There are very few things that make life more enjoyable than a good slice of perfectly smoked meat. Smoking is a traditional technique that has long been practiced to add flavor to meats and preserve it for longer periods. While the process seems fairly easy, beginner smokers are often confused about how smoking wood is categorized and which type goes best with a certain variety of meat or fish. With varying opinions from pit masters, choosing the best wood may seem challenging at the beginning but there is no need to fret. We have narrowed it all down and simplified the decision-making process so you can dive into making your own smoked dish by the end of this article.
As soon as you understand that there will always be differences in the preferred materials and techniques, you can simply choose which method works best for you. Hardcore grill enthusiasts consider smoking meat as both an art and science with the choice of meat, cooking style, and proper mixing of wood chips, a skill mastered in time and experience.
While wood pairing largely influences how the meat will taste after smoking, the results may vary based on other factors such as meat preparation, spices, cooking time, and even the way the meat is handled after cooking. Remember that the complicated way does not always guarantee the best outcome.
Choosing a smoker
Determining what type of grill to use is just as important as choosing the right type of wood. Looking for an all purpose grill that can pull double duty as a smoker? We recommend a kamado grill if you want to maintain a fire or a hybrid grill if you want the convenience of propane and the option to use charcoal every once in a while. With either grill you’ll be able to add hunks of your favorite wood to give your dish a delicious smokey flavor.
When it comes to standalone grills we love our pellet smokers because they’re so convenient – it’s by far the easiest and lowest risk way to smoke meat. If you’re looking for more control (and more of a challenge!) you can upgrade to a propane smoker or charcoal smoker. They’re not as easy to cook with as a pellet grill, but they are often cheaper and give you a wider range of abilities when it comes to temperature, airflow, and smokiness. Plus you get to use real wood instead of manufactured pellets!
3 Main Types of Wood for Smoking
The general rule of thumb is to match the wood intensity with the type of dish that you will be smoking. Smoking woods can be classified based on how overpowering their smoke is. Generally, you have three categories which are mild, moderate and strong.
The mild woods include those of the fruit category such as apple, cherry, pear, and peach. These give off a delicate and slightly sweet flavor that makes it best for lighter foods such as fish, pork, chicken, game birds, and other poultry.
Moderate woods include Oak, Maple, Hickory, and Pecan. This type of wood is strong enough to add a distinct flavor to the dish without being too overpowering. You can use moderate wood when smoking pork, beef, brisket, sausages, and other game meats.
In a category of its own is the Mesquite which classifies as a strong wood. It is recommended for stronger meats and select recipes. Smoking with mesquite is selectively used for some beef dishes, red meat, and lamb. Some grill masters combine a bit of Mesquite with other moderate woods to put in some punch into the dish without making it too strong.
Recommended Smoking Wood
If you are still hesitant about smoking meats yourself, here is a guide to some smoked favorites that you may want to try along with the type of wood recommended to be used in preparing them. Remember that this is only a guide and you can always customize according to your own preference.
Best wood for smoking Brisket
When slow smoking a brisket, pit masters have different preferences whether to use pure Oak or a combination of the latter with Hickory. The key is to find the proper wood ratio and the right timing as some people tend to over-smoke their brisket. In general, you should not smoke for more than half of the cooking time. If adding hickory to the wood combination, exposure to the smoke should run around 2 to 3 hours. Cooking briskets low and slow using post oak could take smoking time at about 8 to 12 hours. You can check out Aaron Franklin’s famous brisket recipe and let us know how it turns out.
The entire process of smoking meat should be finished off properly for the best outcome. Always remember to not cut into the meat straight off the grill. Wrap the meat with aluminum foil and let it sit for about 5-10 minutes so the juices can redistribute, resulting in a tender and satisfying smoked meat.
Another concern among new grillers is the “stall” where the temperature in your meat stops rising and it begins to “sweat” as moisture evaporates. There is no need to panic as it can be resolved with a simple technique used even in grilling competitions. The process of wrapping the meat in aluminum foil and splashing it with the liquid such as beer or apple juice creates steam and accelerates the heating process once again. The logic is that the sweating continues but the aluminum wrap prevents any evaporation from happening. This allows heat to rise without making your meat overdone and dry.
