Smoke is an essential part of barbecuing, but you may be asking yourself – do different types of wood really add different smoky flavors and profiles to the food?
Some dedicated pitmasters place their entire focus on the wood they use for their smoking, but is it really worth worrying about finding the perfect match between a particular meat cut and the wood you use for smoking it?
Read on to find out more about the best wood for smoking, how to choose the wood type, which wood goes with which foods, and where to buy the wood you need for your pit.
The best wood for smoking
The different wood gives out different types of smoke and brings a specific flavor profile to the food being smoked.
Choosing the right wood for your barbecue can be crucial for the end results of your cooking.
Softwood or hardwood?
Hardwood includes all trees which need to be pollinated in order to grow seeds and reproduce themselves.
Softwood trees reproduce through the cones they grow.
Hardwood is the wood that is used for the majority of the cooking and smoking needs because it burns at a higher temperature and for longer and has less resin and sap than coniferous softwood.
The softwood’s resin and sap can cause the smoke to be acrider and overwhelm the food in the pit.
Frequently used cooking woods
The most commonly used woods for smoking depend on the state and the barbecue style of the pitmaster. For example, Texas-style BBQ relies mainly on post oak, while Carolina-style BBQ is all about hickory. Other pitmasters prefer using fruitwood like cherry, apple, or peach for their cooking.
These preferences are based on the availability of certain trees and timber in a given region, but what brings all of the different regions and BBQ styles together is that most of them rely on different types of hardwood for smoking.
For the sake of sustainability, it is always a good idea to opt for wood that is available locally but make sure that you choose a wood that has been seasoned in order to dry off any sap or resin.
What type of wood to choose?
You should choose the wood type for your cooking depending on your smoker, and more importantly, on the size of its firebox chamber.
Here are the main types of wood and the smokers they are most suitable for:
Chunks are among the most popular wood types for smoking. They usually come in a fist size of up to 4 inches so that they will fit in most smokers – wood or charcoal.
They are readily available, and since they are small will take up little storage space.
Chunks are usually placed on burning coals in order to light up and start producing smoke.
Chunks have a convenient size and will produce smoke very quickly, without the need of soaking them first.
They are recommended for various types of smokers, including the smaller offset ones, barrel, ceramic, gas, or water smokers, and for gas grills.
They are the perfect choice for Weber Smokey Mountain or Big Green Egg kamado-style smokers.
Thanks to their compact size, you can easily control the amount of smoke by adding a few more chunks when needed.
Wood chips for cooking are about an inch wide and long and ¼ inch thick. They are used mainly for gas and for electric smokers but can be used to add some fresh smoke in charcoal smokers too.
Chips, too, are easy to find and will produce smoke quickly and without the need for soaking.
Since they are so small, wood chips are perfect for smoking delicate foods like poultry or fish, as you can add only a handful to get enough smoke for about 15 minutes without overpowering the meat.
Split logs or whole logs can be up to 18 inches long, which means that they are suitable only for the largest offset smokers and for professional pits.
Logs are perfect for cooking in a wood smoker, as they can create both the heat and the smoke for barbecuing.
They take a longer time to burn than other wood types, but since they are mostly used as a combination of fuel and flavor, you should be more cautious about choosing the exact type of wood for your smoking session, the health of the wood, and about it being seasoned properly to remove the resin and sap.
The problem with logs is that they will not fit in most residential cookers and smokers.
Pellets are the size and shape of chicken feed and are made of compressed sawdust in small tubular form and a length of about an inch.
They are compressed without artificial binders, so they are safe for smoking food.
Pellets are made for pellet smokers but can be used for smoke generators and for smoking boxes for other cookers.
They, like the wood chips, are suitable when you need only a brief burst of smoke when preparing delicate foods.
Wood pellets usually come in bags of 10 to 40 lbs. and are made of different woods.
Why matching wood is not the only important element of smoking
While some pitmasters swear by particular wood matching certain foods, the reality is, is that it is the combination of the meat quality, the marinade, the rub, and the temperature for cooking it that matters the most for its taste rather than just the wood or the combination of woods used for the cooking.
True, the different woods burn differently, but for a great smoky flavor, it is most important to ensure that there is clean combustion and airflow of oxygen to keep feeding the fire to get a clean smoke and thus give the food an authentic smoky flavor profile.
On the contrary, dirty combustion and dirty smoke can make the food taste sooty and unpleasant.
This type of dirty smoke is usually caused by wood that has too much sap or resin or in cases when the fire does not have constant access to a source of oxygen.
But as a whole, if you keep your focus on choose high-quality meat and prepping it properly as well as cooking at the right and steady temperature with clean combustion, you can expect to achieve excellent results every time.
The perfect wood for smoking according to your meat type
While beginners can benefit from learning which kinds of wood are best suited for different types of meat and food, there are no set rules about using only certain types of wood for certain types of food.
It is good to know the basics, but you should feel free to experiment with your barbecue until you get the results that suit your personal taste.
Here are some of the basic guidelines for the best matches between wood and food:
Brisket is a tough and dense beef cut that is best matched with dense wood, which will burn hot and for long. The top picks for wood for smoking beef brisket are oak and hickory. Each burns at high temperatures and produces a strong penetrating smoke.
The smoke will combine well with the tough fibers of the brisket as they break down and get softer during low and slow cooking.
If you keep the combustion clean, hickory and oak will give your brisket a beautiful taste.
Oak is actually one of the go-to woods for smoking all types of meat and will provide a medium to strong flavor to the food. It is perfect for cooking brisket, lamb, sausages, and others.
