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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Smoke Wood? What kind is Best? Well it depends...

The art and science of smoking meat on a grill centers around the smoke. In particular what to use to produce the smoke that imparts that wonderful flavor to meats, fish, and cheese. Not all wood is suitable for smoking and not all types of wood are suitable for all types of meat. There are even ways to produce flavorful smoke without using wood at all. More on that below.

There are many types of wood that can be used to smoke meat. Everything from Alder to Walnut. Cherry to Mulberry. Lilac to Lemon. But which is the best wood? Different regions swear by different woods. Some say mesquite is the only way to go. Some say hickory. Some say that fruit woods should never be used. The Grillin Fools actually prefer the fruit woods. My cousin Tom and I prefer apple wood. My Dad prefers cherry. Cherry is my second fave while Tom claims he doesn’t like it all. Although he did strike out on knowing which ribs were done with apple and which with Cherry at the poker party at the end of Feb.

The point is there are a million different opinions on the subject. You need to find out which is yours. The good news is the only way to find out is to spend a lot of time grillin, chillin and thrillin while trying different types of wood.

Click here to see a synopses of just some of the different woods available and what they pair well with…

First a little about smoke woods. The Grillin Fools recommend wood chunks over wood chips for a couple of reasons.
  • Wood chunks will last much longer than wood chips no matter how long the chips have been soaked ahead of time.
  • Chunks do not need to be soaked. In fact we don't recommending soaking chunks at all. Soaking chunks will delay the wood from producing any smoke at all as can be seen here at our rib cook off in Michigan last summer. Dad used soaked chunks in his grill. Tom and I used non soaked chunks in ours and the two community grills. Guess which one had the soaked chunks:
  • Chips require soaking. As soaked wood chips get hot the water that they soaked up is released in the form of steam. That steam condenses at the top of the grill. There is a chance when enough water has accumulated under the top of the grill that it could drip down onto your meat. Take a look at the underside of the top of your grill and ask yourself if you want to risk some of that dripping down on your meat? One tip. If you are going to soak the chips, use hot water. Opens the pores/fibers of the wood more and allows more water to be absorbed thus making the chops last longer once exposed to heat.
  • Wood chips generally need to be added to the fire many more times than chunks and with each time the grill is opened it releases all its heat which will extend grilling times.
We understand that chips are much easier to find with many grocery stores even carrying apple and cherry chips but if you can find chunks of your favorite wood we recommend going with them over chips.

For those with gas grills we recommend placing a handful of dry chips on a sheet of tin foil, form it into a ball and then poke holes in the foil with a thin knife. The tin foil will act as a heat sink as it dissipates heat rather well thus negating the need for soaking the chips. Place the ball right into the flames from the element. The holes in the foil will allow the smoke to escape and fill the cooking chamber. In the very near future I hope to borrow a friends gas grill and show how to use it as a smoker by using this method.

Bark or no bark. Another great debate. Some swear that bark puts off a different smoke than the wood and does not give the meat a good flavor. I have smoked with bark and without. I have never noticed any difference.

Now on to the typed of smoke woods and other smoke producers:

These trees are in the same family as mesquite. When burned in a smoker, acacia has a flavor similar to mesquite but not quite as heavy. Acacia burns very hot and should be used sparingly.
Good with most meats, especially beef and most vegetables.

A sweet, musky smoke that is the traditional wood of the Northwest and pairs particularly well with salmon
Good with fish, pork, poultry, and light-meat game birds.

A nutty and sweet smoke flavor. Very similar to pecan
Good with all meats.

The flavor is milder and sweeter than hickory. It will discolor chicken skin turning it dark brown and the favorite of myself and my fellow Grillin Fool, my cousin Tom. Dad’s second fave.
Good with all meats.

Apple on the left, cherry on the right:

Great substitute for apple as it is also milder and sweeter than hickory

Fast burner, light but distinctive flavor.
Good with fish and red meats.

Medium floral smoke with hints of spice & cinnamon
Good with most meats and veggies.

