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Smoke Wood? What kind is Best? Well it depends…

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Smoke Wood 1

The art and science of smoking meat on a grill centers around the smoke. In particular what to use to produce the smoke that imparts that wonderful flavor to meats, fish, and cheese. Not all wood is suitable for smoking and not all types of wood are suitable for all types of meat. There are even ways to produce flavorful smoke without using wood at all.

There are many types of wood that can be used to smoke meat. Everything from Alder to Walnut. Cherry to Mulberry. Lilac to Lemon. But which is the best wood? Different regions swear by different woods. Some say mesquite is the only way to go. Some say hickory. Some say that fruit woods should never be used. The Grillin Fools actually prefer the fruit woods.

The point is there are a million different opinions on the subject. You need to find out which is yours. The good news is the only way to find out is to spend a lot of time grillin, chillin and thrillin while trying different combinations.

First a little about smoke woods. The Grillin’ Fools recommend wood chunks over wood chips for a couple of reasons (but not in all situations as you will see below).

  • Wood chunks will last much longer than wood chips no matter how long the chips have been soaked ahead of time.
  • Chunks do not need to be soaked. In fact we don’t recommending soaking chunks at all. Soaking chunks will delay the wood from producing any smoke at all as can be seen here at our rib cook off in Michigan one summer. Dad used soaked chunks in his grill. Tom and I used non soaked chunks in ours and the two community grills. Guess which one of these grills that had smoke wood added at the exact same time had the soaked chunks:

Smoke Wood 2

  • Chips require soaking or they burn up QUICK. One tip – Use hot water. It opens the pores/fibers of the wood more and allows more water to be absorbed thus making the chips last longer once exposed to heat.
  • Wood chips generally need to be added to the fire many more times than chunks and with each time the grill is opened it releases all its heat which will extend grilling times.
  • The only time that wood chips are not soaked is when smoking on a gas grill. Wait, what?!? Yes, you can smoke on a gas grill. Click here to see the step by step, foolproof instructions. Wood chunks take longer to start smoking than chips and that’s exactly what is needed on a gas grill.

Bark or no bark. Another great debate. Some swear that bark puts off a different smoke than the wood and does not give the meat a good flavor. I’ve smoked with bark and without. I have never noticed any difference.

Smoke Wood 3

Before we get to the list, let’s start with the basics. Most people are using smoke woods on a charcoal grill. Don’t spend the money for those aromatic wood chunks (or chips) if you plan on polluting that wonderful smoke with charcoal briquettes. Start off with this stuff, quality lump charcoal:

Rockwood-1

And the best lump charcoal we have found is Rockwood Charcoal made entirely from local hardwoods. Right now it is only available in St. Louis, but they are expanding soon to different cities around the country. Check their website to find out where you can get this fine charcoal. Now to the best list of smoke wood on the web.

Acacia
These trees are in the same family as mesquite. When burned in a smoker, acacia wood has a flavor similar to mesquite but not quite as heavy. Acacia burns very hot and should be used sparingly.
Good with most meats, especially beef and most vegetables.

Alder
A sweet, musky smoke that is the traditional wood of the Northwest and pairs particularly well with salmon
Good with fish, pork, poultry, and light-meat game birds.

Almond
A nutty and sweet smoke flavor. Very similar to pecan
Good with all meats.

Apple
Probably the most used fruit smoke wood. The flavor is milder and sweeter than hickory. Ornamental apple trees like crab apple can be used as well.
Good with all meats.

Apple on the left, cherry on the right:

Smoke Wood 4

Apricot
Great substitute for apple as it is also milder and sweeter than hickory.
Good with all meats.

Apricot Wood

Ash
Fast burner, light but distinctive smoke flavor.
Good with fish and red meats.

Bay
Medium floral smoke with hints of spice & cinnamon.
Good with most meats and veggies.

Beech
A mild much used wood like oak.
Good with meat and seafood.

Birch
Medium hard wood with a smoke flavor similar to maple.
Good with pork and poultry.

Blackberry
Much like the woods provided from fruit trees, the small diameter, thorny branches of the blackberry bush provide a slightly sweet and delicate flavor.
Good for grilling poultry and other meats, such as small game birds like grouse, pheasant, partridge, and quail.

