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I will admit, when I first started smoking meat, I did not think that wood choice mattered that much. I strictly used apple wood to smoke with, but it was not until I started smoking with other types of wood that I really understood that wood plays a huge role in the taste of your BBQ. This lead me on quest to find out what the best wood to smoke with was. Here is what I found.
What Is The Best Type Of Wood To Smoke With?
Hickory is the best wood to smoke meat with as it imparts a great flavor and can be used to smoke any type of meat. Hickory is by far the most commonly used wood when smoking meat for its ability to impart a strong, but not overpowering, sweet and smoky flavor, and has become a fan favorite for it is bacon like flavor.
What Does The Data Say?
After spending hours of research online reading articles and watching videos, there was no definitive answer on what the best type of wood was for smoking. That is largely due to the fact that you can smoke with any of these woods and get great results, with a few exceptions of course! It all comes down to personal preference. After testing many different types of woods, I have found the wood combination that I like the most, but I was curious as to what the other pitmaster’s had to say about what the best wood for smoking was.
In a recent poll I conducted which included almost 1,000 participants from around the United States, I asked what they thought the best wood for smoking meat was. An overwhelming majority of participants at 31% said that hickory was the best wood for smoking meat. The next most popular choice for smoking wood was apple at 17%, followed by cherry wood and pecan wood at 16%.
While I am not surprised that hickory was by far the favorite, I mean who does not love bacon flavored meat, I was quite surprised to see that oak scored lower than it did. I had always thought of oak as a staple in the meat smoking world and even know many BBQ joints that use oak. I was even more surprised that pecan wood ranked where it did as well. Pecan wood was not a wood that I suspected to be so popular in the community. While it is fun to look at the data, there is more to selecting a wood for smoking than choosing the most popular.
Most Common Types of Woods For Smoking Meat.
With so many different types of trees in the world, it may seem as if we have an endless supply of wood to use for our smokers; however, not all woods are created equal. Each type of wood imparts a different flavor into your meat. While sometimes subtle, these small differences can make a huge difference. The type of wood you use also heavily relies on what type of meat you are smoking. Certain woods can overpower your meat while some might not add enough smoky flavor. Smoking wood falls on a spectrum of strength and understanding where on that spectrum each wood falls can help you create some awesome tasting BBQ.
Mild Woods For Smoking Meat:
Alder – Alder is one of the mildest woods out there and add a very subtle and delicate sweetness. This is an extremely popular choice for smoking salmon and other fish.
Cherry – Cherry wood is one of the most commonly used fruit woods as it imparts a sweet yet delicate flavor into the meat. Cherry is most notably known for its ability to give smoked meat a dark savory color to it.
Apple – Apple wood is another extremely popular fruit wood to use when smoking meat. It imparts a mild sweet and fruity flavor. To this day, apple smoked pork is some of my favorite BBQ to eat. Apple wood also pairs well when using maple syrup, honey, or brown sugar.
Maple- Maple imparts a stronger smoky flavor than the fruit woods above, yet still offesr a sweet taste that compliments turkey and vegetables well!
Moderate Woods For Smoking Meat:
Pecan – Pecan wood comes from the same family as hickory and exhibits similar flavory. It imparts a sweet and nutty flavor that can be applied to all types of meat.
Oak – Oak is probably the most versatile wood on the list. It is right in the middle on the smokiness scale and offers a mild and consistent smoky flavor. This wood works well for all smokes and pairs well with other woods.
Hickory – The fan favorite and my personal favorite, its hard to go wrong with hickory. Hickory is a fairly strong wood and will impart a strong smoky and sweet flavor. Many people say hickory imparts a bacon flavor into your meat and who does not love bacon.
Strong Woods For Smoking Meat:
Mesquite – Mesquite is an extraordinarily strong wood and needs to be used in moderation as it can easily overpower your meat; however, that strong smoky flavor gives meat that traditional smoke flavor that is so popular. This is a great wood to use when smoking beef.
Walnut – Walnut is not a commonly used wood as it is hard to come by and has limited use. Like mesquite, walnut is strong and imparts a borderline bitter taste. Walnut should only be used on red meat and is said to be particularly good when smoking wild game meat.
Can You Mix Wood When Smoking Meat?
Absolutely, in fact mixing wood is extremely common when smoking meat and I would highly encourage you to do so as well. Trying different combinations of woods is a really fun way to subtly change the way your BBQ tastes. There are certain woods that pair really well with each other and some of the best BBQ in the world was made over pits with more than one type of wood! Finding that right combination comes down to trial and error but here are some great wood combinations to start with!
Cherry and Hickory: This is an extremely popular combination and is used a lot in competition. While cherry is not very strong, it is known for giving off a great deep color to the meat which makes the meat visually appealing. To add that smoky flavor we desire, hickory offers a stronger sweet smoky flavor. Cherry and hickory balance each other well and create a sweet and smoky flavor.
Apple and Oak: Another great combination, apple adds the sweet flavor while oak adds a mild smoky flavor. Oak is a great wood to match with fruit woods as it is strong enough to add a smoky flavor but not too strong that it overpowers the sweetness from fruitwoods.
Pecan, Oak, and Maple: For those who like a stronger smoky flavor, this is a great combination for you. Oak and pecan are on the stronger side of the smokiness spectrum and the maple adds just a hint of sweetness.
There are so many different combinations it Is best to experiment to decide what you like best. Oak is a great wood to pair with other wood as it is strong but not overpowering. Oak and hickory are paired with fruit woods quite often as it creates a sweet and smoky flavor. This is part of the fun with smoking meat! Trying different combinations is a great way to subtly change the flavor of the meat!