Best wood for smoking beef ribs
Most people prefer pork ribs over beef ribs which make the latter a lot cheaper. But thou shall not belittle the mighty beef ribs because with the right preparation, smoking and post-smoking handling you are certainly in for a treat.
It will be a feast not only for yourself but your family and guests when you learn how to properly smoke a prime rib. In this smoked prime rib recipe, they used the cherry fruitwood. Stronger woods such as hickory or oak will most likely overpower the prime rib flavor so fruit woods are recommended. You must also make sure that you do not go overboard in choosing an extremely large rib roast without considering the size of your smoker. You would not want to deal with an oversized and unevenly cooked meat because the placement inside the cooker is just off.
If you prefer smaller servings, try checking out this recipe for Smoked Beef Short Ribs. Each cut is about 3 inches of bone and is packed with so much taste; you will most likely end up getting a second helping. Choice of smoking wood would be any type of either a fruit wood or oak. Cooking time may last up to 5 hours or more and you will need to spritz the meat every 30 minutes after the first hour of cooking.
Best Wood For Smoking Pork Ribs
Whether you like your pork ribs dry or drowning in sauce, the secret to an enjoyable serving is when the meat is cooked just right. Contrary to the popular notion that the best ribs should be fall-off-the-bone tender, an exceptional pork rib meat should remain intact and just tender enough that you can pull a clean piece off the bone.
The most popular choices of wood in smoking pork are Hickory for its distinct flavor as well as Oak for its strong flavor which does not overpower the taste and texture of the meat.
This recipe for sweetly smoked pork ribs, however, makes use of fruit woods. It gives you the option to use grape, apple, cherry or pear chips or maybe do a combination of your choice. The recipe recommends using baby back ribs but you can substitute with spare ribs as well. Adjust the amount of pepper and cumin as well depending on your choice of heat levels.
Now, if you have done pork ribs in the past and you want to up your game, check out this recipe for some Competition-Style-Smoked Pork Ribs. Perfect for special occasions or a potluck with new neighbors. It even recommends the perfect wine to partner with your final dish.
Best Wood For Smoking Pork
When shopping for the perfect chunk of meat, choose one that shows an even pink color, has no signs of lumps and with lots of fat and connective tissues also known as “marbling”. The fats ensure moisture throughout the slow-cooking process and keep the meat succulent and delicious. Some pitmasters prefer a thick fat cap but often times this fat does not really redistribute moisture throughout the meat as it cooks. In the end, you are left with a thick portion of hardened fat so might as well choose one with a moderate fat cap or slice off excessive caps and leave just enough to retain moisture.
A well Smoked Pork Shoulder makes the perfect main ingredient for various tasty dishes such as pulled pork sandwiches, omelets, grilled quesadillas, and pretty much anything you can add tasty pork pieces too. The pork shoulder cut is a hefty chunk of meat that will give you a lot to be used on several meals. It may take a lot of time and patience to cook but is definitely worth it. This recipe uses apple or cherry wood then makes a transition to oak or charcoal.
If you want a leaner choice, go for this recipe of a Smoked Pork Loin. The lack of generous marbling in this cut, however, requires close monitoring of the low and slow smoking method. The recommended internal temperature of the meat in its thickest part should be at 140 to 145 degrees max. Applewood works best with this meat dish, but you can also opt for other fruit woods.
Another pork masterpiece is the Bacon Wrapped Smoked Pork Tenderloin Stuffed with Roasted Red Peppers and Cheese. That is definitely a mouthful, figuratively and literally. If you prefer more spice, the Jalapeño Popper Stuffed Smoked Pork Tenderloin is a mouth-watering dish that is highly recommended. A generous serving of meat with the spicy and cheesy combination is enough to drive one insane. Suggested for use in smoking are fruit woods like cherry or apply but if you want a stronger flavor, go for oak, pecan, or hickory.
Best Wood For Smoking Chicken
The flexibility of chicken meat makes me doubt we’ll ever run out of smoked chicken recipes. It has a distinct but neutral flavor that adapts well to any type of seasoning. Whether you prefer the typical salt and pepper rub or you want to go crazy with various herbs and spices, there is no way you can go wrong with a carefully prepared smoked chicken dish.
Grill masters prefer using fruit woods when smoking chicken but if you want a stronger smoky flavor, you can experiment with a moderate wood of your choice.
