When it comes to smoked meat, you’ll get a lot of recommendations on what the best wood for smoking is, and what types of wood combinations you should try. Many smoking enthusiasts recommend that beginners start with heavier meats such as pork and beef and use a hardwood. For meats that are more delicate, such as fish and chicken, a lighter hardwood will be needed. Softwoods including cedar and pine should never be used since they can ruin the flavor of meat because they’re too resinous.
As you can see, there’s a lot to learn when it comes to what wood to use, based on what type of meat and the flavor you want to achieve, whether it’s a full rich smoky flavor or a milder flavor. This guide will walk you through the different meat options available, how to choose the right wood for the best results, whether you’re smoking ribs or chicken, and what combinations you can try to achieve the perfect, rich smoky flavor.
Table of Contents
As you learn about the different wood options available, it’s important to learn about the type of smoke they produce. Smoking wood offers different levels of smokiness ranging from mild to strong. Woods that fall into the mild category include woods such as pear, cherry, peach, and apple. These woods offer a type of sweetness that many people enjoy, and it’s mild enough that it works perfectly for more delicate foods such as fish or chicken. In some cases, you can also use one of these lighter hardwoods for pork.
Woods such as oak, pecan, maple, and hickory, tend to fall in the middle part of the spectrum of smokiness, and they can be a great choice for pork. They’re also smoky enough to handle game meats and certain cuts of beef. Oak and hickory are among the most popular choices.
Mesquite is the strongest hardwood and it offers an intense smoky flavor that can easily overpower delicate cuts of meat, which is why it’s often reserved for beef.
How to Avoid Over-Smoking Meat
Many people who are new to smoking often make the mistake of over-smoking their meat. While a smoky flavor can add to the richness of the meat, it also has the ability to completely transform a rich cut of meat and turn it into a tough and smoky nightmare. The goal is to cook your meat slowly, to perfection. The meat should have a milder smoky taste, just enough so that you can still appreciate the taste of the meat. The meat should not only taste like smoke. Smoking meat is all about adding more flavor, but it should not overpower the taste of the meat itself. Moderation will be key in order to avoid overdoing it.
Mixing and Matching Wood
If you have experience smoking meats and you’re looking for a new flavor, then there’s nothing wrong with mixing and matching woods. You must be willing to experiment and be prepared for a disaster since not all woods complement each other. Popular wood combinations include cherry and hickory, or apple and hickory. These combinations will result in a mild sweet flavor that’s backed with a deep smoky aftertaste and meat that’s golden brown and loaded with flavor.
Best Wood for Smoking Beef
Beef is one of the best meats to smoke. Part of what gives beef it’s rich flavor is the type of wood used when you prepare it. Each kind of wood offers its own unique properties that it will pass onto the beef when it’s smoking. There are several different types of woods that you can choose from that offer flavor that’s incredible. While there are a variety of woods that you can try that will have a major impact on the rich flavor of beef, there are four types in particular that are the go-to choices that many smoking enthusiasts swear by.
Hickory: This wood is often the wood of choice and it’s considered a universal wood, one that can be used for both smoking and grilling. This wood choice is so popular because it’s able to deliver almost perfect results. When used to smoke beef, you’ll find that the meat has a very savory, smoky flavor that tastes a little like bacon.
Mesquite: This wood is a popular choice for both smoking and grilling. This wood is known for it’s intense, strong, unique flavor. Since the smoky flavor of this wood is so strong, it requires a person with smoking experience. If you’re new to smoking I recommend waiting until you’re confident enough to tackle smoking meat with this powerful hardwood option.
Apple: Beef that’s smoked with apple wood will have a mildly sweet and smoky flavor that’s almost fruity. Since this wood has such a mild flavor, it can require a longer smoking process in order to infuse the beef. When smoking with this wood, you can expect a process that’s low and slow, meaning you must smoke your meat slowly, at a lower temperature, in order to get the most out of this wood.
Oak: This is a very versatile wood, one that’s perfect for cooking beef. It features a medium to strong flavor that most people love. The flavor is best described as a combination of hickory and apple, which is what makes it so versatile. It can also be added to some light hardwoods to enhance the flavor.
Best Wood for Smoking Brisket
Brisket is a very pricey cut of beef, which is mainly due to its large size. When you smoke brisket, you want to ensure that you choose the perfect type of meat, considering the time you’ll have to invest in smoking around twelve pounds of beef. When it comes to a perfectly smoked brisket, many people will turn to hickory. But don’t be afraid to try something new. Different woods will provide a different flavor, depending on the ingredients you use, so some woods will work better than others.