Blackberry Stalks

Be careful with these.  Even after they have dried for quite some time those thorns are still needle sharp:

Blackberry Stalks1

Thanks to James Hebert for submitting these pictures for the site.  We really appreciate it James.

Butternut
Strong smoke, like walnut, bitter when too much is used alone.
Good on red meats like beef, pork, venison and other game meats. Can easily overpower poultry.

Cherry
The second most used fruit wood. Slightly sweet fruity smoke that’s great with just about everything. It can blacken the skin of poultry making it look unappetizing, but will still taste great.  It’s an excellent candidate to mix with a lighter wood like apple or apricot to reduce the blackening.  What blackens the skin of chicken makes a great smoke ring. Ornamental cherry wood like double blossom cherry can be used as a substitute.
Good with all meats.

Check out the great smoke ring that you get with cherry wood on these baby backs:

Smoke Ring

Chestnut
Slightly sweet, nutty smoke flavor.
Good with most meats.

Corncob
Although not considered to be a true wood, the heart of the cob that holds the kernels is the fuel section of this alternative for wood. It is ground into small granular bits that can be added to a smoking box or it can be combined with other woods such as woods from fruit trees, to impart several flavors. The corncob provides a sweet flavor that may overpower the food if too much is used to season the food as it cooks. Begin by trying small amounts until the desired flavor is achieved.
It is often used as a smoking chip when grilling foods such as poultry, fish and small game birds.

Cottonwood
It is a softer wood than alder and very subtle in flavor. Use it for fuel but use some chunks of other woods (hickory, oak, pecan) for more flavor as it is extremely mild. Don’t use green cottonwood for smoking.
Good for all smoking, especially pork and ribs.

Crabapple
Is essentially interchangeable with apple.
Good with poultry, red meats, game and lamb.

Fig
Mild & fruity like mulberry.
Good with all meats.

Grapefruit
Produces a nice mild smoky flavor.
Excellent with beef, pork, fish and poultry.

Grapevines
Tart, aromatic, but can be a heavy flavor so don’t overdo it.
Use sparingly on poultry or lamb but otherwise if used in moderation is good with red meats, pork and game.

Here’s a French cut pork loin smoked with grapevines.

Guava
Flowery fruity taste.
Good for all meats,

Hickory
The most common hardwood used, even more so than apple and cherry. Sweet to strong, heavy bacon flavor.
Good for all smoking, particularly pork and ribs.

hickory-wood

I use hickory when I reverse sear pork steaks as they are sauced at the end and thus I need a stronger smoke flavor to stand up to the powerful flavors in the sauce as opposed to my usually preferred lighter fruit woods like pear, peach and apple.

Kiawe
Kiawe (pronounced key-ah-vey) is a wood that  is only found in Hawaii. Very hard to come by. The wood is dense with a dark thin bark. It is similar to mesquite with a sweet strong flavor
Good for beef, fish and poultry

Lemon
Medium smoke flavor with a hint of fruitiness.
Excellent with beef, pork and poultry.

Lilac
Very subtle with a hint of floral.
Excellent for smoking cheese. Good with, pork and poultry.

Maple
Mildly smoky, somewhat sweet flavor. Maple adds a sweet, subtle flavor that enhances the flavor of poultry and game birds, and outstanding for planking for those that don’t like cedar plank salmon.
Mates well with poultry, ham, cheese, small game birds, and vegetables. Wonderful for smoked turkey!

Mesquite
Strong earthy flavor. One of the most popular woods in the country, mesquite is a scrubby tree that grows wild in the Southwest. Sweeter and more delicate than hickory, it’s a perfect complement to richly flavored meats such as steak, duck or lamb. Burns hot and fast and it probably the strongest flavored wood.
Good with most meats, especially beef and most vegetables, but be careful as it can overpower.

Mulberry
A mild smoke with a sweet, tangy, blackberry-like flavor. Similar to apple
Good with Beef, poultry, game birds, pork (particularly ham).

Nectarine
The flavor is milder and sweeter than hickory.
Great on most white or pink meats, including chicken, turkey, pork and fish.

Oak
Most versatile of the hardwoods blending well with most meats. A mild smoke with no aftertaste. Oak gives food a beautiful smoked color. Red oak is believed to the best of the oak varieties.
Good with red meat, pork, fish and big game.