Hickory is another versatile wood that produces smoke with a savory and sweet, hearty flavor. But you should be careful when using hickory as too much of it can make the meat taste bitter. Hickory goes with larger pork cuts, red meat, and poultry
Turkey, like all other poultry, absorbs the smoke faster, so you may want to choose a wood that has a milder smoke that won’t overpower the turkey’s taste.
Cherry wood is among the most suitable matches for smoking turkey. This fruitwood will infuse the turkey without being too heavy.
Cherry has a mild and fruity flavor and is perfect for cooking turkey, chicken, or ham and combines well with some hickory wood.
Other woods suitable for smoking turkey include fruitwoods such as peach or apple.
Pork ribs, including spare or back ribs, combine well with wood which produces heavier smoke, such as oak or hickory.
You should be careful not to over smoke your ribs with hickory, or it will penetrate very deeply in the meat, likely ruining its taste. The best way to tell whether the ribs are smoked to perfection is to watch their color. When it reaches dark mahogany color, this means that they have been infused with enough smoke. If you notice that the outside of the ribs is getting dry, you may want to wrap them in foil to prevent further exposure to the smoke during the cooking.
Oak is another suitable choice, but it is wood which is less earthy than hickory. Once again, be mindful of how much smoke you expose your ribs to when using oak which has a heavier smoke than others.
Similar to turkey and other poultry, chicken absorbs the smoke very quickly, so it is important to choose a smoking wood that is subtler.
Maple is the most commonly used wood for cooking chicken because it produces a light smoke that will not overpower the taste of the bird.
Ample provides a mild, sweet, and light smokiness to the food and is often used for smoking all types of poultry, fowl, and pork.
Keep in mind that if you are smoking a spatchcocked chick or one which is broken down into smaller parts, you should be careful about how long it should be exposed to the smoke.
If it feels like the chicken is becoming too dark and taking in too much smoke, then you should use butcher paper or foil to wrap it and protect it for the remaining part of the cooking.
Whole hogs or large pork cuts need wood which provides a heavier and denser smoke that can penetrate into the meat. This makes oak and hickory some of the most suitable hardwoods for smoking a pork butt, other pork cuts, or whole hog.
Since cuts like pork butt which has a lot of marbling from the intramuscular fat and a lot of connective tissue, these will take a longer cooking time to break down. If you want the meat to end up penetrated with the beautiful smoky flavor, then hickory is an excellent choice.
Oak too is used when smoking whole hog or pork butt, as this wood burns longer and produces a dense smoke that can penetrate through and within the dense meat.
Fish and seafood
Fish and seafood are the most delicate foods on this list, and as such, they should be smoked with added care so that they are not over smoked and ruined in the process.
Apple and peach, or other sweet and mild fruitwoods, are perfect for smoking fish or seafood, such as shrimp or scallop.
When smoked properly, these proteins develop a plump and moist texture and will absorb the smoke quickly.
For the best results, use smaller wood chips or chunks when smoking fish or seafood for short exposure to the smoke for only about 15 to 20 minutes. If the smoke is not enough, you can always add some more chips or a chunk of wood to the smoker.
Mix and match wood for smoking
Once you become familiarized with the way different wood affects the taste of different proteins, you will find it easier and more intuitive to start matching different woods with different smoke profiles for your smoking sessions.
You can, for example, smoke turkey by starting with a few chunks of hickory and finishing up with apple chunks or a split log. This will ensure that the turkey gets that nice earthy taste of the hickory but without being overpowered by too much smoke.
Of course, it will take some practice and experimenting to get these combinations right and achieve the flavors and results you prefer, but this is part of what makes it such fun to spend time around the pit and to smoke your food.
Once again, whatever combination of wood you are planning on using, it is essential to season and prep the protein properly first, set and maintain the appropriate temperature and ensure that there is clean combustion in the smoker at all times for the most satisfying end results.
Where to find wood for smoking meat
Now, the question is where to buy healthy, safe, and properly seasoned wood or other wood products for your smoking.
Here are some popular choices.
This is among the most convenient ways to buy the wood you want and get it delivered right to your doorstep.
On Amazon, you can find all popular cooking and smoke wood-making brands, as well as some smaller independent storefronts and sellers.
If there are barbecue restaurants or popular pitmasters in your area, then there are surely local sources where they get their quality wood from.
Ask them, or do your research to find local tree and timber service companies that offer logs, chips, chunks, and other wood for BBQ.
There is also a chance that some of the big box stores for sporting goods in your area, such as Dick’s Sporting Goods, Academy Sports, Bass Pro Shops, or others, will offer wood for smoking, so you can shop around to find the one you need.
Do it yourself
If you have the opportunity and the permission to, you can chop your own wood for smoking and cooking.
But keep in mind that the wood has to be seasoned before it can be used for cooking or smoking. Seasoning the wood means drying it and aging it to remove resin, sap, and moisture so that it burns clean and so that it is food grade and can be used safely for cooking food.
Wood can be kiln-dried or air-dried. If you are drying your wood using the air-drying method, remember to store it off of the ground, cover it with a wood cover or tarp and let it dry for 6 to 18 months.
Anything less than that will leave the wood moist, but more than 18 months can cause the wood to start rotting and be unsafe to use for cooking too.
If you can find a kiln, then kiln drying is the easier way to season the wood.
Remember to stay away from recently chopped or green wood, as it will probably have a lot of resins and sap, which will cause it to burn dirty and will ruin your food.
If you have no choice but to use green wood, then make sure you let it burn down to coal first and then place the food in the pit to make sure that the moisture and the organic compounds have safely been burned off.
We hope that we have helped you understand the importance of wood for smoking and why pairing certain wood with certain proteins matters, but what is most important for achieving the best results in your pit too.
Keep in mind that practice makes perfect and that experimenting is part of the fun in barbecuing, so keep smoking and combining foods and woods until you achieve the perfect results!