The art of food smoking relies heavily on smoke flavor and the profound impact that it has on the taste of your food. The distinct smoky flavor and aroma of a perfectly smoked cut of meat is something that many aspire to achieve with varying degrees of success. While there are several different types of smokers that can get the job done, there is one thing that they all have in common—they all use wood as the source of the smoke.
Regardless of the kind of smoker you have, the wood you pick as your smoke source makes a world of difference. This is where things get complicated. When we first started smoking foods, the myriad choices of smoking woods and their sizes left us thoroughly overwhelmed and confused. This challenge can get in the way of the perfect BBQ experience, as using the wrong type or size of the wood can completely spoil an expensive cut of meat.
In this article, we discuss which kind of wood works best with which meat and which size of wood would be appropriate for different cuts so that you can start smoking like a pro and get the most out of your smoking session.
General Overview of Smoking Wood
Although the origins of smoking as a cooking technique can be traced back to the Paleolithic Era, interest in smoking and barbecue, in general, is on the rise throughout the world. Initially, logs were used as the primary fuel source, be it for barbecue, grilling, or smoking. The downside of cooking with logs, however, is that it takes considerable skill and effort to control it. Managing the temperature and flavor, which is an integral part of the smoking process, becomes extremely challenging, if not impossible, when using logs.
Most smokers today use gas, electricity, charcoal, or wood pellets as the energy source, and wood chunks, chips, pellets, sawdust, or briquettes for the smoke. The only smokers that utilize real wood for the heat and smoke source are Offset Smokers.
When heated, the smoke from the wood combines with that from the fat and protein-laden juices from the meat, tenderizing it and imparting the signature smoky flavor.
The precise composition of the smoke is determined by a number of factors such as the type of wood used, the temperature of combustion, and the humidity. Monitoring the components of the smoke mixture is crucial as it can completely alter the flavor profile of the meat, adding a sweet or vanilla note or an overpowering, bitter tang.
The two gases that you need to especially look for when smoking with wood are guaiacol and syringol which are the key precursors to the smoke aroma, flavor, and color. While guaiacol is responsible for the distinctive smoky taste, syringol, which our nose immediately identifies with fire and smoke, is what imparts the smoky aroma.
Blue Smoke vs. White Smoke
If you are a BBQ enthusiast, you must have come across the phrase “thin blue smoke” at some point. While the type of wood used is of considerable significance when smoking, the type of smoke produced during combustion calls for even greater emphasis. Different types of smoke produce radically different flavor profiles and range from white, yellow, and blue to grayish, or even black.
Blue smoke is the kind that you want to achieve during those long low and slow cooking sessions. An indicator of a clean-burning fire, it is almost invisible and loaded with the purest smoky flavors. Keeping the temperature anywhere between 212 degrees Fahrenheit and 230 degrees Fahrenheit will give you the perfect pale bluish smoke and help the meat retain all its natural flavors and succulence.
Pure white smoke, on the other hand, indicates incomplete combustion and is less than ideal for long cooking sessions as it contains too much carbon and results in a harsh bitter aftertaste. However, for short cooks of thin meats like steaks and burgers, intense white smoke can be just the thing as it can quickly impart the perfect amount of smokiness to the meat. AmazingRibs.com goes over this area in great detail. We have all learnt a lot from them over the years.
Gray and black smoke and similar heavy smokes that linger for too long must be avoided at all costs as it can leave a thick, black, carbon-rich residue called creosote. While creosote build-up does contribute to the flavor, texture, and color of smoked foods, it is ultimately a result of incomplete combustion and too much of it can render your food bitter and inedible. It also makes a mess out of the cooker and is extremely difficult to clean if allowed to accumulate over prolonged periods of time.
What Smoke Does to Food
Many BBQ aficionados and pitmasters believe that smoke is essentially another flavor component, a seasoning. Smoking foods creates what is known as the Maillard reaction, a phenomenon that occurs when heat applied to a dry surface breaks down the amino acids and sugars present on it. The crunchy browned exterior of slow-smoked brisket or the sear on steaks is a product of this reaction. The smoke flavor, however, is almost entirely on the surface of the food as smoke particles and gases tend to stick to the surface.
The distinctive pink smoke ring is the hallmark of expertly smoked meat. While it has no real impact on the flavor, it is still highly desirable. The smoke ring is caused when smoke from the burning cooker fuel hits the meat and triggers a reaction between nitric oxide (NO) and carbon monoxide (CO) from the smoke and myoglobin, which is a protein present in the meat.