Red Oak:

16 carne asada red oak wood

Click here to see red oak used to flavor grilled carne asada.

Olive
The smoke favor is similar to mesquite, but distinctly lighter.
Delicious with poultry.

Orange
A tangy, citrus smoke. Medium smoke flavor with a hint of fruitiness. Orange gives food a golden color. Produces a nice mild smoky flavor.
Excellent with beef, pork and poultry.

Peach
Slightly sweet, woodsy flavor, milder and sweeter than hickory.  Peach is a bit redder than apple and produces a better smoke ring and is a little more flavorful.
Great on most white or pink meats, including chicken, turkey, pork and fish.

peach-wood

To see peach wood in action click here for Peach Smoked Jerk Ribs and here for Peachy Sweet Spare Ribs.

Pear
A nice subtle smoke flavor much like apple. Slightly sweet, woodsy flavor.  The smell is absolutely amazing. And just like ornamental apple and cherry, ornamental pear tree wood can be used like Bradford and Cleveland pears.
Good on Poultry, game birds and pork.

Pecan
Sweet and mild with a flavor similar to hickory but not as strong. Tasty with a subtle character. An all-around superior smoking wood. Try smoking with the nut shells as well. This is our preferred wood for Brisket. See it here.
Good for most things including poultry, beef, pork and cheese. Pecan is the best for that beautiful golden-brown turkey and we absolutely love it on brisket.

Pecan Wood

Click here to see pecan smoked brisket.

Persimmon
A strong, sweet, and dry smoke that is popular in restaurants as it is said the dryness of the smoke increases drink orders of patrons.
Excellent with beef and pork.

Pimento
Also referred to as Allspice, Jamaican Pepper, Myrtle Pepper, or Newspice. This wood adds a natural and somewhat peppery flavor that may also include flavors of several spices combined, such as cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, similar to the flavors provided when allspice is used as a seasoning to enhance the flavor of various foods.
It is a common wood used in grilling Jamaican foods such as jerk chicken. Often used for grilling poultry and fish.

Plum
The flavor is milder and sweeter than hickory.
Good with most meats, great on most white or pink meats, including chicken, turkey, pork and fish.

Sassafras
A mild, musky, sweet smoke with a root beer aftertaste. Some say this is not a good candidate for smoking. Others love it.
Especially good on beef, pork and poultry.

sassafras

Seaweed
The seaweed is washed to remove the salt and air or sun dried before use. It provides a somewhat spicy and natural flavor to the foods being smoked or grilled.
Commonly used for smoking shellfish such as clams, crab, lobster, mussels, and shrimp.

Walnut
While pecan is hickory’s milder cousin, walnut is the strong one. Often mixed with lighter woods like almond, pear or apple. Intense and can become bitter if overused.
Good on red meats like Beef, Pork, Venison and other game meats. Can easily overpower poultry.

Italian Herbs
Not smoke wood, but great to smoke with. A strong smoke flavor that is completely unique! Do not sprinkle the herbs from a jar, use whole sprigs.  You can use fresh oregano, rosemary, thyme or any combination of them with oak wood to give zesty and robust flavors.  Soak whole sprigs in water to extend the smoke of the herbs.
Especially good for lamb, pork and poultry. Good for pizza too, when you cook it on the grill.

Oriental Herbs
A strong smoke flavor with oak that’s truly amazing! A blend of sesame seeds and ginger root with oak wood or mesquite gives a nice oriental BBQ flavor.
Especially good for beef, pork and poultry.

Onion and Garlic
Soak garlic chunks and/or garlic cloves in water for 60 minutes. Plop the onion and/or garlic right over the coals. Add more when smoke stops. Does not produce a lot of smoke like typical woods, but it doesn’t need to in order to add an incredible flavor to any meat.  Be careful the first time you do this.  Our first time we wanted more smoke and used so much onion and garlic that it overpowered the meat.  Very little smoke is needed to impart a powerful flavor. We call it the White Castle or Krystal effect, depending on your part of the country.
Great with all meats, seafood and game.

Onion and Garlic Smoked Ribs

Other Woods
Avocado, Carrotwood, Madrone, Manzanita, Hackberry, and willow. The ornamental varieties of fruit trees such as Bradford and Cleveland pear, double blossom cherry, crabapple, etc., are also suitable for smoking, and very much akin to their non ornamental flavors of apple, cherry or pear woods.