Use maple wood chunks with charcoal when preparing this delectable Maple Smoked Chicken Breasts. It is undeniably a satisfying meal of healthy slices of skinless chicken breasts smothered with honey maple barbeque sauce. The mild and sweet flavor from the maple wood chunks blends well with this lean meat. It cannot get any maple-er than this! Maple wood also adds a nice darker color to the meat making it visually enticing as well. Mix it with other mild woods such as alder, apple, or oak for a more distinct taste.
Those who tried this recipe for Tuscan Rosemary-Smoked Whole Chicken have been raving about it and we totally understand why. The perfect mix of herbs and spices added to the subtle smoked flavor from pecan wood really works. Applewood is also a good alternative in case pecan is not available. Depending on the size, actual cooking time may run from 1 ½ to 3 hours.
Now here is a treat that both pork and chicken lovers will love, Bacon-Wrapped Smoked Chicken Breasts. Pretty much, everyone, we know love bacon. Imagine having your bacon smoked instead of the usual greasy fried version. Just awesome, right? This recipe uses cherry wood chunks in packing that smoky flavor into the dish. We recommend soaking the meat in brine at least a day before cooking time. Thin strips of bacon are also preferred to ensure that they turn out crisp by the time it cooks.
You can also try other mouth-watering chicken dishes like the Cajun Smoked Chicken and Hickory Smoked Chicken if you prefer a stronger flavor to your meal.
Best Wood For Smoking Fish
A lighter meal compared to other meats, fish is the grillers’ healthier option. You can choose from a wide variety of fishes such as Walleye, Sea Bass, Tilapia, Red Snapper, and so much more. Another good alternative to red meat is Tuna as it is low in fat and just bursting with vitamins and proteins. Zest of lemon helps enhance the fish taste in simple dishes like Lemon Smoked Tuna or Grilled Salmon with Thyme and Lemon.
You want to use lighter fruit woods such as alder or nut woods like almond when smoking fish. Alder has a subtle sweet flavor which goes well with seafood. If in doubt whether you will use whole fish or parts, it is best to go for fillets that still have their skin on. Expand your horizons and try a less common filet, like walleye or grouper.
Another refreshing dish is the Texas Smoked Flounder. If you want to try smoking a whole fish, this is the one you need to get your hands on. Some people, however, may find the head a bit unsettling when left on so it is up to you whether you would remove that part or not. You may use a mild wood such as an apple in smoking the fish. This dish should take not any more than 30 minutes to prepare. Trout can also be a good substitute for the flounder.
Best Wood For Smoking Turkey
Every turkey dish tastes like a holiday especially when cooked right. The massive size of this poultry may seem intimidating when you are a beginner in smoking meat. The problem in cooking a turkey is that it can easily be overcooked and end up being overdone and dry. Uneven heat may also affect the thoroughness of cooking in its meat.
The common choice of wood in smoking turkey is cherry and pecan. Turkey meat is a smoke sponge compared to others and using a strong type of wood will overpower its taste or worse, leave it tasting bitter. Cherry will produce a light sweet smoke, giving the turkey a lovely color and a mild yet undeniably exquisite flavor. Some will recommend hickory or mesquite but should you choose to go that way, it would be best to combine it with a milder wood or be ready for a strong smoked flavor.
If you are worried about unevenly cooking your turkey, get a load of the Spice-Rubbed Butterflied Turkey. The butterfly cut of the meat allows it to cook more consistently and at a faster pace. The skin also turns out more crisp and glistening with color. Compared to commercially cut smoked turkey, nothing beats the taste and texture of a homemade turkey that is patiently brined, smoked, and prepared. Recommended brining period is at least 1 day up to 3 days for maximum flavor absorption. Cooking time takes about 2 ½ to 3 ½ hours. Unlike those who prefer cherry or pecan, this recipe recommends the use of hickory wood chunks.
Another method that ensures your turkey will cook evenly is one called spatchcocking. The simple and delicious recipe for a spatchcocked smoked turkey goes into detail about how you can cut the turkey in a way that it remains whole but spread out on the grill. In this dish, we recommend using apple wood chunks or you may also use soaked wood chips. Cooking time for a spatchcocked turkey is relatively shorter compared to smoking a regular turkey. We understand that the process may seem arduous but the final outcome will all be worth it.
