When it comes to barbecue, we all know that we’re going to need to use some wood to form that delicious outer bark, add color, and infuse your food with that wonderful smoky flavor.
But which types of wood should you use? Should you be using splits, chunks, chips, or pellets?
In this first part of what’s going to be a two-part guide, I’m going to cover the different forms in which smoking woods come, and when it’s best to use each one. I’m also going to go over which types of wood should be used and which woods should be avoided.
In Part 2, I’m going to get into the different varieties of woods to use for smoking, and what they go well with.
First things first though – what form of wood should you be using? You can find wood in logs, splits, chunks, chips, and pellets.
You’re really not going to be using logs or splits unless you’re using a stick burner, so I’m not going to get into those. The only time you’ll need logs or splits is if you’re using the wood itself as the primary heat source as well as to add flavor.
With pellets, you’re probably not going to use them unless you have a pellet smoker/grill, but they can also be used as an alternative to wood chips to add smoke if you’re using a gas grill to do some smoking.
You can find wood pellets in just about any wood variety that you can find wood chunks and wood chips, and the flavor profile is the same. They’re made up of bits of the same wood you find in chunks and chips, compressed together and formed into…well…pellets.
If you don’t already own a pellet smoker, I wouldn’t bother buying pellets to add smoke to a cook. I’d recommend just sticking with wood chunks or wood chips. However, if you do own a pellet smoker and you already have a supply of wood pellets on hand, you can use those to add smoke to a cook, whether on the pellet cooker or on your grill.
If you’re going to use pellets to add smoke on your grill, or even if you want to add more smoke during a cook on your pellet cooker, I highly recommend picking up one of these:
Using that smoking tube will allow you to add a steady smoke throughout your cook. Alternately, you can take a sheet of heavy duty foil and wrap the pellets in that. Then just poke some holes in the top of the foil to let the smoke escape.
That leaves us with chunks and chips, which is what most people are going to be using during their cooks. If you have a dedicated charcoal smoker, you will most likely be using chunks. If you’re using a gas grill or an electric smoker, you’re probably going to be using chips.
Wood chips are exactly what they sound like – small chips of wood, maybe a little smaller than a poker chip. They burn off more quickly than chunks, so if you’re doing a longer cook, you’re going to need to add chips more frequently during that cook than you would with wood chunks. Much like pellets, you’re going to want to use them in some type of enclosure to ensure you get a steady smoke out of them as opposed to having them burn off quickly. If this is something you plan on doing often, I highly recommend picking up a smoker box.
A smoker box is just a metal box that holds the wood chips. The lid of the box has holes in
it to allow the smoke to escape. This allows you to keep the chips from being in direct contact with your heat source and restricts the oxygen flow, which in turn keeps the chips from bursting into flames and gives you a nice steady smoke from the chips.
Alternately, just as with wood pellets, you can also use a sheet of heavy duty foil. Fold the foil over the wood chips and poke holes in the top and you’ll get the same effect.
If you’re going to pick up a smoker box, you want to make sure you get a thicker one so that it doesn’t warp over time. You also want to get one with a hinged lid. They make them with slide off/on lids and removable lids, but trust me…go with hinged. If you’re using chips, you’re more than likely going to have to dump the burned up chips and add new ones throughout your cook. When you take the box out, it’s going to be HOT. You’re not going to want to play around with it long trying to get the lid off and back on
again. A hinged lid allows to you just flip it open, dump it out, refill, and flip closed again. Go with something like this:
Wood chunks are simply small chunks of wood, generally the size of your fist or a little smaller. By and large, these are going to be too big for an electric smoker or for using on a gas grill. If you have a dedicated charcoal smoker, this is the route that you’re going to want to go. You can still use wood chips if you’re using a charcoal smoker, but they’re (generally) more expensive than wood chunks, and they burn off much more quickly than chunks do. Trust me, go with wood chunks when you can.
You just need to add them at the beginning of your cook after the flames have died down on the coals, and they’ll burn slowly and steadily throughout your cook. You don’t need any type of enclosure for wood chunks. You just add them directly to the coals. You should only need 3-4 chunks, depending on size, for most cooks.
Place one on the hot area of the charcoal bed so that you start getting smoke right away, and then place the others in different areas throughout the unlit portions of the coal bed.
That way when those coals ignite later in the cook, you’ll get smoke from those chunks as the cook goes on.
Woods NOT To Use:
This is actually way more important than going over which types of wood you should be using. Yes, each type of wood gives its own flavor and its own aroma, but at the end of the day you can use pretty much any smoking wood for any cook. It’s mostly going to come down to personal preference.
However, there are some varieties of wood that you should absolutely NOT use for cooking. Ever.
Category #1 – Softwoods
You’re going to want to avoid using any of the softwoods for smoking. Some varieties of softwoods include pine, spruce, fir, redwood, cypress, and cedar. These are woods with a more open, airy structure, and they contain a lot of sap. They burn fast and they are sharp, bitter, and overpowering…they should never be used for smoking. Your food will be inedible. I’m sure there are other varieties not on that list, so do your research before using anything on your smoker.
*In regard to using cedar planks for cooking salmon – You can do this, but this is only for grilling, not for smoking. You also want to make sure that you’re using cedar planks specifically intended for cooking. Some varieties of cedar have harmful resins and toxins in them, and are to be avoided at all costs. I rarely ever eat fish, and I’ve never done the cedar plank thing, but I know it’s popular. Just make sure you’re using something that’s safe, like these:
Category #2 – Scrap Wood
I would really love to believe that this doesn’t need to be said. Just like that sticker that tells you to not put your head in the oven while it’s on. Or the warnings to not allow your children to put plastic bags over their heads. One would think we could go through life without those warnings, but some folks need some extra help to get through the day.