What Wood Should You Not Smoke Meat With?
Like I said earlier, not all woods are created equal. There are some woods that you do not want to smoke with. Smoking with these woods can create too much smoke and leave behind an extremely bitter taste. It is best to just avoid these woods all together.
Softwoods: Softwoods unlike hardwoods, produce large amounts of sap. When burning softwoods, it produces a heavy and bitter tasting flavor. You should not use any type of softwood when smoking meat as it will render your meat inedible. Instead stick to the hardwoods. Here is a list of softwoods to avoid.
Chemically Altered Wood: I think this goes without saying but it is a bad idea to smoke wood that has been altered or had chemicals added to it. Examples of this would be scrap wood, wood from furniture, or even wood with paint on it. Just make sure the wood is pure.
Moldy Wood: Burning mold will impart an unpleasant flavor into your meat and can even be toxic. Avoid woods with mold and fungus.
Wood Chunks Vs. Wood Chips Vs. Wood Pellets Vs. Split Logs
Now that we know of the different types of woods you can and cannot smoke with, and some of the most popular wood combinations, the next step is to determine what type of wood style to use. There is four main styles of wood you will find for smoking, wood chips, wood chunks, split logs, and wood pellets.
Wood Chips: Wood chips are small, thin, and irregular shaped pieces of wood that burn quickly, giving a short burst of smoke. Wood chips are primarily used in electric smokers, on the grill, or for short smokes.
Wood Chunks: If you are using charcoal as your heat source, wood chunks are for you. Wood chunks are a step up from wood chips as they are much larger and thicker, generally coming in 2-inch chunks. This allows them to burn slowly giving off a long and sustained smoke, perfect for our long cooks.
Split Logs: These are exactly what they sound like, whole logs spilt into pieces for smoking. These are even larger than wood chunks and are used in offset smokers. Pitmasters who use split logs rely on them to provide both the heat and the smoke flavor which is why they are so large.
Wood Pellets: Wood pellets are made from compacted sawdust and are made specifically for pellet grills. Wood pellets come in a variety of flavors and can be picked up at your local store or online.
How Much Wood To Use When Smoking Meat
A common mistake beginner’s make when smoking meat, is using too much wood. Using too much wood will over smoke your meat leaving a bitter and unpleasant taste. More is not always better.
For those using electric smokers, you should replenish your box every two hours not to exceed 6 hours of smoking. After 6 hours, simply remove the smoke box from you smoker and let the meat finish cooking. For those using charcoal smokers, use 2-4 fist sized chunks of wood. Throwing too many wood chunks in with your charcoal will risk you over smoking your meat. If your wood chunks burn out before the 6-hour mark, you can add a couple more; however, I find that 4, fist sized wood chunks provide plenty of smoke for the entire cook.
For those using a pellet grill, you do not need to worry about over smoking your meat. Just keep the hopper full of pellets and let the smoker do its thing. Lastly, for those using an offset smoker, split logs are generally your source of heat. You should add split logs as needed to maintain your temperatures. You can usually expect a log to last for about an hour. Here is a great video on how to maintain a fire in an offset.
Should I soak wood chips before smoking?
No, soaking your wood before smoking does not offer any benefits. The little water that is absorbed by the wood remains on the outer layer of the wood. Once the soaked wood is placed in the fire, the water evaporates almost immediately. Shortly after, your wood will burn as normal.
To prove this, one pitmaster ran an experiment. Most people claim to soak your wood anywhere from 30 minutes to a couple hours, but to cover all his bases, this pitmaster soaked a wood log for 2 days! After resting in water for two days, he cut the log open to find the inside bone dry. Water does not penetrate the interior of the wood. This is why wood floats in water. Because of this, the only delay is the initial combustion of the wood.
Delaying the combustion of the wood leads us to the second problem with soaking your wood. When you first throw wood on the fire, you may notice a heavy white smoke. This is actually not the kind of smoke we want to smoke our meat in. That initial white smoke comes from the burning of impurities on the surface of the wood which can impart an unpleasant flavor into our meat. Instead, we are looking for a thin blue smoke that is almost invisible. This is why pitmasters recommend you throw your wood on before you start smoking (more on that later). Because soaking your wood delays the initial combustion of the wood, you are subsequently prolonging the bad smoke we are trying to avoid. Any extra time you gained by soaking your wood is spent here in unusable smoke.
Moral of the story, do not waste your time soaking your wood before smoking.
When Do I Add My Wood
There are two ways to put your wood in your smoker. Some people prefer to bury their wood in the charcoal and some will leave the wood on top of the charcoal. I personally prefer putting the charcoal on top of the coals. If you are burying your charcoal, you should put your wood in before starting up your fire. To put your wood on top of the charcoals, let start your fire and let your smoker come up to your desired temperature. Once your smoker has reached a steady temperature, place the wood chunks on top of the lit coals. Allow approximately 15 minutes for the white smoke to turn to a thin blue smoke before placing your meat in the smoker.
Where to buy wood for smoking?
Local stores: Most local stores have plenty of wood options available from wood chunks and chips all the way to pellets. Smoking meat is becoming more and more popular making smoking supplies more readily available at your local store. Popular woods like oak, apple, and hickory can easily be found in your local stores. Your more unique woods such a cherry, maple or pecan might be harder to find.
Online: If you cannot find the wood you are looking for at your local store, there a TONS of online retailers that sell all different types and styles of wood. Cherry is not readily available where I live, so I get my cherry wood from online.
From your backyard: Maybe you have some property in the woods or just happened to remove and apple tree. Many people cut down their own trees to get wood for smoking. Just be sure you know what wood you are getting and that it is ok for smoking.