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For a pitmaster, understanding how smoke flavor contributes to grilling or smoking meat is an integral part of creating dynamic barbecue. Pitmaster wisdom states that there is a right wood for each type of meat: That means knowing when to wield a strong flavor over a sweeter one, or how to capture that quintessential smoky flavor to your benefit.



How to Source Smoking Woods

In the early days of barbecue, the trees that were native to a region had as much to do with the development of a regional style as the kinds of livestock the local farmers raised and the types of sauces, marinades, and rubs that were used on the meat.

Over time, it’s gotten easier to source different woods from around the country in the form of wood chunks and wood chips, but if you’re cooking with logs, you’re still likely to end up working with what’s growing around you. If you use chunks or chips it’s easy to pick up a bag of wood online or at a local barbecue or hardware store.

Different varieties of strong woods burn differently (avoid softwoods like pine or redwood for cooking, since they contain high levels of sap, making for a pungent, fast burn). Knowing how fast or slow wood burns can be crucial in determining the best wood for smoking brisket, for example, which has a much longer cooking time than a more delicate protein like fish.

7 Types of Smoking Woods

The types of wood below are among some of the most popular choices among barbecue enthusiasts:

  1. Alder: Abundant in the Pacific Northwest, alder wood produces delicate, sweet smoke that pairs well with poultry and fish, especially when smoking salmon, which is often grilled on mild woods like alder planks.
  2. Maple: Maple wood is another popular mild wood, with lightly sweet smoke that gives more delicate cooks like chicken, vegetables, and even smoked cheese a signature dark, burnished mahogany color.
  3. Pecan: Pecan wood has a mild, sweet flavor but doesn’t burn as long as oak or hickory. Use it for shorter cooks like fish, ribs, and poultry. Learn how to smoke with pecan wood in our complete guide here.
  4. Fruit: Similar to pecan, these fruit woods burn faster than oak and hickory and produce smoke with an extremely subtle and well-rounded fruity sweetness. For those reasons, applewood, cherry wood, peach wood, or pear wood aren’t the best choice for brisket, but use them for fish, poultry, and pork.
  5. Mesquite: Mesquite wood is one of the most abundant woods in Texas. It burns hot and fast, produces lots of smoke, and has an intensely savory, earthy flavor. It takes a long time to cure but can be tamed. It’s best used for quick cooks like steak, or burnt down as coals. Learn how to smoke meat with mesquite wood in our guide here.
  6. Oak: The defining wood of central Texas BBQ is a local form of white oak called post oak. One of the many uses of white oak is the production of whisky barrels, and if you use white oak or post oak for barbecue, you’ll notice the smoke gives the meat a slightly sweet, vanilla-tinged flavor similar to a Kentucky bourbon.
  7. Hickory: Hickory wood is one of the more popular choices for longer cooks of red meat. Like oak, it burns clean but has a slightly stronger flavor and smokiness that’s comparable to bacon. Learn more about hickory wood in our guide here.

Learn More

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