For those of you that fall into that category, please do not use any scrap wood that you have laying around for smoking. Only use woods that are intended for smoking purposes. Period.
Still have that old rotted picnic table sitting out back? Cool!
Got some busted up pallets laying around? Great!
Or some planks from that old fence you took down and replaced a couple of years back? Awesome!
You know what all of those have in common? NONE of them should be used for smoking! Not a single solitary piece of wood from any of those should be used. Or any other random, wood-like objects you have laying around. Don’t do it.
I know that’s a lot of wood going to waste out there, but don’t give in to temptation. Do you like your family? Do you like your friends? Do you have any self-preservation interest at all?
Good! Do yourself a favor and don’t kill everybody. Don’t use any of that shit for cooking. Find another use for it.
You don’t know anything about any of that wood. You don’t know what type of wood it is. You don’t know how it was stored. You don’t know whether or not it’s been chemically treated. You don’t know what it’s been in contact with over the years. Add to that the fact that most of it has been either painted or stained at some point. All of those unknowns
make all of it unsuitable for cooking.
In fact, just to make absolutely sure there’s no misunderstanding here – If you have any doubts or questions at all…if you don’t know for a fact that the wood you have is safe for smoking….don’t use it. End of story.
Don’t be stupid. Don’t be lazy. Don’t be cheap. Don’t kill your friends and family. Only use wood that is intended for smoking.
Proper Woods For Smoking:
Hardwoods. There you go.
Oh, you want more in-depth than that? Okay then…read on.
Hardwoods are the opposite of softwoods. Go figure. Just to oversimplify things here, the difference between hardwoods and softwoods comes down to their physical structure and makeup. Softwoods are light, open, and airy, so to speak. Hardwoods have a much more dense and closed cellular structure, and contain less sap (moisture). Hardwoods are going to burn longer than softwoods because of this density, and because of the lower moisture/sap levels, they will burn cleaner. In turn, you will get a nice, steady smoke from hardwood varieties, which makes them perfect for smoking.
Fruit and nut woods make up a lot of the hardwood family. Examples of hardwoods include Hickory, Oak, Mesquite, Apple, Cherry, Pecan, Peach, and Maple. Each of those are good smoking woods. Each one has its own flavor and aroma, but any of those are appropriate for smoking.
There are other varieties I didn’t list there, but this is not meant to be an exhaustive list. I’m going to focus on the most common and most readily-available woods.
In addition to using hardwoods, you want to make sure you’re using cured hardwoods. Cured essentially meaning dried. Generally, you want woods that have been dried for 6 months or so. If the wood hasn’t been dried enough, you’re going to get heavy white smoke and soot, and it’s not going to taste good on your food.
On the other hand, it’s less than optimal to use wood that is too dry. It will still work, but you’ll get less smoke. Because of so little moisture, the wood will burn hotter, faster, and cleaner. I often use wood that would be considered too dry because I buy too much at once, and it sits around longer than it should. Again, it’s fine to use it if it’s a little too dry. You’ll just have to use more of it during a cook because it will burn faster and won’t add as much smoke flavor. You’re definitely better off going with too dry as opposed to too wet.
Speaking of wet…
To Soak, Or Not To Soak?
This is another of those heavily-debated topics when it comes to barbecue (there seems to be a lot of those, doesn’t there?). Should you soak your wood chips/chunks prior to using them?
Short answer (in my opinion) – NO
Long answer – Here’s the deal. The idea behind soaking your wood prior to smoking is to help prolong the burn time of your wood so it doesn’t burn up as quickly. It supposedly also gives you an opportunity to add a little more flavor to your cook, depending on what you soak it in.
I’m sure somebody somewhere has done an in-depth scientific study on this. I have not seen any such study, nor do I care to. I’m not a fan of soaking wood before smoking. I’ve done it before just to see if it was for me, and it wasn’t, so I don’t bother with it any more. If it’s something you’d like to try, go for it. I don’t have the energy to argue things like this.
Do I think there’s some truth to the thought process behind soaking wood?
Yeah…sure…but believe me when I say that any difference in your finished product is absolutely minimal.
In fact, I can’t say that I noticed any difference at all between cooks where I soaked and those where I didn’t. That’s why I don’t bother with it. There are enough preparations you have to worry about when doing a cook, so don’t add one more to the list if you don’t need to.
In addition, I found that the biggest effect soaked wood had on my cooks was causing a temperature drop. It’s only temporary, because any moisture the wood soaked up will evaporate very quickly, but I’m not a fan of doing anything to raise or lower my pit from the temperature I just worked so hard to dial in.
Ultimately, the wood isn’t going to take on very much moisture from soaking, especially if you’re using chunks. Add to that the fact that we’re using hardwoods here, right? High density hardwoods? They’re not going to take on much in the way of moisture. Chips may take on some, but believe me it’s minimal and not worth your time.
Another point to think about – we just went out of our way to ensure that the wood we picked up has been dried out enough so that it will burn clean. Why would we want to now add moisture back in that we just tried to get out of it? I never used to think of it that way, but now it bothers me.
If you’re new to this and learning, go ahead and try it. Experimenting is how you’re going to learn for yourself what works for you. What works for me may not work for you, and vice versa.
Unless we’re talking about scrap wood. Don’t experiment.
Stop looking at that pile of questionable wood laying in your yard from your kids’ old swing set. Yeah, I saw you look over there.
Stop it. Someone needs to slap you.
Take your eyes off of that pile and go read part 2 of this guide.