In this second part of my guide to smoking wood, I’m going to cover most of the common woods used for smoking and what they work well with.
If you missed Part 1, you can find it here.
There is some debate (isn’t there always?) as to whether or not there are any major differences between the different varieties of smoking woods. I’ll be honest…many of the wood varieties are pretty similar, and unless you have a really well-developed palate, you may not notice subtle differences between some woods.
As always, I encourage you to experiment with different woods and find what works for you. This is simply a general guide to give you the rundown on some of the more popular woods available for smoking. I’m going to list off some of the general flavors and strength levels of each, and what is generally best to pair them with.
My thoughts on the subject?
With the exception of a few, I would be hard-pressed to tell you what kind of wood was used for a cook during a blind taste test. At the same time, if I did a blind taste test
where each item was smoked with a different wood, I would (most of the time) be able to tell that different woods were used for each, even if I couldn’t identify the particular wood.
Although the differences can be subtle, there are differences. I think it’s well worth your time to experiment with different woods rather than just picking one and going with it exclusively without trying any others.
I believe it should be treated as an ingredient.
You have the flavor from the meat, you have the flavor from the rub, you have the flavor from any injections (if you’re using any), and then you have the flavor that the wood imparts on everything. It brings the whole thing together.
Allow me to give you an example to help make my point.
Do you have any Paprika in your pantry? If so, put a little bit on your finger and take a taste. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Doesn’t really taste like much, does it? I mean it’s there, but it doesn’t really stand out. If you had been blindfolded when you tasted that, would you be able to pick out what spice you’d been given? I bet not.
Even so, look how many recipes call for it. Especially in barbecue. It’s tough to find a dry rub anywhere that doesn’t contain a fair amount of paprika.
Do you know why that is?
It’s because it does bring something to the party, even if it’s subtle.
The truth is, a lot of what paprika brings to a dish or a rub is color, but there is flavor there. If you don’t believe me, throw together two batches of a barbecue rub that calls for 1/2 cup or more of paprika. Make one batch with the paprika and make one without. Yes, there’s a big color difference, but the rub without the paprika doesn’t taste quite right, does it?
Bay leaf is another example.
You may not eat a soup or a stew and think, “Wow…that’s some great bay leaf they used in this!” You’d probably never even be able to pick it out, no matter how hard you tried. However, if the cook had forgotten to use bay leaf, you would notice its absence from the dish, even if you couldn’t put your finger on why it tasted off.
Does that make sense?
I hope so…I didn’t mean to derail things so early. I usually do that toward the end of articles….
Anyway, if nothing else, I hope you get my point. Just because it’s not necessarily the most significant of differences doesn’t mean that it isn’t important.
Ask anyone who takes part in barbecue competitions, where even minor differences can be the difference between 1st and last place.
Now, for the list:
Alder is a very mild wood. There is a very slight, almost sweet flavor to it along with a very
light smoke. If you do a lot of fish or maybe veggies, this might be a good option for you. I’m not a huge fan of it personally. If I’m going to smoke something, I want that smoke flavor, and this is just lacking for me. Although I should note that I don’t eat or cook fish very often. If you’ve never made barbecue before, you might want to check it out, just to get it into your mental database before you go into anything heavier. Just be advised that if you’re using it on anything other than fish…maybe chicken or pork loin…it’s not going to make much of an impression.
It’s hard to find alder in chunks, I think because it’s mainly intended for short cooks like fish, just to add a hint of flavor and smoke.
Maple belongs in a similar category to alder, in that it’s also very mild. I do find it to be a
little stronger than alder though, and it does give off a noticeably sweet flavor. It also gives some rich dark color to your food. Due to the pronounced sweetness, I think it works well with poultry and pork. I know some people like to use it for cold smoking on cheeses too. Try it out and see what you think.
Apple wood is probably the first entry into what I would consider medium level woods. Now we’re getting into the woods that are going to give you a little more pronounced smoke flavor.
I didn’t try apple for a long time, mostly because it never used to be easy to find around here. With barbecue becoming more popular over the years and the popularity of online shopping, it became easier to track down and then I finally got to use it. This has fast become one of my all-time favorites, and I always have some on hand.
This is another good wood for beginners because it’s tough to overdo it with apple. I do consider it more of a medium strength wood, but it’s on the milder side of medium, so
you have more room for error.
There is a definite sweetness when you use apple, but not as pronounced as maple, so it goes well with most anything. It’s my go-to ribs, pork butt, and chicken. It also lends itself well to mixing with other woods. I like to use it for beef mixed with some of the stronger woods. On its own, it can get lost against the beef flavor. Highly recommended.
