For those who love to smoke meat, there’s a question that is often asked: “What are the best woods to use for smoking meats?” It’s a great question and perhaps the best answer would be: “It depends on your personal preference.” It’s akin to asking what would be the most delicious flavors of ice-cream—it’s subjective. With that being said, though, there are some select woods that seem to rise above the rest in terms of being the most popular when smoking meats of all kinds.
Different woods impart different flavors and not all woods work well for all types of meat. If you take smoking fairly seriously, you’ll probably experiment with various woods. You might even test a half-dozen or more smoking woods until you discover which ones really trip your trigger.
A Few Tips to Perfect Your Smoking Experience:
**Chat Concerning Chunks or Chips:
Which works better: wood chunks or wood chips? You may find that wood chunks will work better than wood chips for several reasons:
1: Chunks will last longer than any chips—even chips that have been soaked. In fact, chips require soaking or they will burn up too quickly. If you choose chips and are going to soak them, be sure to use hot water since the water’s heat will actually expand the wood’s fibers which would allow more water to be absorbed. Because of this, the chips won’t burn up as rapidly.
2: Since chips do not last as long as chunks, you will find yourself adding chips to the fire far more often. As a result, valuable heat will be released from the smoker each time, causing longer cook times.
3: Chunks don’t need to be soaked, at all. Soaking would delay the time it would take the chunks to create the desired smoking.
And just as a side-note, some chefs believe that leaving the bark on larger pieces of wood produces undesirable flavors. Some chefs agree with that while others don’t; so it becomes, yet again, a personal preference based on what you, yourself, find to be better for you.
Also, the best way to maintain the integrity of aromatic woods is to bypass charcoal briquettes and use quality, lump coal, instead. Independent grocery stores and specialty BBQ shops offer this product on a regular basis.
**Woods To NOT Use:
Steer clear of soft woods such as pine, fir, spruce, (conifer) redwood, cedar, elm, eucalyptus, sycamore, cypress, elderberry and sweet-gum trees. Some woods contain higher levels of resins. High-resin woods would end up not only ruining your meats but would destroy your smoker, as well!
Additionally, never use lumber scraps, wood from any pallets, painted or stained wood, green wood or wood that has been exposed to mold or fungus.
**Woods TO Use:
There’s a general rule concerning woods for smoking that will never steer you wrong: Use heavier hardwoods for heavier, denser meats such as beef and pork. Woods that work well for these meats would include oak and hickory. When it comes to less-weighty or ‘lighter’ meats such as fish and poultry, lighter hardwoods such as maple, alder and fruit-and-nut-bearing (i.e.: apple, pecan and peach) woods work very well.
At some point, through trial-and-error, you’ll be able to combine softer and harder woods to your smoker and blend smoke flavors that will complement one another. Popular combinations include hickory with apple or cherry, for example.
Here’s an opportunity to become a bit more ‘wood-savvy’ by taking a look at fifteen types of woods that work well with smoking where each wood is delightfully unique in its own right. Keep in mind, this list is not exhaustive:
Top 15 Types of Woods to Use With Your Smoked Meats:
1: Almond—Good with all meats:
Almond wood produces a sweet, nutty flavor and is similar to pecan.
2: Apple—Good with all meats including quail and other poultry.
Apple is extremely popular and is sweeter and milder than hickory and offers a fruity, mellow flavor. Use Apple sooner rather than later since it takes several hours for it to permeate food.
3: Ash—Good with fish and red meats:
Ash has a delicate, distinctive smoke flavor and burns quickly.
4: Beech—Good with meat and seafood:
Birch runs neck to neck with oak in terms of popularity and produces a mild flavoring.
5: Butternut—Good with venison and other game meats in addition to beef and pork.
Butternut possesses a strong smoke flavor—similar to walnut. It should not be used with poultry since it can overpower the flavor.
6: Cherry—Good with all meats.
Cherry produces a mildly sweet and fruity flavor; and even though it has a tendency to blacken the skin of poultry, the blackening won’t compromise the meat’s flavor. You can combine cherry with a lighter wood, such as apple, to minimize any blackening.
7: Grapefruit—Excellent with beef, pork, fish and poultry.
Grapefruit provides a smoky flavor on the mild side with a slight hint of fruit.
8: Hickory—Especially good for pork and ribs but works well with all smoked meats.
Hickory remains the most popular hardwood for smoking and provides flavoring that can range from sweet to a heavy bacon taste. Because it burns hot but slowly, it works well with larger cuts such as ribs and pork shoulders.
9: Maple—Good with pork, poultry and game-birds and does wonders with smoked turkey! Also works well with ham, cheese and veggies.
Maple is subtly smoky with a hint of sweetness. It burns hot and slowly and Sugar Maple is the sweetest of the heavier woods.
10: Mesquite—Especially good with steaks, duck or lamb but can be used with all meats, including vegetables.
Mesquite offers a distinctively robust, potent, earthy flavor with added sweetness and is extremely popular as a flavor enhancer. Many consider mesquite to be the strongest-flavored wood and because of that, it can overpower the flavor of foods so don’t use too much. Seasoned chefs often say: “Use mesquite like you would use chili peppers—very sparingly!” So know your mesquite before you eat!
11: Nectarine—Excellent choice for chicken, turkey, pork and fish and most other white or pink meats.
Nectarine provides a mild, sweet flavor and though similar to hickory, is more subdued.
12: Oak—Good with red meat, pork, fish and big game.
Oak wood offers a subtle to heavy smoke flavor and will produce a lovely smoked color. Oak is among the top-three smoking wood types.
13: Orange—Excellent with beef, pork and poultry.
Orange wood provides a predictably tangy, citrusy smoke flavoring. The fruitiness is especially appealing.
14: Peach—Great with white or pink meats including all types of poultry and pork and fish.
Peach has a light, woodsy flavor with just a touch of sweetness and it burns hot and relatively long.
15: Pecan—Good with almost every meat and works especially well with poultry, beef, ribs and brisket.
Pecan is a very user-friendly wood and is a leading contender in the aromatic woods for smoking. It offers a mildly sweet, rich, nutty flavor and has proven to be a top-pick when smoking brisket. It’s also an easy choice for most meats, in general—poultry, beef, pork and cheese. It is coveted among those who smoke turkeys since it helps to create delectably golden-brown skin on those big birds even though it cooks cool and slowly.
When you are thinking of what types of woods to use for smoking, think of the different species as being on a flavor spectrum ranging from mild to strong and make your choices based on the types of meat you will be smoking. And as delectable as smoke flavoring is, your culinary audience wants to eat meat, not the smoke. To make sure the smoke doesn’t overpower the meats, you should smoke your meats with flavored woods no more than half of the cooking time. Have fun experimenting with the different woods with different meats and you’ll come up with a handful that you’ll use