Wood that should not be used for smoking
DO NOT USE any wood from pine, fir, spruce, redwood, cedar, elm, eucalyptus, sycamore, liquid amber, cypress, elderberry, or sweet gum trees. Cooking salmon on a cedar plank is not the same as using chunks of cedar to smoke meat as the plank doesn’t inundate the fish with smoke for hours at a time.

Never use lumber scraps, either new or used. First, you cannot know for sure what kind of wood it is. Second, the wood may have been chemically treated. Third, you have no idea where the wood may have been or how it was used.

Never use any wood that has been painted or stained. Do not use wood scraps from a furniture manufacturer as this wood is often chemically treated.

Never use wood from old pallets. Many pallets are treated with chemicals that can be hazardous to your health and the pallet may have been used to carry chemicals or poison.

Avoid old wood that is covered with any mold or fungus or is now uber porous and light like balsa wood due to rotting.

So, what kind of smoke wood is the best? Well, like I said, it depends…

If you have any questions about the smoke woods and such please feel free to comment below or shoot me an email.

Also, you can follow the Grillin Fools on Facebook and post your own grilling pictures, share grilling recipes, and join the general grilling conversation or get updates from us on our twitter page @Grillinfool.

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  • Michael JB

    i’m going to print this as a reference! i love smoking meats…my signature dish is a mesquite smoked salmon…so i’m going to add this to my tool box. have you ever tried soaking chips in anything other than water…like wine?!

  • GrillinFools

    I can’t say that I have ever soaked in anything other than water. Have you tried this? What effect does wine have on the smoke flavor? Are there better wines, white or red, sweet or dry? How long should they be soaked for?

  • StL Hooligan

    I occasionaly soak my chips in draft cider (apple beer), Im not sure if it affects the flavor dramaticly, but it sure smells great as the steam is rising from the grill!

  • Tom

    Soaked apple wood in whiskey, soy, with herbs. Smoked pork.

    The herbs clung to the wood as I tossed the wood onto the coal.

    The pork was out of this world.

    Have no idea whether it altered the flavor – but it’s fun to experiment. :^)

  • smokin’ in NJ

    Love the site…

    A question…do you keep adding wood to keep smoke going throughout your full cooking time? Or, is there an optimal time for smoke, then just go low and slow for the remainder of the cooking time?

    Thanks!

    • http://www.GrillinFools.com Scott

      Smokin’ in NJ,

      I ascribe to the rule that meat doesn’t really take on any more smoke flavor after an hour and a half to two hours. Maybe something like a pork butt/shoulder for pulled pork can take on more smoke flavor but for something like ribs, adding smoke wood after a couple of hours is a waste of smoke wood. But, yes, you do need to add smoke wood as what you have burns out. But after a couple of hours save the expensive smoke wood and maintain your desired temps without it…

      …….Scott

    • redd

      Yes try soaking your chips in beer in the hot sun for a while. The steam smells like fresh baked pretzels and makes the meat taste great I also use beer when the fire gets a little too hot while low and slowing.

  • jmoney

    Is it ok if the wood is fresh (meaning cut alive directly off of the tree), or must it be dead or aged wood?

    • http://www.GrillinFools.com Scott

      Jmoney,

      I have used wood cut that morning and it is fine. Myron Mixon uses fresh peach and I think he knows what he’s doing around a BBQ pit…

      …….Scott

  • richard sutton

    Just curios if its okay to use two types if wood for abrisket? I am about to use a little bit of oak and pecan

    • http://www.GrillinFools.com Scott

      Richard,

      Absolutely. Both Oak and Pecan are great individually for beef and together should be outstanding! Happy Grillin!

      …….Scott

  • Todd

    I have a hedge of choke berries or Aronia berries can I use the branches after drying them to smoke. Have you heard of them being used in this manner?

