Culinary Arts

BBQ 101: What Is Hickory Wood? Learn How to Smoke Meat and Other Foods Using Hickory Wood

Written by MasterClass

Aug 31, 2019 • 2 min read

One of the most popular cooking woods, hickory adds a rich, pungent flavor and deep color to smoked foods.



What Is Hickory Wood?

Hickory is one of the more popular choices for longer cooks. Like oak, it burns clean but has a slightly stronger flavor that’s comparable to bacon.

Hickory wood comes from deciduous (hardwood) trees of the genus Carya. There are around 18 species of hickory trees, most of which are native to eastern North America. Some hickory trees produce nuts, including the pecan tree (Carya illinoinensis), which has a mild, sweet flavor but doesn’t burn as long as oak or other hickories.

What Are the Characteristics of Hickory Smoking Wood?

Hickory has a relatively strong-flavor wood, more intense than alder and fruit woods like cherry wood and apple wood, but with a milder profile than mesquite wood.

Pitmasters like hickory wood because it adds a dark color to smoked meats. Hickory has a stronger flavor than oak and the two woods are often used in combination, since they burn similarly. The popularity of hickory-smoked bacon means that hickory wood smoke’s unique flavor—sweet like maple wood, pungent like mesquite—is closely associated with the richness of bacon. Hickory is used to in smoking, grilling, barbecuing meats predominantly in the Midwest and the South of the United States.

How Do You Use Hickory Wood?

Hickory wood comes in many forms, including planks, wood chips, wood chunks, and split logs. Determining the best wood depends on your smoker or recipe.

  • Use hickory planks to add mild hickory flavor to semi-soft cheeses (Brie, camembert, gouda) in the oven or on a lidded grill with a two-zone fire setup.
  • If you’re using an offset smoker, you’ll want split logs, or sticks, to use as fuel in the smoker box.
  • If you’re adding hickory flavor to meats cooked on a gas grill, charcoal grill, or electric smoker, use hickory wood chips or chunks.
  • Since too much hickory smoke can cause food to take on a bitter flavor, consider mixing hickory with a milder wood, such as oak, maple, or pecan wood, to balance the flavor.
  • You can use hickory-flavor liquid smoke or infused salt to add hickory-smoke flavor to foods, without the actual wood smoke.

Popular Meats to Smoke Using Hickory Wood

Though most famous for its use in bacon, hickory is a versatile smoking wood that works well with most types of meat.

  • Try smoking whole chickens or turkeys, wild game, and larger cuts such as Texas-style beef brisket with hickory.
  • Pork, such as pork loin and pork shoulder (used for pulled pork), pairs particularly well with the sweetness of hickory.
  • Hickory can also be used to smoke salmon, or to add smoky flavor to cheeses and nuts.

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