Wednesday, August 11, 2010

What Type of Wood For Smoking Should I Be Using?

There are quite a few different woods that can be used to give great flavor to foods by smoking.  What type of wood you should use depends on a few things.  First, it depends on your individual taste.  90% of people love the taste of brisket smoked with mesquite wood, but there are 10% that can't stand it.  Obviously if you are one of these 10%, no matter how many other people like the flavor mesquite gives, you will not. Secondly, it depends on what type of meat or fish you are planning to smoke. Not all wood flavors go with all meats.  Smoking pork butt with mesquite would be like drinking white wine with beef.  Yes, you can do it, and while not completely disgusting, it just doesn't taste as good as hickory does with pork, or red wine does with beef.  Lastly, it depends on what part of the country you are from.  or example, people in the Carolinas almost always use hickory to smoke with. Why?  Its naturally abundant in the area they live in.  Same thing with people in Texas.  They usually use mesquite.  Why?  Well, you can walk outside pretty much anywhere in Texas and find a mesquite bush within a few minutes.

For people who are not in a barbecue hotbed, like myself, we have no such predisposition to any certain type of wood.  Neither hickory nor mesquite is abundant here. We have maple, elm and lindenwood in abundance, with lindenwood being found in front of nearly every house in the city.  If you have never smelled a lindenwood tree when it is in full bloom around late May or early June, you have no idea what you are missing.  It smells so good, it is like you are in heaven smelling it.  But I digress.  I am pretty sure you are not reading this because you want to hear about the wonderful smell of lindenwood blossoms(do yourself a favor, put "smelling a lindenwood tree in full bloom" on your bucket me on this one...). 

Back to the topic at hand.  Unfortunately for me, none of these woods is particularly useful as a smoking wood, other than maple, but I have never heard of anyone around here actually using it(other than for smoking deli ham).  This would have been a huge problem if I had grown up as recently as 40 years ago. Luckily for us, we live in the 21st century where we can get virtually anything we could possibly want with an internet connection and about 7 days worth of time or less.

What follows is a list of useful woods for smoking, a little background on it, its best uses and a description of the wood.  I also will provide a useful link for anyone wanting to get this type of wood, so you don't have to search all over the internet for it.


Hickory has the best combination of denseness, strength, hardness, and stiffness of any commercial wood. It can be used for many things, such as tool handles, bows, carts, drumsticks, and also pellets for wood burning stoves, as it has a very high energy content. Hickory grows abundantly across the Southeastern United States, and as such is the favorite smoking wood of most people in that region.  Pork, ham and beef are often smoked with hickory.  Hickory tends to give foods a rich, faintly sweet flavor.


Mesquite is a very hard wood that usually grows as a shrub throughout most of its native range.  Also known as "Texas Ironwood" due to the issues chainsaws have cutting it.  As a firewood, mesquite burns slowly and very hot.  It also has a very strong flavor to it and can relatively easily oversmoke the meat, leaving a bitter taste behind. Rookies should be very careful when using mesquite as you can ruin all your hard work by using too much.  Its also very important for those who live in an area where mesquite grows naturally to only use dried mesquite wood,  as the dryer it is, the less bitter flavor it has. Mesquite give a strong, smoky flavor to the food being smoked, and it is very important to not overuse it.

Apple trees are very common in this area, but I have never attempted to smoke foods with it.  It has a very thin bark, and gives off less smoke than most other woods, so you will need more of it.  The smoke gives off a very nice, aromatic and fruity flavor, surprisingly similar to that of an apple(you don't say!).  Its best used to smoke poultry and pork, and usually is used in conjunction with other woods to add in some extra flavor, rather than by itself.  Hickory and apple wood is a fairly common combination when smoking pork butts, and it also is used with mesquite to smoke ribs by some.  The light apple wood flavor offsets the strong smoky flavor of the mesquite. 