A mild much used wood like oak.
Good with meat and seafood.

Medium hard wood with a flavor similar to maple.
Good with pork and poultry.

Much like the woods provided from fruit trees, the small diameter trunks of the Blackberry bush provides a slightly sweet and delicate flavor.
Good for grilling poultry and other meats, such as small game birds like grouse, pheasant, partridge, and quail.

Strong smoke, like walnut, bitter when used alone
Good on red meats like Beef, Pork, Venison and other game meats. Can easily overpower poultry.

Slightly sweet fruity smoke that's great with just about everything. Along with apple probably the most popular fruit wood to smoke with. Dad’s favorite and my second fave.
Good with all meats.

Smoking ribs in my Weber Kettle with cherry:

Slightly sweet nutty smoke flavor
Good with most meats.

Although not considered to be a true wood, the heart of the cob that holds the kernels is the fuel section of this alternative for wood. It is ground into small granular bits that can be added to a smoking box or it can be combined with other woods such as woods from fruit trees, to impart several flavors. The Corncob provides a sweet flavor that may overpower the food if too much is used to season the food as it cooks. Begin by trying small amounts until the desired flavor is achieved.
It is often used as a smoking chip when grilling foods such as poultry, fish and small game birds.

It is a softer wood than alder and very subtle in flavor. Use it for fuel but use some chunks of other woods (hickory, oak, pecan) for more flavor as it is extremely mild. Don't use green cottonwood for smoking.
Good for all smoking, especially pork and ribs.

Is essentially interchangeable with apple
Good with poultry, red meats, game and lamb.

Mild & fruity like mulberry
Good with all meats.

Produces a nice mild smoky flavor.
Excellent with beef, pork, fish and poultry.

Tart. Aromatic, but can be a heavy flavor so don’t overdo it.
Use sparingly on poultry or lamb but otherwise if used in moderation is good with red meats, pork and game.

Flowery fruity taste
Good for all meats,

The most common wood used. Sweet to strong, heavy bacon flavor. This great flavor works well with pork, ribs, hams, poultry, and beef.
Good for all smoking, especially pork and ribs.

Kiawe (pronounced key-ah-vey) is a wood that can is only found in one state in the U.S. Hawaii. Very hard to come by. The wood is dense with a dark thin bark. It is similar to mesquite with a sweet strong flavor
Good for beef, fish and pountry

Medium smoke flavor with a hint of fruitiness.
Excellent with beef, pork and poultry.

Very subtle with a hint of floral.
Excellent for smoking cheese. Good with, pork and poultry.

Mildly smoky, somewhat sweet flavor. Maple adds a sweet, subtle flavor that enhances the flavor of poultry and game birds. Smoke a pork roast with them for a sensational taste experience.
Mates well with poultry, ham, cheese, small game birds, and vegetables. Wonderful for smoked turkey!

Strong earthy flavor. One of the most popular woods in the country, mesquite is a scrubby tree that grows wild in the Southwest. Sweeter and more delicate than hickory, it's a perfect complement to richly flavored meats such as steak, duck or lamb. Burns hot and fast and it probably the strongest flavored wood.
Good with most meats, especially beef and most vegetables.

A mild smoke with a sweet, tangy, blackberry-like flavor. Similar to apple
Good with Beef, poultry, game birds, pork (particularly ham).

The flavor is milder and sweeter than hickory.
Great on most white or pink meats, including chicken, turkey, pork and fish.

Most versatile of the hardwoods blending well with most meats. A mild smoke with no aftertaste. Oak gives food a beautiful smoked color. Red oak is believed to the best of the oak varieties.
Good with red meat, pork, fish and big game.

The smoke favor is similar to mesquite, but distinctly lighter.
Delicious with poultry.

A tangy, citrus smoke. Medium smoke flavor with a hint of fruitiness. Orange gives food a golden color. Produces a nice mild smoky flavor.
Excellent with beef, pork and poultry.