    • http://www.GrillinFools.com Scott

      Todd,

      I’ve read conflicting reports. Some say it can be used to smoke but only in small amounts. But the majority of what I’ve read is that it can be used and is similar to cherry wood. One drawback I found is that it can darken meat to the point that it looks really bad but does not impact the flavor, just the appearance. If it were me, I’d toss it on with some hickory and do a combo for the first run and then go with it solo. Good luck and let me know how it comes out. If you like it, I’ll add it to the post…

      …….Scott

  • KC

    I smoke over 200lbs a season of Salmon every friend I know has me busy, I float an egg with Kosher salt and Apple juice (thats the brine) and some times I use some cider, I mix my wood chunks 50-50 Maple and Apple. you will have neighbors stopping in to see what is smoking I have been doing this for over 30 years. never use water,try it this way you will like this a whole lot better. Never block the smoke from escaping give it a try, soak it 6 to 12 hours.

  • Jimmie Smith

    I have an offset smoker and walnut wood. I want to smoke pork with the wood. It has not been split. My question is, how big should I cut the wood?

    • http://www.GrillinFools.com Scott

      Jimmy,

      I cut mine into baseball size chunks. Walnut can be overpowering. Might want to cut it with some nice mild apple or pear…

      …….Scott

  • http://www.IndianaNature.com HillBilly Jeff

    Looking to get into smoking, I have been using apple to smoke hot peppers before making them into a powder.

    When doing meats am I using indirect heat the entire time and smoking the meat the entire time? Doing chicken breasts would be one thing, but indirect heat on a whole chicken would take all day.

    I like to use cottonwood as a base and then add the apple. I was told never to use green wood. How long should the wood be dead before I can use it? I just had a live mulberry blow down and would like to give it a try.

    Thank you.

    • http://www.GrillinFools.com Scott

      Jeff,

      I smoke whole chickens in under 2 hours at about 300. Sometimes I do indirect the entire time, sometimes I smoke first and then sear at the end. In the case of chicken, it helps to tighten up the skin and crisp it up.

      As far as green wood, you can absolutely use green wood. Myron Mixon, the winningest man in competition BBQ, uses the freshest, greenest peach wood he can. I used pear wood cut that morning to smoke pork tenderloins that I served to a food critic. I asked him if he could tell the smoke was acrid or bitter. He could not and he has the best pallet of anyone I know. And yes, you can smoke with mulberry. I have a bag right now, but have not gotten around to using it…

      …….Scott

  • Valarie Collup

    Hey there guys, I work at a tree farm and we have a abundance of ornamental pears. Looking for a way to use them rather than just cut them down. They are too big for our hydraulic spades to dig.

    How do you Bar-B-Que -ers take your wood? Logs, big chunks, etc????

    Are there any of you out there that would like a semi load full of pear wood? Let me know.

    Valarie
    Willow Green Gardens and Tree Farms.
    Rogersville, Missouri

    • http://www.GrillinFools.com Scott

      Valerie,

      I would love a bunch of pear. It’s my favorite smoke wood. I will send you an email and see exactly what this entails…

      …….Scott

  • http://asabove irishsimon

    Hey guys,
    It is nigh on impossible to purchase smoking chips/chunks over here in Ireland at the moment…..what do you reckon I could use instead?
    Is it possible to just cut some myself from apple, gorse etc and let them dry out and if so how long do u think the drying out process would take?
    Would I even have to dry them or just use fresh?

    • http://www.GrillinFools.com Scott

      Irish Simon,

      I have no idea what gorse is, but you could absolutely cut dome branches off apple and smoke with it. You could also use oak, maple, alder, cherry and plum (all native to Ireland). As for letting it dry? You don’t have to. Some swear you have to let it age for 6 months, but I’ve smoked with wood I cut down that morning. Good luck!

      …….Scott

  • Shawn Cacy

    If an oak tree dies before it is cut will it still be good to smoke with.

    • http://www.GrillinFools.com Scott

      Shawn,

      Make sure it is good, dense wood, otherwise I don’t see a problem. If the wood is light because it began rotting while still standing, and feels like balsa wood, then pass on it…

      …….Scott

  • JamesJacksonBBQ

    Osage Orange – from the mulberry family, also known as hedge apple – makes a great smoking wood, a light, delicate, almost feminine smoke. Not a lot of colour imparted, works well with apple, oak and maple woods. Burns very hot and is very dense, has the most BTUs of any North American hardwoods.

    • http://www.GrillinFools.com Scott

      Thanks for that info, James. I need to find myself some Osage Orange. Since I don’t live far from Osage country, that shouldn’t be hard, but I’ve never heard of it. I really appreciate this bit of information.

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