Alder wood has been used for thousands of years by Native Americans to treat poison oak, insect bites, and skin irritations.  Natives of the Blackfeet tribe also use it to treat lymphatic disorders and tuberculosis.  It has been recently found that Alder contains natural compounds that have been shown to be effective against a variety of tumors, and that its bark contains a substance that acts as an anti-inflammatory, which is transformed into salicylic acid(aspirin) when ingested by humans.  It is commonly found throughout the Northern United States and Europe, and is most popularly used in electric guitars, as it provides a bright tone to the instrument. It is a very delicate wood that gives slight hint of sweetness to the meat, and is best used with pork, fish, poultry, and game birds, such as pheasants and quail. Alder is most commonly used for smoking in European nations.


Cherry wood produces a mild , fruity flavor to the meats, as well as having a tendency to turn the meats a rich mahogany color.  It is fairly common in many places throughout the world, including the United States.  Not all types of cherry wood are good for smoking however, as some contain fairly high amounts of cyanide.  It is most popularly used with beef and pork, and like apple, is usually used in conjunction with other woods to balance out the flavor.  Most commonly paired with alder, hickory, pecan or oak.


Maple trees are quite popular for a  few reasons, but usually they are not related to smoking foods.  Maple syrup is derived from the sugar maple, which is found in abundance in many Northern states.  Japanese maple trees are also very popular for landscaping uses, and I, in fact, have one in front of my house.  They also are responsible for a great color show every fall in many of the Northern states as well, as their leaves turn all shades of yellow, red and orange before falling off the trees, and creating many young boys swearing under their breath as they are told to go outside with a rake and clean up the mess they make!  Maple gives a flavor quite similar to that of alder wood.  It gives a sweet flavor, and also causes the meats to darken in color.  Normally is used in conjunction with other woods such as alder, apple or oak.  Sugar maple is the sweetest of all the maples, and is commonly used to smoke hams, but can be used with pork as well.


White Oak is a very heavy and hard wood that is highly desired for furniture and it is also commonly used to age wine, whiskey, and various other liquors in casks. It is commonly found in the Eastern United States, and throughout Europe and Japan as well.   White Oak trees do not grow very high, but they can grow as wide as they are tall, and are considered great shade trees.  White oak burns for a long time and gives off a lot of smoke, penetrating meats deeply.  It is the most commonly used wood to smoke meats with commercially. Great with sausages, and combined with cherry wood for use on turkey.  Also works good with beef and pork. 


Red Oak grows straight and tall and is most commonly found in the Northeastern United States and north into Canada, although it does range west to the Mississippi River and south to Georgia. California also has a species of red oak that grows to tremendous heights and widths. It is one of the most highly prized woods for timber production and is used in many building related products.  Red Oak is an open wood that you can literally blow smoke through from one end to the other.  It is not as popular as White Oak, but gives a sweeter flavor to the meats.  Most commonly used as a smoking wood in California.


Pecan is in the hickory family, and is becoming more and more popular for smoking meats.  It is not a wood that you want to use by itself, as it will impart a flavor that is very pungent. It is more commonly used in conjunction with other fruitwoods such as apple, cherry, and plum. Pecans are a native tree to the United States and range from New Mexico to South Carolina, and as far north as Southern Illinois.  Pecan shells can also be used in smoking to impart a similar flavor, instead of pecan wood. Be advised to use sparingly, however, and never by themselves. It goes well with a wide variety of meats including beef, pork and poultry.

These are some of the more common smoking woods in use, but certainly not all of them by any stretch of the imagination.  There are virtually an endless amount of woods that can be used in smoking meats and the only real way to know whether you will like any particular wood is to try it!  This is only meant to be used as a guide to help figure out what woods you might like and what meats they go best with.  Don't be afraid to experiment, but don't blame me if you end up with a piece of meat you cooked for 10 hours that has to be thrown out!

As always, stay smoky my friends!


  1. Great Post!!

    We all like your informative information and it better help to the all buyer. Keep up sharing...


    Flavour Wood for Smoking Meat

  2. I frequently use american linden. It leaves a mild flavor profile. I like it byitself or with apple wood

  3. I frequently use american linden. It leaves a mild flavor profile. I like it byitself or with apple wood