Wood for Smoking
If you have a smoker or grill and want to add real wood smoke flavour to your food, you may be wondering which type of wood is the best to use for the food you’re preparing. Some folks prefer a subtle smokiness and others want a full-on smoke ring penetrating their food. Ultimately, the best way to find out is to try out different woods and vary the length of time you use them for smoking. You may decide that a combination of woods is the perfect blend for you.
Wood for smoking is available as logs, slabs, chunks, or chips. Logs and slabs are used most often in big rig smokers and professional smoke boxes. Chunks are the easiest for most folks to use, offering good burn with enough longevity to produce decent smoke. Chips are best reserved for grills and should be used inside of a foil pouch or smoke box. Some brands of smokers like Bradley or Traeger use proprietary compressed wood pucks or pellets.
To soak or not to soak. Experiments have shown that very little water penetrates wood during pre-soaking so it’s of little use with logs, slabs, or even big chunks. You can soak chips if you like before wrapping them up in a foil pouch, since they are small pieces.
Barking up the wrong tree… or not. If you’re using larger pieces, you can remove any bark if you like. Some folks do, some don't. You might experiment with bark on and bark off to see which flavour you prefer.
There is a huge variety of woods used for smoking, including exotic ones specific to different regions of the world. Below is a general guide to the most common wood varieties and foods they are often used with.
- Pork: Alder, Apple, Cherry, Hickory, Maple, Oak, Pecan. Steven Raichlen likes to blend Hickory, Apple, and Maple.
- Beef: Cherry, Hickory, Maple, Mesquite, Oak, Pecan. Steven Raichlen likes to blend: Hickory, Oak, and Mesquite.
- Poultry: Alder, Apple, Cherry, Hickory, Maple, Mesquite, Oak, Pecan. Steven Raichlen likes to blend Apple, Cherry, Hickory, and Oak.
- Seafood & Vegetables: Alder, Apple, Cherry, Maple, Oak. Steven Raichlen likes to blend Alder, Apple, and Cherry.
Alder is light, sweet, and not overpowering. It’s been used traditionally by west coast native tribes to smoke salmon and is also used to smoke sea salt. Alder is primarily used with fish but is also great with poultry and vegetables.
Apple probably has the best all-around flavour. Its light, fruity, slightly sweet aroma is well suited to pork, poultry, and vegetables. It’s also good for mixing with other woods.
Cherry is subtle and sweet. Use it with poultry, beef, and pork. Try mixing it with Oak and Apple, as well.
Hickory is the most frequently used wood in traditional barbecue with any meat. It’s the classic flavour we’re familiar with in everything from smoked almonds to potato chips. It has a strong flavour which can be overwhelming if too much is used. It can be mixed with other woods to temper the intensity.
Maple is light and mild. It’s nice with pork, poultry, and fish. Split maple logs are the only thing used at Muddy’s Pit BBQ to bring out the long, low and slow smoked flavour of the meat.
Mesquite is the official smoke of Texas. It has a strong, hearty flavour best suited to beef and perhaps chicken or turkey.
Oak goes with anything. It has a stronger smokiness than Apple or Cherry, but is lighter thank Hickory. It blends well with other woods.
Pecan has a sweet and nutty flavour that pairs well with Oak. Use it with beef, pork, and poultry. It’s perfect for a chicken and rib combination.
There are also woods available infused with flavours like Tabasco, Jim Beam, or made from aged wine-soaked barrels, which can be fun to play with. As we like to advocate, it’s OK to play with your food!