Best Wood For Smoking Salmon
Fattier fishes such as salmon and trout absorb smoke flavor better, so they are among our top choices. You can opt for either skinless or skin on but we prefer leaving the skin on for the most part since it helps in keeping the fish intact while cooking. You can make various dishes from a simple yet delectable smoked salmon. Serve it as it is, mix it along with some nice salad, or add to your favorite pasta, you get the drift.
Alder wood is often the go-to wood when it comes to smoking salmon but others from the mild variety such as cherry, oak, apple or maple also work.
The seemingly fancy Cedar Plank Smoked Salmon is another dish that you might want to try. You will be surprised at how satisfying it will be and at a way cheaper price compared to when you order them from fancy restaurants.
The Bourbon Marinated Smoked Salmon is a nice meal that is fairly easy and fun to make.
Best Wood For Smoking Cheese
Just when you thought cheese could not get any better, someone had the lovely idea of smoking it. Cheese in itself is amazing. You can add it to almost anything and it just levels up the dish’s taste. Smoking it means an added oomph to its already delicious flavor.
Smoked cheese can be expensive when purchased from the store so might as well make your own at home. Smoking cheese is not difficult and takes very little time. You can try this recipe for Smoked Cheddar Cheese but it works with other cheeses as well. Another recipe for smoked cheese that we love uses pre-soaked apple wood chips for smoking.
Surprise your guests and loved ones with a Smoked Mozzarella Fonduta. It is a lovely appetizer that has just the right amount of zing courtesy of the smoked mozzarella and provolone.
If you like baking as well, you will love making Smoked Cheese and Onion Pasties. These goodies make for flavorful snacks and are recommended if you are trying to stay off any meat dishes. They are incredibly healthy and so quick to make.
It is time to bid goodbye to the boring butter and maple syrup pancakes. Brighten up your mornings and start your day right with Leek and Smoked Cheese Pancakes. It might seem a little bit of work but it sure is worth it.
You can’t go wrong
We all have our own preferences when it comes to the intensity of smoke flavor. Knowing the types of wood and getting the hang of mixing each kind according to your preferred outcome is key to preparing an excellent smoked dish. If you are a beginner looking for a dish to try on your brand new smoker or a seasoned grill master looking for something you have not tried before, you can check out this interesting list of 101+ Smoker Recipes. It has everything from beef, chicken, pork, fish, veggies, and even desserts! Surprise your guests withw something new or simply enjoy a sumptuous meal with a loved one.
Cheat Sheet – What type of wood to use for each meat
Below we’ve added our cheat sheet of which use wood to use when it comes to smoking different types of meats.
Pit masters have different preferences whether to use pure Oak or a combination of the Oak with Hickory. If adding hickory to the wood combination, exposure to the smoke should run around 2 to 3 hours to avoid any acrid flavors
Fruit woods are recommended for beef ribs, such as cherry or apple wood. Strong hardwoods are likely to be overpowering when it comes to beef ribs.
Many pitmasters prefer hickory or oak for smoking pork ribs to give the dish the smokey barbecue flavor. Unlike beef, pork ribs can stand up to stronger flavors.
When it comes to smoking pork you can use almost any type of wood. Hardwoods like hickory or oak work well. Fruit woods like apple, cherry or pecan can also be delicious. Many pitmasters will use a blend when smoking pork. Smoking times are much shorter compared to other meats so there is very little risk of getting acrid flavors that can come from smoking hardwoods for 3+ hours.
We recommend sticking with fruit woods like apple, cherry, or pecan when smoking chicken. If you want a stronger smokey flavor you can try mixing fruit woods with a hardwood like oak or mesquite.
Cherry and pecan wood are the preferred choices for smoking turkey and will leave you with a delicious, mildly smokey flavor. Turkey will absorb smoke like a sponge, choosing the wrong wood can leave your meat tasting bitter. Because of this it’s best to avoid hardwoods.
When smoking fish we recommend sticking to more delicate smokey flavors. Light fruit woods like apple or cherry. Some lighter nut woods, like almond, can be delicious as well.
Alder wood is often the go-to wood when it comes to smoking salmon but others from the mild variety such as cherry, oak, apple or maple also work.