Now that we have gone over all the science of smoking with wood and how it reacts with our food, let us delve into the different types and sizes of wood commonly used for smoking and where to get them.
Wood Types Used for Smoking
Although it has been established that the type of wood used for smoking makes far less of an impact on the final flavor than the quality of the meat, temperature optimization, the spice rub, and so on, a few general principles still hold true.
Dried hardwoods with low sap, particularly fruitwoods and nut woods, are ideal for smoking. They have a compact cell structure which means less moisture content and a more consistent burn.
Let us now take a look at a few types of hardwood and fruitwood trees and discuss how each of them burns.
Hickory: This is a classic when it comes to smoking foods. Hickory wood burns clean and has a strong and distinct flavor. Coming from the deciduous trees of the genus Carya, there are approximately 18 different species of hickory trees and most of them are native to the eastern part of North America.
The strong flavor of hickory can be best described as slightly milder than mesquite but stronger than fruitwoods like cherry and applewood. There is a somewhat savory and hearty tang to it that is reminiscent of the richness of bacon, making hickory-smoked bacon a popular favorite. Another reason why BBQ enthusiasts love hickory is because of the gorgeous dark color that it adds to the meat.
When smoking with hickory, it is important to bear in mind that the characteristic strong flavor of its smoke can cause the meat to take on a bitter taste. It would, therefore, be wise to mix hickory with a milder wood. Pecan, oak, or maple can be good choices as they have a milder flavor profile that can effectively balance the harshness. Hickory is a staple for smoking primarily in the Midwestern and Southern United States.
Oak: Oak is easily one of the most versatile woods for smoking due to its complementary taste and medium-to-strong flavor profile. It falls somewhere between apple and hickory on the flavor scale which means that it is strong, though not so strong as to overpower the texture and taste of the meat. Smoking with oak adds a rich deep brownish or mahogany hue to the meat.
Post oak, which is a form of white oak local to eastern and central United States, is harder in comparison to red oak and consequently has a longer burn time. It gives off lesser smoke and has a milder taste, making it an overall better choice for low and slow smoking sessions. Red oak imparts a flavor slightly sweeter than that of white oak, with a tinge of vanilla. Since it is not as hard as white oak, it gives a shorter burn time.
While post oak is the trademark of central Texas BBQ, the California Red Oak is a staple of the Santa Maria-style BBQ. Blackjack Oak, which is another variety of red oak, imparts the signature taste of Oklahoma-style BBQ.
Mesquite: Mesquite wood comes from the short, spiky trees of the genus Prosopis. There are around 40 species of mesquite that are found in the southwestern part of the United States, Mexico, all the way to South America. One of the hottest and fastest burning woods, it is favored by restaurants for its sharp, earthy flavor.
This variety of wood has a high lignin content and produces intense smoke that can very easily overpower the taste of the meat. It is crucial to limit its smoking time and use it harmoniously with other milder woods such as oak, apple wood, or cherry wood. Its short burn time makes it perfect for hot and fast smoking sessions. Though mesquite does add color to the meat, it is much lighter than the color imparted by oak or hickory.
Mesquite wood is popularly used for smoking in southwest Texas where it is often the only hardwood that is locally available.
Apple: Applewood infuses the meat with a mild and subtle sweetness akin to its own fruity flavor. Owing to this mildness, meat that is smoked with applewood can take some time to attain full flavor. This makes it ideal for a low and slow cooking session. Burning applewood produces medium smoke and is overall quite easy to manage.
Pecan: Pecan wood is a type of hickory wood that imparts the extremely sought-after sweet and nutty flavor. It is stronger in comparison to other fruitwoods but is a much subtler version of hickory and mesquite. It burns slow and cool and as a result, is a strong choice for longer cooking sessions.
Maple: Maple, like all fruitwoods, imparts a delicate fruity taste to the meat and is perfect if you are looking for a mild smokiness. It has a tendency to darken the meat and works best when paired with oak, alder, or applewood.
Cherry: One of the most commonly used fruitwoods, cherry wood gives a rich mahogany color to the meat along with a very subtle and light cherry flavor. Its delicate but well-rounded sweetness is a good match for almost all meats. This wood is commonly paired with other more intense hardwoods like hickory or pecan which complement its mildness perfectly.
