What Wood is Good for Smoking
moked meats are one of life’s finest pleasures. They’re tender, savory, and packed with flavor. If you want to take your next backyard barbecue to the next level, smoking your meal could be a great option.
To smoke meats, you’ll need a grill, some wood, and a few simple tools. You don’t need an expensive smoker to get started. A simple charcoal or gas grill will work if you buy a smoking box (or make one from aluminum foil).
It’s simple to start smoking meats with your gas or charcoal grill. You don’t need to be an advanced pitmaster to create delicious smoked meals at home.
When you buy materials, you need to know what wood is good for smoking meats. Different types of wood imbue unique flavors into the meat, creating one-of-a-kind results.
What wood is good for smoking your next barbecue depends on the meats you’re smoking. Like pairing a fine wine with your meal, you need to choose your wood chips with care. It may take a few tries to find your favorite combinations of meats, spices, and wood chips.
If you need help to get started, you came to the right place. Below, we’ll talk about different types of wood and which meats we like to pair it with.
Remember that the wood you choose will influence your meat’s flavor, but so will your spices, cooking style, and more. Keep this in mind when buying wood chips, as some may work better with certain spice blends than others.
What Wood is Good for Smoking Meat?
When you buy wood to smoke meats, you have a lot of options to choose from. The right choices depend on which method you’re using and the types of meat you’re cooking.
You can use other materials, but wood is the most popular option for smoking meats. Wood can be the main fuel source for your barbecue, or you can use it alongside gas or charcoal as a flavor enhancer. Typically, you’ll use wood chips or pellets as a flavor enhancer when you smoke meat with a grill.
Comparing Wood Chip Sizes
Vendors sell wood in various forms, from tiny pellets to sizable chunks. The best shape and size depends on your grill, your cut of meat, and other factors.
In fact, knowing which sizes of wood to choose is as important as choosing the right flavor profile. Knowing when to use sawdust versus chunks will help you as much as memorizing meat and wood pairings.
Smoking with Logs
Wood logs measure up to 18 inches long. They’re great for large offset smokers, common in commercial settings.
You can use large wood logs to create heat and smoke. They take longer to burn down than small chunks and are better for large cookers.
Logs are a great option if you’re using them for flavor and fuel. Pay close attention to which type of wood you’re choosing in this scenario. Your choice will have a noticeable impact on your food.
You don’t want to buy wood logs if you’re smoking meats on a grill. They are not compatible and may pose a fire hazard. Smaller chunks and chips of wood are more suitable for grilling.
Smoking with Wood Chunks
Chunks of wood measure up to 4 inches (10 cm) long (about the size of an average person’s fist). They’re ideal for small-to-moderate offset smokers, including gas, ceramic, and barrel smokers.
We also recommend wood chunks if you’re smoking meats with a gas grill. Unlike wood logs, chunks are easier to store, and they produce smoke faster.
You don’t need to soak wood chunks in water before you barbecue with them. You may soak wood chunks to impart added flavor into the food, but it isn’t necessary.
Smoking with Wood Chips
Believe it or not, wood chips and wood chunks have distinct differences. While similar, wood chips are much smaller than chunks. They measure about 1 inch (2.54 cm) on each side, perfect for gas and electric grills.
If you want to produce smoke fast, wood chips are the way to go. You can find them for reasonable prices on Amazon, available in many flavors.
Like wood chunks, you don’t need to soak wood chips before use. Doing so can impact the meat’s flavor, but it’s entirely optional.
Wood chips create smoke fast, but for a short period of time. You can prolong how long they create smoke by wrapping your chips in foil. Poke the foil with holes to regulate airflow, allowing the wood to smoke longer.
Smoking with Sawdust
Sawdust is wood that’s ground into a coarse powder form. When you use it, expect instant smoke production. You need to use it under the right circumstances if you want to get your money’s worth.