But for a large cut of meat like brisket, you’ll always want to use a hardwood. This is because smoking brisket will take such a long time. In its raw form, brisket has a very high fat content and a very tough texture. It will take several hours of steady and slow heat to break down this type of meat. The wood should offer a stronger flavor since it must be able to permeate the meat. Below, you’ll find a short list of the most recommended woods to use for brisket:
- Red oak
Oak: This wood can offer a medium smoky flavor that will not overpower the taste of the meat itself. Additionally, it can burn for a very long time, which is what makes it a great choice for beginners.
Hickory: Offering a stronger flavor, the taste is best described as nutty. However, you’ll need to be careful regarding how much hickory you use. Using too much hickory can make your meat taste very bitter.
Mesquite: This is another type of wood that can produce a very strong flavor, however, it burns very quickly, so you’ll need to monitor the cooking process closely and add the wood as needed.
Fruit woods: Maple has a very sweet and mild flavor that may be just enough to complement the natural flavor of the meat. Other fruit and nut woods will offer a milder smoky flavor that has a hint of sweetness. Apple and pecan are both popular choices and are a better option for the beginner who is unsure of just how much wood to use. Remember, since brisket takes a long time to cook, it can be easy to overdo it when you’re adding wood to the fire, which is why a beginner will be better off using a combination of hickory and a fruit or nut wood.
You should also consider the size of the wood you use. The size you’ll need will depend on the size of the brisket and the type of smoker you have.
You can choose from chips, chunks, and logs.
- Chips are basically wood scraps and shavings and they’re often used for electric and gas smokers, but they can also be used for small charcoal smokers as well. Chips burn very quickly, so you may want to pass this option by considering how long it takes to smoke a brisket.
- Chunks are simply chunks of wood that are about fist-sized. The size of this wood makes it a great choice for smoking a brisket.
- Logs will work well for offset smokers, in which the wood is used as the main source of heat as the meat smokes. Logs are also a better choice for larger briskets weighing in at more than fourteen pounds.
Best Wood for Smoking Pork
Those with plenty of smoking experience will have their own personal preference when it comes to the type of wood that should be used to smoke pork. But there are five specific types of woods that are commonly used for pork, that most experts can agree are great choices for your next smoke out.
Apple: This wild fruit wood will give the pork a flavor that’s subtle and fruit, yet slightly sweet. You really can’t go wrong when you use this wood, regardless of the type of meat you’re cooking, but it can really work some magic on a variety of cuts of pork, especially pork ribs or pork loin.
Pecan: This wood is perfect for most cuts of pork. You’ll love the subtle, mild flavor that can be paired with most types of citrus woods such as cherry or orange, in order to enhance the flavor of your ribs or ham, or pork chops. This wood can also be a great choice if you want to add a hint of smoke to your bacon.
Sugar maple: This wood is a perfect choice for pork. However, it can be difficult to find in some states. Sugar maple offers a subtly sweet flavor that will complement pork in a way that no other type of wood can. It’s much milder than most types of wood and it’s a great choice for pork shoulder, pork butt, or baby back ribs.
Orange: Orange wood is another good choice and it will work with any cut of pork. It features a very mild flavor with just a hint of citrus. It’s a perfect choice for roasts, loins, or ham. For a stronger flavor, you can pair it with hickory.
Peach: This wood offers a different hint of sweetness. It’s described as less acidic and more floral, compared to other types of fruit woods such as orange, apple, and cherry. While it can complement most cuts of pork, ham will be the best choice.
Pear: Pear offers a subtle nice smoky flavor that’s reminiscent of apple. It’s slightly sweet and woody. The next time you prepare pork chops on the grill, try adding some pear wood.
Best Wood for Smoking Ribs
When smoking ribs, the most common type is usually a heavy wood. However, there may be times when the smoke and heat from these woods can be too much. Choosing the wrong wood can ruin the texture and taste of the ribs, impacting its juiciness as well. Below, you’ll find a list of the perfect woods to use the next time you try your hand at smoking ribs.
Hickory: This is the most popular wood to use when you smoke ribs on a gas grill. This wood is known for its strong flavor, yet you’ll need to be careful with how much wood you use in order to prevent the ribs from tasting bitter.
