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With so many different types of smoking woods for smoking and cooking meat, it is hard to figure out where to start. A lot of the type to use depends on the type of meat, as well as even the region of the world you are currently in. Some woods are more prevalent in certain areas, therefore are more likely to be used when cooking meat.
Take Texas for example. In Texas, most of the meat smoking is done with simple post oak, which gives it a classic Texas bbq flavor.
Knowing how to choose the best smoking wood can make all the difference in the world, taking a good barbeque, to a great one! There is a method to choosing which type of smoking wood pairs best with the type of meat, and pretty soon you will know exactly which type of wood you need for your cook!
Before you start:
Knowing how to cook with your smoker is as important as getting a good cut of meat, or knowing how to season it. What I mean by this is having a good clean burn of the wood. If your smoke coming out of the smoker is thick, white, and almost pungent to your senses, don’t put the meat on yet. Let it keep warming up until your smoke turns into an almost blue type of smoke. This will ensure you don’t get any creosote buildup on your meat, which can give it a bad flavor. It won’t necessarily ruin your cook, but it certainly won’t be as good as it could be.
Types of Smoking Wood
There are many types of smoking woods to choose from, and they mostly breakdown into 3 categories
- Hardwoods- Oak, Hickory (could be a nut), Maple, Mesquite
- Fruit- Cherry, Apple, Pear, Plum, Peach
- Nut- Pecan, Walnut,
There are more woods you can use, but these are the primary examples of smoking wood that you will find in a store or online.
What Wood Should I Use ?
The wood you are smoking with is most often determined by what meat you are cooking. I’m going to leave Oak out of this discussion, because you can smoke anything with oak. It has a great mild flavor that pairs with anything and will give a great flavor to any cook. It is also great for mixing with other woods to mild out the smoke flavor or keep your fire burning if using an off-set smoker.
Beef is a meat that holds up well to stronger smoke flavors. Most of the time, you will get these stronger smoke flavors from hardwood varieties and from nut varieties of wood. Traditional flavored woods are great for smoking beef with. Think campfire wood here. The best smoking woods for beef are:
Hickory is perhaps the most commonly used wood for smoking beef with because it has a stronger flavor that can penetrate the beef and give it a classic bbq flavor. Because of its stronger flavor, we don’t recommend using just hickory to smoke with, I like to mix it with oak, which is more mild, or even a fruit variety to give it different coloring and flavor nodes. When smoking with Hickory, be absolutely certain you have a good clean burn with your wood, so you don’t overpower the meat with thick smoke. Hickory smoking chunks
Pecan might be my favorite overall wood to use for beef. It has a great nutty flavor and won’t overwhelm the meat with too much smoke. It almost has a sweet tone that is much different than hickory’s stronger flavor. Pecan also burns longer than most other smoking woods, making it great for keeping a fire going in an offset smoker, or just getting longer lasting smoke out of chunks in your indirect smoker. Pecan smoking chunks
Mesquite is an intense bbq smoking wood that will give you a real feel for Texas style bbq. Mesquite adds an intense smoke flavor that pairs great with beef, but may be too strong for other types depending on what you and your guests like from the smoker. Be patient with mesquite, and like hickory, careful to not over-smoke the meat. Again, Mesquite would mix well with oak to tone it down a touch. Mesquite smoking chunks
Check out how to grill the perfect steak, and holiday prime rib roast
Chicken and Turkey are absolutely fantastic on the smoker, but can take on too much smoke if you aren’t careful. Choosing a smoking wood that adds great color and a mild flavor is what you want to do. The best smoking woods for poultry are:
Pecan, again, Pecan is my favorite smoking wood to use and pairs great with poultry. It will give a sweet nutty flavor and golden color to chickens and turkey. Whole smoked chickens and turkey are great with pecan.
Cherry will add an almost unbelievably beautiful red coloring to your poultry when smoked. It also adds a real fruity flavor that is mild in smoke. Cherry smoked wings are amazing, and even grilled chicken breasts over cherry wood are great on a salad. Cherry Smoking Chunks
Maple adds a unique sweet flavor that pairs good with poultry. Maple is very versatile, and mild, which makes it great for smoking chickens and not being overpowered with smoke. It isn’t as fruity as cherry wood, but reminds me of a similar flavor profile. Maple Smoking Chunks
When most people think of BBQ, they think of smoked pork, and pork butts to be specific. Pork is amazing because of how the fat renders down into the meat, and also how it can take on the smoke from the smoking woods you use. When smoking pork, most people choose a traditional flavor, or a fruity flavor. I like to mix them to get a truly unique smoke flavor on my pork. The best smoking woods for pork are:
Apple is king when it comes to pork. Applewood smoked pork butts and ribs are like a gift from God himself. The sweet smokey flavor that comes from apple has actually made me plant apple trees in my own yard in hopes of using trimmings each year from my own property. You can cook the entire cook with apple and it will rarely overpower the flavor, but it also works well mixed with pecan or oak to get a little more smoke. Apple smoking chunks
Cherry, much like with poultry, cherry pairs great with pork. The pork will take on the red coloring, and sweet flavors of the cherry wood when smoked.
Hickory is great on a thick cut like a pork butt, giving a traditional BBQ flavor to your pulled pork. However, one of my favorite ways to use hickory is to grill pork chops directly over my coals mixed with hickory wood chunks. Pork chops in this way will almost rival the best cut of steak in my house.
Wood Chunks or Chips
The next big decision when choosing your type of wood to use on the smoker will be to use either wood chunks or wood chips.
Wood chips are more popular because of their wide availabilty in almsot all local stores. However, the downside to wood chips is that they don’t last as long, and should be soaked for atleast a few hours before using, which allows them to last longer.
Wood Chunks last much longer in the smoker, and are fantastic for adding to a side fire box in an offset smoker. However, they are harder to find, and often more expensive in the store. One option to counter this though is to find wood, and cut it into chunks yourself. (Why I grow fruit trees 😉 Check your local orchards as they often will have trimmings available each winter.
Pellet smokers are great for adding smoke and maintaining temperatures for an even cook. You have just as many options available in terms of wood as traditional smokers do. You just need to find the flavor available in a pellet form, which many stores and amazon already have ready to go.
A Word of Caution
We already discussed getting a good clean burn in your smoker for the best flavor, but wood can also be dangerous.
Because of this, you want to always know where your smoking wood is coming from. Smoking wood from the stores is generally safe to use, but if you are scavenging for your own, you want to make sure of what you have.
- Don’t use wood with paint or other chemicals sprayed on it
- Never use wood with mold or fungus growth
- Avoid pines and cedar trees
The type of smoking wood you use is mostly due to user preference, but like discussed, you can take a good BBQ to a great BBQ with pairing the right smoker wood to your cut of meat. Don’t be afraid to experiment and mix wood types to find your own favorite.
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