Cherry is pretty similar to apple in that it gives off a decent amount of smoke and gives some notes of sweetness. I do find it to be a little stronger than apple and a little less sweet, so you can get away with using it on beef, although I still recommend mixing it with some stronger woods if you’re smoking beef.
The one huge difference between cherry and the other woods is the color that it gives your food. It gives you a really gorgeous, deep mahogany color. It also typically gives you a great smoke ring. This is another wood I like to have handy.
Now we’re getting a little more serious. Oak is one of the classic smoking woods, and
one of the most readily available. I would rank oak as a full-on medium strength wood. This is one of the first woods I ever tried, and it’s my second favorite to use, next to apple. I really love to mix oak and apple together, as well as oak and cherry.
It is a great wood for mixing with the milder varieties. The heavier, stronger smoke
from the oak fills in the gaps from the lighter smoking woods (for lack of a better way to put it), while allowing you to keep that little pop of sweetness from the milder woods.
Oak goes with basically anything, although go gentle with it if using on fish. This is one of the best all-purpose woods you can get as it generally won’t overpower lighter foods, but is strong enough to hold up to beef and thicker cuts of pork. A great many pitmasters out there use oak exclusively, and I can’t say that I blame them.
There are different types of oak available for smoking woods (white oak, red oak, post oak). I’ve tried them all, and I can’t say that I noticed much of a difference between them, so I don’t really pay attention to which type of oak I’m buying. For me, oak is oak.
Pecan is similar to apple and cherry in that you get a subtle sweetness from it, but it’s much more smoky and noticeably stronger than either. I had really looked forward to
trying pecan because I’ve seen it described many times as being similar to some of the fruit woods, but stronger. I really thought it would be perfect, but I didn’t care for it.
I can’t put my finger on why, but it just didn’t work for me. I would consider it as strong as oak, maybe even a little stronger, with a sharper flavor, and a mildly sweet note. Maybe it’s the sharpness I find unappealing. Maybe sharp isn’t the correct word. Anyhow, check it out for yourself and see if it works for you.
Because of its strength and its mild sweetness, this is another wood that pairs well with most anything. Just go easy with it at first until you get a feel for it, because this is one that you can overdo it with.
Hickory is another of the classic smoking woods, and much like oak, you’ll find many pitmasters that use it exclusively. Hickory gives off a very strong, heavy, distinctly
aromatic smoke. It also has a very distinct flavor. Many people say that it reminds them of bacon, which is probably because most brands of bacon use hickory.
Hickory, along with oak, are probably to two most-used woods in barbecue. Hickory works well with larger cuts of meat and can absolutely hold its own with any cut of meat. It also mixes well with lighter woods if you want to tame things down a bit.
Be very careful when using hickory, as you can easily overwhelm your whole cook with it. This wood is great for any barbecue, but treat it with respect. It’s heavy, full-bodied, pungent, and delicious….and it just screams barbecue.
Overdo it, however, and the assertiveness of hickory can become bitter and unappealing.
Now we come to mesquite. The last wood on this list, and also the strongest. I do not generally recommend it for beginners, because you don’t have much room for error here. Mesquite is a wood that burns hot and fast, and it gives off an incredibly strong smoke (and lots of it).
I actually never use this for smoking, because I don’t care for the strength or flavor of it. If I were to use it, I wouldn’t use it for anything other than red meat, and even then I’d mix it with other woods to tone it down. I would definitely avoid it for smoking fish, poultry, or smaller cuts of pork.
There are plenty of people who love it though, so don’t hesitate to try it out when you think you’re ready for it.
I don’t want to come across too negative with mesquite, but I want people to be careful if they’ve never used it before, because you can ruin a whole cook with it. If you like the really strong, earthy flavor of mesquite though, it may become your go-to.
I will say that even though I don’t use it for smoking, I absolutely love it for grilling. It’s
perfect for grilling because it burns hot and fast and has the perfect amount of flavor for a faster cook. A mesquite-grilled steak is one of my favorite things.
So there you have it, my complete beginner’s guide to smoking woods. There are actually a lot of other varieties of smoking woods out there, but I haven’t tried them all, and I don’t want this initial list to get any longer than it is. I may do a separate article down the road for some of the lesser-known wood varieties.
For now though, this should get you started. I hope you enjoyed it and I hope you learned
something. Thanks for reading!