You can’t use sawdust as a source of fuel to cook meat. In fact, you’ll only use sawdust with an electric grill, a stovetop, or a handheld smoker.
Don’t soak sawdust before you use it. Your sawdust should be dry, so it smokes right after you apply heat.
Make sure your sawdust wasn’t treated before you use it for smoking. Some sawdust isn’t cooking-grade and may contain harmful chemicals.
Smoking with Discs or Pellets
Wood discs are sawdust compressed into a flat, round shape. They’re ideal for electric smokers, producing smoke rapidly.
Like discs, manufacturers compress sawdust to create wood pellets. Wood pellets are about the size and shape of chicken feed, perfect for various grills and smokers.
If you’re smoking meats on a gas or charcoal grill, wood pellets are a great option. They’re perfect for under-grate smoking boxes, pellet smokers, and smoke generators.
Like sawdust, you shouldn’t soak wood discs or pellets in water. They’ll disintegrate, making them useless for grilling.
Comparing Flavor Profiles
Once you know what size wood chips, chunks, or pellets you’re using, you need to find out what type of wood to buy. The best wood for your barbecue depends on the meat you’re serving.
Pitmasters classify wood into three major categories:
Apple, cherry, peach, and pear wood belong to the mild category. When you smoke with these types, you’ll taste a delicate, sweet flavor much like the fruit they bear. We recommend mild wood for fish, chicken, pork, game birds, and other poultry meats.
Moderate wood includes pecan, maple, oak, and hickory. They add a more noticeable flavor than mild wood that doesn’t overshadow the spices. Moderate wood is great for beef, sausages, briskets, and some cut of pork. We also love moderate wood for game meats.
Mesquite belongs in its own category. It classifies as a strong wood because its flavor is power and distinct. Few other wood types compare to its sheer potency. If you’re buying mesquite, it pairs best with red meats, lamb, and chicken. Don’t be afraid to combine a little mesquite with a moderate wood to create a more complex flavor profile.
Never use softwoods to smoke food. Softwoods like cedar and pine are resinous and when you burn them, they leave an unpleasant coating on your food. This coating will ruin your meal, so stay away from wood with resin.
Best Wood for Smoking Ribs
All smoked meats are delicious, but few compare to a classic rack of smoked ribs. Whether you like beef ribs or pork ribs, they’re incredibly fun to smoke and serve at a backyard barbecue.
To make the smoked ribs of your dreams, you want to choose the right kind of wood. This depends on what kind of ribs you’re cooking. For example, some types of wood compliment pork baby back ribs better than beef ribs.
When you smoke ribs, you want them to remain intact. They should be tender enough to pull off the bone without falling off on the plate.
If you’re smoking pork ribs, hickory and oak are popular choices. Hickory has a distinct flavor that pairs well with pork, giving it a classic barbecued taste.
Oak is another popular choice for smoking pork ribs. It imparts a distinct flavor without overpowering the taste or texture of the ribs.
If you’re trying a sweetly-smoked recipe for pork ribs, try a fruitwood. Apple, cherry, or pear chips create a delicate taste that pairs well with sweet sauces. Fruitwoods are also great with beef ribs, as they’re less likely to overpower the prime rib flavor.
Mesquite pairs well with most ribs, too. If you’re using a mesquite sauce or dry rub, make it more flavorful by adding some mesquite chips to your smoker.
Best Wood for Smoking Chicken
Chicken is lighter meat than beef. You’re more likely to overpower its flavor if you use strong wood for smoking.
We love using fruitwoods like apple, pear, and cherry to smoke chicken. The subtly smoky flavor goes well with various herbs and spices without overshadowing the dish.
When you’re smoking chicken, feel free to experiment with other wood types. Fruitwoods are reliable choices, but oak, maple, and hickory are great for certain recipes. For example, maple wood chips are an excellent choice if you’re making a sweet chicken recipe.
Best Wood for Smoking Fish
Most types of fish are considerably lighter than other meats. They’re healthy and filling, making them an excellent choice all-around.
