Culinary Arts

BBQ 101: How to Smoke Meat With Mesquite Wood

Written by MasterClass

Aug 5, 2019 • 3 min read

The smokiest of the cooking woods, mesquite is a type of wood beloved for its distinctive, sharp flavor.

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What Is Mesquite Wood?

Mesquite wood comes from small, spiky trees of the genus Prosopis, a member of the pea family. Different species of mesquite—there are about 40 in total—are found from South America through Mexico to the southwestern United States and have long been used by indigenous Americans both as fuel and for the sweet edible beans that some varieties produce. (The name mesquite comes from the Nahuatl mizquitl.)

As one of the few desert-growing legumes, mesquite has nitrogen-fixing properties important for soil health, and honey mesquite in particular is a useful plant for attracting bees. When it comes to barbecue, mesquite wood is an especially popular smoking wood in southwest Texas, where it’s often the only locally available hardwood.

What Are the Characteristics of Mesquite Wood?

Mesquite is one of the most abundant woods in Texas.

  • It burns hot and fast, produces lots of smoke, and has an intense, earthy flavor.
  • Mesquite take a long time to cure but can be tamed. It’s best used for quick cooks like steak, or burnt down as coals.
  • Mesquite is high in lignin, the component of wood that combusts to produce smoke, which makes it incredibly smokey. For types of wood, it’s at the opposite end of the flavor spectrum from mild alder wood.
  • Mesquite will add color to smoked meats, although it’ll be a bit lighter in color than meat smoked with hickory or oak.
  • One other thing to know about mesquite: it emits sparks as it burns, so be careful!

How to Use Mesquite Wood for Barbecue

When it comes to all the different woods, using mesquite to barbecue—that is, cook using indirect heat over long period of smoking—can be challenging.

  • Since mesquite wood burns so quickly, it can easily add a bitter flavor instead of a desired smoke flavor to smoked foods. To get around this, pitmasters either only use mesquite for part of a cook, or they closely monitor the cook, constantly swapping out wood to make sure there’s an active flame at all times.
  • If using an offset smoker when smoking meats, you’ll want whole logs of mesquite, whereas for an electric smoker you’ll need mesquite wood chips. Try using mesquite wood chunks in a smoke box on a gas grill.
  • An easier way to add mesquite flavor to foods is to use it for direct-heat cooking. On a charcoal grill, try using mesquite coals, which burn hotter and are longer-lasting than other coals, and don’t have the same harshness as the smoke from burning mesquite wood. Try burning mesquite wood down to the coal stage to add smoky flavor to a quick-cooking grilled steak.
  • Try blending mesquite wood with medium-flavor woods, like hickory wood, oak, or pecan. Mesquite will overpower milder fruit woods such as cherry or apple wood, while maintaining a hint of the desired sweet flavor.
  • Mesquite wood is not ideal for long cooks since it burns very quickly. Try adding mesquite wood at the beginning or end of cooking for a longer cook, or stick to foods that cook quickly.
  • Instead of smoking with mesquite wood, try using mesquite coals for grilling.
  • Mesquite-flavor liquid smoke or infused salt are options for adding mesquite flavor without the actual smoke.

What to Smoke With Mesquite Wood—And What to Avoid

Mesquite wood is the best wood for smoking dark meats that can stand up to the strong flavor of mesquite, such as Texas-style brisket, wild game meat, duck, lamb, and Tex-Mex barbacoa. Try mesquite coals for grilling steaks, vegetables, and other quick-cooking, flavorful foods. However, mesquite wood’s strong flavor can overpower mild poultry, pork shoulder, ribs, and fish.

Learn more about smoking techniques and Texas-style barbeque in Aaron Franklin’s MasterClass.