Red oak: Red oak is the most popular type of oak to use for smoking ribs and any other types of heavy meats, such as brisket. It will not overpower the taste of the meat and will not ruin the texture
Mesquite: Mesquite is known as a naturally oily wood, which is what makes it so easy to burn. It offers a unique flavor that’s perfect for rubs. While mesquite is a great choice for smoking meats, I don’t recommend using it when you’re grilling.
Grapevine: Grapevine can be a good choice for grilling ribs since it offers a very delicate, sweet flavor. However, the fact that it emits a very odorous smoke can be a huge drawback for some people.
Apple: This wood is a great choice if you want a sweet, mild flavor. It’s also a good choice for poultry and fish, but when it comes to ribs, it offers the perfect complementary sweetness that can really showcase your smoking skills.
Cherry: Cherry wood offers a mild smoky-sweet flavor, but it also can be used in combination with hickory, pecan, or oak, which will be a must when you’re cooking ribs since cherry tends to burn very quickly.
Pecan: This wood is a good choice for slow-cooked ribs. This wood burns slowly and offers a nice delicate nutty flavor that’s mildly sweet. It’s also a good choice to mix with other types of woods. However, it must be used in moderation in order to prevent the meat from acquiring a pungent smell.
The following woods are also great choices for smoking ribs:
Some people will also add some herb woods such as:
What Types of Wood to Avoid When Smoking Ribs
There are plenty of great options available when it comes to smoking woods, however, there are some that you’ll want to avoid, such as the following:
These woods are very pungent, however, they can also destroy the meat’s flavor. Choosing the right wood for smoking is important, but it’s equally important to know which woods you should never use to smoke ribs. Softwood can contain high levels of terpenes and sap, which can result in a sour taste that can potentially make people sick. Cedar should also be avoided, but cedar planks are now a popular option when cooking salmon. Many softwoods just are not meant to be used when smoking food.
Best Wood for Smoking Fish
When it comes to smoking fish, the type of wood you use will have a major impact, just like with heartier meats. Below, you’ll find a list of the best wood choices for this delicate type of meat.
Alder: Alder is one of the mildest woods you can use to smoke fish, so it’s a great choice if you want to infuse a milder smoky taste. If you want to smoke your fish for several hours, then alder is the go-to wood of choice. Since the smoke has such a light flavor, you won’t have to worry about it making your fish taste bitter.
Apple: A popular wood option for many types of meats, this fruit wood offers a medium smokiness that will complement most types of fish. It offers the perfect balance of smokiness and sweetness, so it’s a good option for a wide variety of fish types. Many smoking enthusiasts recommend mixing apple with a wood that’s slightly stronger in order to offset the sweetness. Mesquite is a great option and blends well with the flavor of the apple wood.
Hickory: If you want to try smoking salmon, then hickory is an excellent choice, especially if you want the fish to have a strong woody flavor. The smoke is very strong and pungent and works to infuse the meat with a sweet, smoky flavor. When you use hickory, make sure you do so carefully since it can give the fish a bitter taste if the fish is smoked for too long.
Maple: This is another mild wood option and it’s a great choice if you’re slow smoking the fish. Since it offers such a light flavor, the salmon will not be bitter. Maple gives fish a lovely, mild and sweet flavor. It can also be used to smoke poultry, veggies, and cheese. Keep in mind, the maple smoke tends to darken the color of the fish. If you want to combine the maple wood with a heartier wood, I recommend adding oak, apple, or alder.
Cherry: This is an all-purpose wood that can be a big benefit to a variety of meats, especially fish. It infuses the fish with a sweet, mild flavor. While cherry wood tends to be a more popular choice for smoking beef and pork, it can also be used with fish and offers impressive results. The smoke from the cherry wood will turn the fish a mahogany color. This wood can be paired well with hickory, oak, pecan, and alder.
Oak: This wood tends to be much stronger compared to the wood from fruit trees. Yet, it’s much lighter than heavy woods such as mesquite or hickory. Oak usually burns at a very hot temperature, so it’s considered a very versatile blending wood. It will give the fish a moderately smoky flavor. It doesn’t offer the same type of sweetness that you’ll get if you use a fruity type of wood, so it’s a great choice if you want your fish to taste smoky, without any sweetness.
Pear and peach: Pear and peach woods are very similar to each other, so much so that many smokers often use them interchangeably. These fruit woods have a very light fruity taste that infuses the fish with a subtle sweetness that you cannot achieve with other types of wood. Finding peach and pear wood can be difficult. They’re commonly used for pork and poultry, but fish can also benefit from their unique flavors. For best results, I recommend mixing them with a wood that offers a more smoky flavor, such as red oak.
