faster because they contain more sap.
The sap not only makes the wood burn faster, spit, and pop, but it also creates an acrid smoke that makes your food taste like you dipped it in a pit of ashes.
Rather than getting that delicious, smoky flavor that we all know and love, softwood will simply make your food taste like a campfire.
Best Wood Varieties for Smoking
So we know that hardwood is the way to go for creating deliciously smoked meats. However, the question of what type of hardwood to use still remains.
After all, there are so many kinds of hardwood trees out there to choose from.
When people first began smoking food, the hardwood of choice was generally the one that was readily available in their area, and this has led to regional preferences all across the country.
However, these days you can find all sorts of hardwood for smoking at stores around the country. The most common hardwoods used for smoking are:
- Hickory – Sweet with a strong, bacon flavor
- Oak – Mild, versatile smoke with no aftertaste
- Alder – Sweet, musky flavor
- Maple – Mild, somewhat sweet flavor
- Mesquite – Strong, earthy flavor
- Pecan – Similar to hickory but not as strong
- Walnut – Intense flavor
- Apple – Mild and sweet
- Cherry – Slightly sweet fruity smoke
- Peach – Slightly sweet woodsy flavor
- Pear – Slightly sweet and woodsy similar to apple
You’ve probably heard of some of these like hickory, oak, and maple, but you might have been surprised to find hardwood from fruit trees on the list.
Each and every one of these hardwoods imparts a different flavor to the meat you smoke with them, which is why we’ll cover the best pairings a little later.
My favorite brand is the Western Wood Chip Variety, you can purchase here.
For now, let’s talk about the different varieties of these woods that are available.
Types of Wood Cuts for Smoking Meat
The varieties of hardwood above come in various cuts that can be used for smoking. From whole logs to pellet form, there are a variety of ways that hardwoods are cut and packaged to be used in various types of grills.
Whole logs are used for heat as well as smoke in large, offset smokers. These are often used to smoke multiple pieces of large cuts of meat.
A whole log will burn for anywhere between 45 and 90 minutes in a properly insulated firebox depending on the log’s size and density.
Wood chunks are primarily used in combination with charcoal in smaller smokers and offset smokers. A bed of coals is used to create the heat, while wood chunks are placed on top to burn slowly and create the smoke.
Chips are used with charcoal and gas grills or with electric or propane smokers. These chips burn fast, generating a lot of smoke quickly.
They need to be replaced often, and because of this they’re not designed to create heat in a smoker.
Wood pellets are made of compressed hardwood sawdust and are only for use in pellet smokers or in regular grills by using a tube smoker accessory.
Wood pellets are generally made using a variety of wood in one pellet and some even have flavored oils added, so it’s important to thoroughly read the description on the container to ensure you get the wood you want.
It should also be noted that wood pellets for smoking are NOT the same as heating pellets for stoves which should NEVER be used in cooking.
Best Wood for Smoking
Now we come to the good stuff. Let’s all about which types of hardwood work best with which types of meat.
Different hardwoods impart different flavors, and these flavors often pair better with certain meats than other flavors. Let’s take a look at some examples of the best wood for smoking various foods.
Smoked Brisket is the ultimate low and slow smoking cut. Smoked for hours and hours, a properly smoked brisket is a thing of beauty. This cut does well with some of the stronger-flavored hardwoods.
The top two picks are oak and cherry. Oak delivers the classic Texas barbecue flavor that so many of us love, with cherry imparts a bit of a different flavor profile along with adding beautiful color to the meat.
Turkey is often paired with hickory for a robust flavor. Think smoked turkey or smoked turkey legs served at fairs or Magic Kingdom.
However, the lighter taste of apple is also a real winner with turkey. You can use either of these with a whole turkey or turkey legs and wings.
Smoked Ribs take on quite a lot of smoky flavor due to how thin they are, which means that the right wood makes a huge difference. You can go one of two ways with ribs: light or bold.
Either one works, depending on your preference. For a lighter flavor, use apple, peach, cherry, or other fruit hardwood. If you like a bold kick, go with oak or hickory to really kick the smoke flavor into high gear.
Smoked Chicken is the ultimate smoke pallet. This meat is an excellent base for almost any smoke variety and works well with pretty much any type of hardwood you choose.
Because chicken is a milder flavor than, say, beef or pork, you might want to stay away from the super-strong smoke of wood like hickory, but if you like that ultra-smoky flavor, have at it.
You’ll taste more smoke than chicken, but some people love that.
The best wood for smoking fish is generally maple, alder, and pecan. Smoked Salmon, in particular, benefits from the flavor of maple hardwood smoke.
Alder and pecan are extremely versatile hardwoods for smoking fish, working with almost any kind of fish you can think of. The aromatic flavor of fruitwoods is also a great compliment to many fish varieties.
Like fish, shellfish gets the best flavor from maple, alder, and pecan. For a tasty twist, you can also soak oak in whiskey and use that for smoking.
Pork is similar to chicken in that it’s mildly-flavored meat. However, because many cuts of pork used for smoking are large and tend to stay in the smoker for several hours, it lends itself to a bit of experimentation.
Because of its mild flavor, you might want to use fruitwoods, however, you could also get creative and throw in some hickory or oak to the mix, as well. With pork, the sky’s the limit when it comes to smoking.
The bulk of this post centers around the best wood for smoking meat, but we can’t forget the cheese. Cheese is something that just soaks up a great smoky flavor.
Because it’s so good at soaking up that smoke, it’s best to stick with mild woods like fruitwood varieties and maple. Of course, for those who like to go bold, you can use wood like hickory to get an over-the-top wood flavor in your cheese.
Best Wood Chunks for Smoking is all About Pairing
As you can see above, the best wood for smoking is all about pairing the right wood with the right meat (or cheese). With so many hardwood varieties, choosing the right wood for the right smoking application is key.
Although, this is a post all about the best wood for smoking, bear one thing in mind. In the end, it all comes down to personal taste and having fun with experimentation.
If you love a bold smoke flavor, pair that chicken with something strong.
There’s no rule against it. If you prefer something milder, try applewood with your brisket. It won’t be the classic flavor, but you might love it.
In the end, smoking is all about knowing the rules so you can break them. So fire up the grill, get your wood of choice ready, and start having some fun with smoke.
Don’t forget to print out this hand Wood Chart – Best Wood for Smoking Guide.