Slightly sweet, woodsy flavor, milder and sweeter than hickory.
Great on most white or pink meats, including chicken, turkey, pork and fish.

A nice subtle smoke flavor much like apple. Slightly sweet, woodsy flavor.
Good on Poultry, game birds and pork.

Sweet and mild with a flavor similar to hickory but not as strong. Tasty with a subtle character. An all-around superior smoking wood. Try smoking with the shells as well.
Good for most things including poultry, beef, pork and cheese. Pecan is the best for that beautiful golden-brown turkey.

A strong, sweet, and dry smoke that is popular in restaurants as it is said the dryness of the smoke increases drink orders of patrons.
Excellent with beef and pork.

Also referred to as Allspice, Jamaican Pepper, Myrtle Pepper, or Newspice. This wood adds a natural and somewhat peppery flavor that may also include flavors of several spices combined, such as cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, similar to the flavors provided when allspice is used as a seasoning to enhance the flavor of various foods.
It is a common wood used in grilling Jamaican foods such as jerk chicken. Often used for grilling poultry and fish.

The flavor is milder and sweeter than hickory.
Good with most meats, great on most white or pink meats, including chicken, turkey, pork and fish.

A mild, musky, sweet smoke with a root beer aftertaste. Some say this is not a good candidate for smoking. Others love it.
Especially good on beef, pork and poultry.

The seaweed is washed to remove the salt and air or sun dried before use. It provides a somewhat spicy and natural flavor to the foods being smoked or grilled.
Commonly used for smoking shellfish such as clams, crab, lobster, mussels, and shrimp.

While pecan is hickory's milder cousin, walnut is the strong one. Often mixed with lighter woods like almond, pear or apple. Intense and can become bitter if overused.
Good on red meats like Beef, Pork, Venison and other game meats. Can easily overpower poultry.

Italian Herbs
A strong smoke flavor that is completely unique! You can use fresh oregano, rosemary, thyme or any combination of them with oak wood to give zesty and robust flavors.
Especially good for lamb, pork and poultry. Good for pizza too, when you cook it on the grill.

Oriental Herbs
A strong smoke flavor with oak that's truly amazing! A blend of Sesame seeds and Ginger Root with oak wood or Mesquite gives a nice oriental BBQ flavor.
Especially good for beef, pork and poultry.

Onion and Garlic
Soak garlic chunks and/or garlic cloves in water for 60 minutes. Plop the onion and/or garlic right over the coals. Add more when smoke stops. Does not need produce a lot of smoke like typical woods but it doesn’t need to in order to add an incredible flavor to any meat.
Great with all meats, seafood and game.

Other Woods
Avocado, Carrotwood, Madrone, Manzanita, Hackberry, and willow. The ornamental varieties of fruit trees (i.e. pear, cherry, apple, etc.) are also suitable for smoking.

Wood that should not be used for smoking
DO NOT USE any wood from conifer trees, such as pine, fir, spruce, redwood, cedar, elm, eucalyptus, sycamore, liquid amber, cypress, or sweet gum trees. Cooking salmon on a cedar plank is not the same as using chunks of cedar to smoke meat.

Never use lumber scraps, either new or used. First, you cannot know for sure what kind of wood it is; second, the wood may have been chemically treated; third, you have no idea where the wood may have been or how it was used.

Never use any wood that has been painted or stained. Do not use wood scraps from a furniture manufacturer as this wood is often chemically treated.

Never use wood from old pallets. Many pallets are treated with chemicals that can be hazardous to your health and the pallet may have been used to carry chemicals or poison.

Avoid old wood that is covered with mold and fungus that can impart a bad taste to your meat.


  1. i'm going to print this as a reference! i love smoking signature dish is a mesquite smoked i'm going to add this to my tool box. have you ever tried soaking chips in anything other than wine?!

  2. I can't say that I have ever soaked in anything other than water. Have you tried this? What effect does wine have on the smoke flavor? Are there better wines, white or red, sweet or dry? How long should they be soaked for?