Pecan: Pecan is a stronger wood and is part of the hickory wood family. However, pecan is not quite as strong, but it’s much stronger than a fruit wood. You’ll need to be careful when you use this wood since if you use too much it can make your fish taste pungent and bitter. When used correctly, this wood will give fish a delicate flavor, just be sure you don’t overuse it.
Walnut: This wood is often blended with other woods and it offers a very strong flavor that can cause your fish to taste bitter if not used carefully. Many people prefer to use walnut for red meats, however, if you’re careful, it can also be used for fish.
Tips When Smoking Meat
The top meats to smoke are the cuts that offer the most flavor, usually fatty cuts, but you can also smoke lean cuts of meat such as chicken and fish. Once you’ve found the right wood to pair with your meat you may want to get started right away trying your hand at smoking meat, however, there are other things you need to keep in mind in order to ensure your meat is smoked to perfection:
- As I discussed earlier, you want to avoid using soft woods such as cedar and pine. You should also avoid using any type of scrap lumber or treated woods.
- When using found wood make sure you remove the bark since this can emit an acrid taste when its burned
- Start off by using a small amount of wood and use more gradually as the food is smoking. This is done gradually since too much wood can overpower the flavor of the meat.
- Avoid allowing the wood to burn too long since this can produce a bad smoke that can ruin the flavor of the meat.
- If you’ve found the best wood chips for smoking, be sure you place them in a smoker box or a foil pouch with holes poked in it.
- If you don’t want to have to keep replacing the wood like you will if you use wood chips, then use wood chunks, especially if you’re slow-cooking a large cut of meat such as brisket.
Do I Need to Soak the Wood?
In most cases, no. But this can also depend on the type of wood you use, such as wood chips, chunks, or logs. If you’re using wood chips, then they should be soaked for thirty to sixty minutes to prevent them from burning too quickly. Some people will soak the logs and wood chunks, while others will leave them dry. I recommend leaving them dry as well.
Just like charcoal, hardwood must be lit and burning properly before you introduce the food. In order to get started smoking, begin by placing the wood on top of hot coals, allowing the wood to burn until it stops flaming and starts producing smoke. If you’re using chips then this will be almost immediate. If you’re using chunks it will take longer to get the wood to the right stage.
You can also cook hardwood exclusively, yet some smoking enthusiasts prefer to use a little charcoal as well.
Pay Attention to the Smoke Ring
While it’s more obvious when you barbecue meat, and you may not encounter it when you smoke certain types of meat, some types of meats, such as chicken, will have pink discoloration on the surface. Many people mistakenly believe that it’s a sign of undercooked meat. When you cook with smoke, especially when slow smoking, there is a chemical reaction that occurs between the meat and the smoke. When nitrogen dioxide from the wood mixes with the meat’s natural moisture, it will form nitric acid, which is what causes the pink smoke ring. These rings are a great way to determine if something has been smoked properly.
Not all wood is the same. As I mentioned earlier, each type of wood will offer a different level of smokiness and flavor. Below, you’ll learn more about the different woods and what level of smokiness they offer.
Mild Smoky Flavor
For a milder flavor, go with cherry, apple, or alder. These woods will offer a mild smokiness and a touch of sweetness. These woods will be a great choice for smoking more delicate meats such as fish and poultry, veggies, and cheeses.
Medium Smoky Flavor
For medium smokiness, use maple, hickory, or oak. These offer a distinct intense smoky flavor that will not overpower the meat. These woods work well with beef, pork, and poultry.
By now you know that mesquite is the smokiest option out there and it’s often used for a wide variety of meats, such as brisket and ribs. Since it has such an intense flavor, it should be used sparingly. It many cases, beginners tend to overuse mesquite, which is why their food tends to turn out too smoky. Start by using just a small amount of hickory as your food smokes and add more as needed in order to prevent overpowering the flavor of the meat with this intense smoky flavor.
The best wood for smoking meat will heavily depend on the type of meat you want to prepare, whether it’s ribs, a pork shoulder, chicken breasts, fish, or a brisket. There are many options available and some great ways you can experiment by mixing different woods together to achieve a rich yet sweet flavor. By following this guide, you can smoke any type of meat to perfection using the right type of wood. Remember, pairing wood and the meat correctly will be very important if you want perfectly smoked wood that’s not overdone or overpowered by the smoke.