So you’ve conquered some easier meats like ribs and pork butt, and now you’re ready to take on brisket. With the price of a 10+ pound cut of meat and the time involved, you want to make sure no detail is overlooked. That includes choosing the best wood for smoking brisket, but is there really a clear winner? We’ll start with covering the top three choices and then move onto some other useful information, including what you must absolutely avoid.
The Top 3 Best Woods for Smoking Brisket
Oak is the go-to for many pitmasters, and there’s two main reasons for its popularity. First, it has a medium smoke flavor that’s not particularly sweet, pungent, or otherwise intense. If you’re concerned about fire management and over-smoking your first brisket, oak is a great choice.
Second, oak is the traditional choice for Texas brisket, which is alluring in part because of its simplicity. Salt, pepper, and an oak fire are all you need to replicate that classic Texas taste. And because of its relatively neutral flavor profile, oak makes a great base to blend with other, more potent woods.
Hickory is an equally popular pick. In fact, Daniel Vaughn of Texas Monthly looked through 27 brisket recipes and found that hickory and oak were tied for most used wood. Many associate the flavor of hickory smoke with bacon and find it to be slightly sweet and nutty. It’s certainly a bit more powerful and complex than oak. With that being said, it’s not incredibly potent, and it’s perfectly acceptable if you’re confident you won’t over-smoke your meat.
Mesquite is another wood that pairs nicely with beef, but it’s not for everyone. Its smoke is uniquely strong and earthy. Among all of the common wood choices for smoking any type of meat, mesquite widely accepted as the most intense option. If you know you love deep smoke flavor, give it a shot!
Note that mesquite burns quickly compared to most other woods, so you will have to use more, especially if you’re running a purely wood fire in an offset smoker.
While you might not hear pitmasters rave about them, there are a variety of other hardwoods that work perfectly fine with brisket. If you want to introduce some subtle sweetness to your brisket, pecan and maple are two common choices. Apple and cherry can achieve the same sweet flavor profile with some added fruitiness. Walnut is another option for brisket and beef in general, but some folks find it to be bitter (because it has a lot of tannic acid).
Look for Local Wood
As mentioned above, oak is commonly used in Texas barbecue. Specifically, Texans are known to use post oak (Quercus stellata). But why is that? In addition to producing tasty smoke, it’s native to the region, so historically it’s been readily available.
Instead of trying to replicate barbecue from other regions, see if you can find something local. Maybe ask the employees at your favorite BBQ joint what kind of wood(s) they use for their brisket. Just watch out for the wood types in the next section…
What to Avoid - Softwoods, Chemicals, and Green Wood
You might be left wondering if any wood from your yard will do the trick, but unfortunately that’s not the case. Softwoods, such as pine, spruce, and cedar, are full of resin and will impart a bitter flavor to your meat when burned. Simply put, they will ruin your brisket, so stick to hardwoods.
It’s also a good idea to avoid any wood that has been chemically treated or painted. Finally, make sure you’re using seasoned wood. In other words, make sure the wood has been dried for long enough to remove most of the moisture. Freshly cut or “green” wood produces more smoke and can make it more difficult to maintain temperatures.
Best Wood Pellets for Brisket (A Warning)
While pellet smokers are incredibly easy to use, the smoke they produce simply isn’t as strong as smoke that comes from wood chunks or pure wood fires. As a result, you may want to use a wood that produces more intense smoke, like mesquite.
Also be sure that you’re not buying “imposter” pellets that are made of weak wood like alder and then flavored with oils. For example, if you buy a bag of hickory pellets, make sure it clearly says that they are made 100% from hickory. If it doesn’t, the pellets are likely made from a different wood and simply flavored like hickory.
For more on this topic, check out my article on the best wood pellets.
While different woods definitely lead to noticeably different flavors, burning a clean fire is far more important than choosing a certain type of wood. An overabundance of dirty smoke will ruin any piece of meat, even if you choose a more mild wood. So choose whatever sounds tasty and focus on technique. You’ll likely have to smoke a handful of briskets before you nail it, so there will be ample opportunities to experiment. Good luck!