Types of Wood for Smoking

by Backyard BBQ Blog

in BBQ Pits and Tools, Cooking Tips

There are dozens different types of wood for smoking.  In mastering your backyard barbecue pit, you’ll want to learn the different flavors, forms and techniques to get the best results.

When I got my first offset smoker, I tried cooking ribs with hickory smoke. I put so much smoke on them that it actually smelled like hickory smoke all over my house after eating. Not good. Think of the wood you’re using like you think of the herbs and spices you put on your barbecue. You wouldn’t put a half inch thick layer of cayenne pepper on your ribs just because you like the flavor of cayenne. You’d put just enough on there to get the flavor you want without overpowering the meat.

Also, when meat is raw and more moist, it absorbs more of the smoke flavor. When I’m cooking large cuts like a pork butt or a brisket, I add one wood chunk right when I put the meat on and then one more every half hour until I hit the halfway mark of the cook time. Be especially careful with wood types that have a strong flavor, like hickory or mesquite, they can easily overpower the flavor of the meat. Go lightly, you can’t unsmoke the meat, but you can add barbecue sauce.

As with anything, a good knowledge of the concepts and flavors and plenty of practice will put you on the path to smoke mastery.

Types of Wood for Smoking - Apple Chunks

Types of Wood for Smoking

Its easier to get certain types of wood in certain regions where it grows naturally. But, if you want to try something that isn’t local to your area, and not available at your local stores, you should be able to get it on Amazon at a reasonable price.

Oak – Oak is a common wood for smoking. It’ll add a good smokey flavor to your meat but, it wont have the sharpness or sweetness that other woods can have. Great with beef.

Mesquite – My favorite for beef. I’m a South Texan, so the smell of burning mesquite always reminds me of home. It has a very strong flavor, so use it sparingly.

Cedar – Never cook anything over cedar unless you like the taste of fence posts.

Hickory – Another strongly flavored wood for smoking. One of the most popular wood types.  Great with beef, pork and turkey. It’s got a bit of a sweet flavor to it. Be careful and don’t overdo it, it can overpower the meat.

Pecan – Similar to hickory, but a lot milder. I worked for a German sausage company a long time ago that used pecan wood for their smoked sausage.  The best I ever had. But alas, they sold out to an evil company that cut costs to the point that the product was unrecognizable. Pecan smoke is great with beef, pork and poultry.

Peach – Another wood with a similar taste to hickory.  Its a bit sweeter and milder.  Good with poultry and pork.

Maple – Sweet.  Good with poultry and pork.

Cherry – Very popular wood for smoking. Sweet and mild in flavor. Makes for a better smoke ring and can color fish somewhat. Good with pork, poultry and seafood.

Apple – Very mild and little sweet. Great with pork, poultry and seafood.

Alder – Very mild flavor. Great with seafood.

Forms of Wood for Smoking

Wood in its natural state

You can get wood in its natural state (branches and logs) by going out to the country and gathering it up or buying from a dealer. It should never be used though if you’re going to put the lid down on your barbecue pit. It’ll easily overpower the meat.

Using this form of wood is great for grilling. I love loading up my pit with a good pile of mesquite and letting it burn down well before throwing some steaks on. It gives them a strong flavor and gets me into full caveman mode.

Wood Chunks

Wood chunks are typically chunks of wood in the range of two to three inches thick. It’s not necessary to soak chunks prior to throwing them on the pit. Just toss one or two on every thirty minutes or so for the first half of your cook and you’ll be golden. Nice and simple. They’ll smoke longer and slower than chips do, so they’re perfect for cooking big cuts of meat that need to cook low and slow for hours.

Types of Wood for Smoking - Apple Wood Chunks

Wood Chips

Some people suggest soaking wood chips in water for half an hour to an hour prior to putting them in the fire. I’ve tried both ways and honestly can’t tell the difference. I don’t bother. Wood chips burn fast, so I don’t recommend using them for recipes that take a lot longer. With more surface area for the same amount of wood, chips put out a lot more smoke in a shorter amount of time, so they are good when you’re grilling things like steaks or fish.

A common way of using wood chips is to take an ounce or two and wrap it in tin foil, then poke multiple holes in it for the smoke to escape. This is really helpful to keep your chips from flaming up and to reduce the mess if you’re using a gas grill.

Types of Wood for Smoking - Mesquite Chips

Pellets

Wood pellets are basically compressed sawdust and are specifically designed for pellet grills like the ones that Traeger makes. I’ve personally never used them, but have seen some suggestions that they work well on gas grills.

Have Fun and Experiment

I can do my best to try to describe the flavors for the types of wood for smoking that are commonly used, but it’s not really going to be that helpful to you. My suggestion is to try them all and find out what suits your taste buds the best. Some people even like to blend the different types to get exactly the flavor they want.

Remember, practice as much as possible. I can think of worse things I could be doing than hanging out by my barbecue pit and eating piles of smokey meat products.


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