There’s nothing quite like making a good cut of meat even better by imbuing it with a delicious, smoky flavor. By carefully selecting the right wood(s) to complement your food, you can raise your barbecue game to the next level. But what’s the best wood for smoking each type of meat? Should you use chips or chunks? And what about soaking wood before using it? If any of this makes you scratch your head, read on as we cover all things wood.
Most woods are okay to use for smoking, but there are some you should absolutely steer clear from. Wood from coniferous or ‘evergreen’ trees, such as pine, fir, and spruce, should be avoided. They contain a lot of sap, which will not only render your food inedible but can also make you very sick. Elm, eucalyptus, sycamore, and cedar wood should all be avoided as well. Stick to hardwoods and you can’t go wrong.
It’s also worth mentioning that you should never use wood that has been chemically treated, painted, or stained, as those chemicals could potentially leach into your food. Unless you are sure of the origin of the wood or you can easily identify it, don’t use it in your smoker.
Popular Meat/Wood Pairings
While there are no hard and fast rules, some woods work better than others for certain types of meat. But remember that you’re always free to experiment and create wood combinations of your own. You should never postpone a day of BBQ just because you don’t have what someone else says is the ideal type of wood.
Best Wood for Smoking Brisket
Best Wood for Smoking Ribs
Best Wood for Smoking Pork Butt/Shoulder
Again, fruitwoods (apple, cherry, peach, etc.) are commonly recommended for pork butt and shoulder, and the addition of a hickory, oak, or pecan is a nice way to mix things up. Note that compared to ribs, pork butt/shoulder will be exposed to more smoke, so that’s even more reason to go for a mild wood.
Best Wood for Smoking Turkey and Chicken
Best Wood for Smoking Salmon and Fish
What's the Best All-Purpose Wood for Smoking?
Let’s say you want to stock up on a bunch of wood that you could use for any type of meat. What should you choose? There’s no definitive answer, but you’ll find that hickory, oak, and pecan are a few versatile favorites in the barbecue world. Folks really seem to love hickory in particular, and I can’t say I disagree.
Wood Chips vs Chunks
Scenario: you’re smoking with indirect heat on a simple kettle grill, and you have the choice between chips and chunks. Which one should you choose? It really depends on what you’re cooking, since chips will burn up much faster than chunks.
If you’re reverse-searing some pork chops, and the total cook time is only ~30 minutes, chips will work perfectly. However, if you’re going to be slow-smoking ribs for several hours, you’ll probably want to go with chunks.
What About Pellets?
Pellets are another option for wood. If you’re not familiar with them, know that they can only be used with pellet grills. You can’t just throw them on charcoal like you would with chips or chunks, at least it wouldn’t be very useful. Pellet grills are pretty neat because they can be used for both low temperature smoking and high heat grilling.
One advantage of pellets is that there are several blends available on the market. For example, I often use this ‘Perfect Mix’ from CookinPellets with my Camp Chef pellet smoker. It’s a mix of hickory, cherry, maple, and apple – it doesn’t overwhelm you with any single flavor and works great for just about anything. If you want to learn more about choosing pellets, we have a guide on the best wood pellets for smoking and grilling – it goes into what to avoid when buying pellets, like brands that use fillers and flavored oils rather than the real thing.
Another great thing about pellets is that they are a really efficient fuel. In other words, they burn much slower than other types of wood, so you won’t need to replenish your supply as often. That’s partially due to the mechanical augers in pellet smokers, which only push out pellets as they are needed.
Soaking Wood Chips and Chunks - The Great Debate
Soaking is the process of, well, soaking chips or chunks before using them. Some suggest that submerging wood in water for at least 30 minutes extends the smoking window and allows the wood to smolder rather than burn up. However, there is considerable debate over the effectiveness of soaking.
So, Should I Soak Wood Chips Before Smoking?
The general consensus suggests that soaking isn’t necessary. Why? Wood is dense enough that the water won’t penetrate beyond the surface. So when you throw soaked wood on a fire, the water on the outside will first evaporate, then the wood will burn like normal. The amount of time that the chips/chunks spend smoking does not change. Additionally, throwing wet chips on your fire will make it harder to control the temperature.
Soaking in Other Liquids
While soaking may not be very useful for prolonging smoking time, some folks like to soak their wood chips in beer, wine, or even fruit juice. I have not personally experimented with this, but I have cooked with these Jack Daniel’s wood chips, which make an appearance in my list of BBQ gift ideas. They smell pretty strongly of alcohol and definitely gave my food a unique flavor. Would the unknowing taster be able to identify whiskey specifically? Maybe not, but I’m convinced the alcohol did translate to the food in some way, and I’d like to experiment with soaking in liquids other than water in the future.
Dry vs Wet Wood | Seasoned vs Green Wood
When choosing wood, it’s a good idea to avoid freshly cut wood. The moisture from unseasoned or “green” wood creates a lot of smoke. You might think that’s a good thing, but you want to run a clean fire with faintly visible “blue” smoke. Huge clouds of white smoke will overpower the flavor of your food with a bitter taste. You want a nice bark, but you don’t want your food covered in soot.
Where to Buy Wood for Smoking
You have a few choices when it comes to finding wood:
- Like most other things nowadays, you can find wood online. In fact, you’ll probably be surprised by the variety of wood available on Amazon.
- Check out your local home improvement or big box grocery store. If they sell grills and charcoal, there’s a good chance they also sell wood for smoking.
- Perhaps the most cost-effective way to find wood is to take a drive out in the country and find someone selling it. Again, it’s better if it’s been given some time to dry, since the moisture from green wood will create more smoke than you want. Also make sure it hasn’t been treated with any chemicals.
Summing Things Up
While choosing the perfect wood can elevate your BBQ, the type of wood you use probably won’t make or break it. So have fun with different combinations, use whatever you can find locally, and don’t stress too much about what pitmasters claim is “best.”
Do you have any favorites when it comes to wood? Know a great wood/meat pairing that I didn’t mention? Please let me know in the comments below!