If you’re grilling fish, you might consider salmon, tuna, catfish, tilapia, walleye, sea bass, or a variety of other species. Depending on where you live, you may prefer some fish over others because you have easier access.
Whichever type of fish you choose, it’s important to pair it with the right type of wood. Fish will take on the flavors of anything you cook it with more so than heavier meats, so buy wood with care. Some types may overshadow the flavor completely and heavily impact your dish.
We recommend using fruitwoods if you’re smoking fish. Alder wood is our favorite, imparting a delicate flavor that pairs perfectly with most seafood. Nut wood is also an excellent choice, like almond wood.
You can smoke fish fillets or use whole fish. If you’re smoking fish fillets, we recommend using cuts with the skin on. This keeps your fish moist while you smoke it, giving you a tastier result.
If you’re smoking fish, it won’t take as long as chicken, beef, or pork. Even large cuts of fish need less time to cook than heavier meats, so keep this in mind when you plan your barbecue.
Best Wood for Smoking Beef
Most grill masters don’t smoke steaks, but smoked brisket is delicious. It’s tender, hearty, and packed with flavor.
If you’re smoking a brisket, go with a moderate or heavy wood. You want a powerful flavor profile to go with your meat, creating a well-rounded taste.
We like smoking briskets with oak or hickory. In fact, mixing the two is a fantastic way to create a complex flavor profile. If you’re combing two types of wood, it’ll impact how long you smoke your meat – be careful, as it’s easy to over-smoke a brisket.
If you’re smoking a brisket, we recommend smoking it no longer than half the total cooking time. The total smoking time depends on the type of wood you’re using.
If you’re using hickory as your wood source, you should expose your brisket to smoke for between 2 and 3 hours. Smoking with oak should take much longer, between 8 and 12 hours. When you combine the two, take some time to find a good ratio – you may not get it right the first time.
Best Wood for Smoking Turkey
Believe it or not, you don’t need a special occasion to eat turkey. In fact, summer is a great time to try smoking a turkey!
If you’ve never had smoked turkey, it’s sure to become one of your favorite choices. It may feel intimidating to smoke your own turkey, but you can get started easily with the right plan.
Like chicken, turkey is light meat. It’s gamier than chicken, but some types of wood will overshadow its taste and texture.
We recommend cherry or pecan wood for smoking turkey. Compared to other types of meat, turkey is a metaphorical sponge for taste. It absorbs the wood’s flavors more efficiently than beef or pork, so it’s important to choose types of wood that won’t be overbearing.
If you want to you a stronger wood (like oak or mesquite), try combining it with a milder option. Using a strong wood on its own may leave your turkey tasting smokier than you intended.
Best Wood for Smoking Cheese
If you haven’t tried smoking cheese yet, we highly recommend it. Buying smoked cheeses at the store can be pricy, so why not make it yourself?
Smoking cheese isn’t as challenging as it sounds. It gives the cheese an extra flavor boost, making it an even better addition to any dish.
Unlike some heavy meats, cheese is an effective sponge for flavor. It will absorb a noticeable amount of smoke flavor during the process, so it’s important to choose a wood that pairs well with your choice.
It’s hard to recommend a singular wood for smoking cheese. The best wood depends on the type of cheese you’re smoking. We love using fruitwood for a mild flavor, but hickory and oak impart a strong smoky taste that’s great for many dishes.
Smoking meats is a fun way to take your backyard barbecue to the next level. If you want to do it the right way, you need to choose wood chips or pellets that pair well with your meats.
Some types of wood will overshadow your spices. You won’t notice other types at all. By following this simple guide, you can choose the right types of wood for your recipes.
Ultimately, finding the right wood and meat combinations takes practice. You may find a unique pair we didn’t mention that takes your recipes a step further.
This guide is not all-inclusive. We encourage you to experiment with your own meat and wood combinations. If you find something exciting, just give it a try!