While the species of the tree does have a part to play in smoke flavor, there is a lot of evidence that points towards the fact that the climate and soil on which the tree grew has a much greater impact on smoke flavor. In fact, it is often recommended that beginners pick one type of wood and stick with it while focusing more on the technique behind creating good smoke.
Wood Sizes – All You Need to Know
Once you have figured out which type of wood to use, the next step is to determine the size of smoking wood that would work best with your smoker.
There are several different commercially available sizes of wood and choosing between them can be overwhelming, especially if you are smoking meat for the first time.
Logs: Smoking with logs requires the right pit, preferably a large offset smoker, as they can be up to 18 inches long and call for higher temperatures of approximately 275 degrees Fahrenheit. Lower temperatures might lead to incomplete combustion and produce unclean smoke. Although logs can be used both as a heat and smoke source, special attention must be paid to the type of wood being used. Most importantly, it takes a high level of proficiency and the right skill set in order to be able to successfully smoke using logs as it is very difficult to control the temperature and smoke when using them.
Chips: These are about the size of a coin, about 1 inch in length and width, and ¼ inch in thickness. They burn quickly owing to their small size and need to be added multiple times during the cooking cycle. As a result, wood chips are a better fit for short cooks. They are easily available and convenient to store. Wood chips are typically used to create some smoke in electric or gas grills/smokers.
Chunks: Wood chunks can be anywhere between the size of a golf ball to a fist, up to 4 inches. They burn more slowly in comparison to chips, offering a steady and hassle-free source of the smoke. Once again, they are readily available and can be stored with ease. These can be used with charcoal style smokers/grills as well.
Sawdust: This is made by grinding untreated wood into a coarse powder and burns very quickly, producing instant smoke. Although it can’t be used as a heat source, it can be perfect for flavoring thin, fast-cooking foods. Sawdust is generally used with more compact smokers such as stovetop, electric, or handheld smokers.
Pellets: Around ½” in length, wood pellets are made by compressing wet sawdust into cylinders about the same thickness as a pencil. Like wood chips and chunks, these are very convenient to use and store. Pellets must not be soaked before use as they will disintegrate and return to their original dust form almost instantly. They burn hot and fast and can be fed into the smoker in a controlled manner, making them a good fit for short cooks. Ideally, wood pellets should be used with pellet smokers but can also be used with smoke generators and under grate smoking boxes. They are available in a variety of different wood types.
Discs: Just like wood pellets, these are also made by compressing sawdust. The only difference is that they are shaped like discs. Once again, they are not to be soaked as doing so will cause them to disintegrate. They burn fast and clean and are most commonly used in electric smokers.
What Not to Use
Softwoods like spruce, cypress, pine, redwood, sycamore, elm, and eucalyptus have a pungent sap and contain terpenes, causing them to burn fast and unevenly. These woods also tend to impart an odd taste to the food and therefore, are to be avoided at all costs. You should also steer clear of wood that has been painted, stained, or treated in any way, as well as moldy or fungi-ridden wood.
Where to Buy
One of the best and most reliable places to source your smoking wood from would be a BBQ specialty store. These stores generally offer a wide spectrum of wood types and sizes to choose from and sell them by weight or in pre-packed bags.
Even some hardware stores sell smoking wood, although their stock is often limited to mesquite and hickory. You can also purchase wood online from places like Amazon that sell them in pre-packed bag. Finally, sourcing your wood from a local orchard is also an option, but you must ensure that the wood is not tainted with pesticides.
Cooking With Smoke
Despite the myriad options to select from, wood chips and wood chunks remain the two most commonly used forms of smoking wood owing to their versatility and ease of use.
How to Use Wood Chips
One of the top choices for smoking foods, wood chips are mainly used with electric and gas smokers, and sometimes with charcoal grills. They burn fast and clean, producing smoke very promptly. When using a charcoal grill, make it a point to use one layer of charcoal, allow it to burn till white, and only then add your chips. Once the chips begin producing a thin, smoldering smoke, add the meat. If cooking indirectly, add a cup or two of chips every 45 minutes. Ensure that the air vents in your grill facilitate proper airflow to avoid burning the wood too quickly.
If you are looking to prolong the smoke produced by the chips, one good trick is to wrap them in foil and poke some holes in it to release the smoke. There is no set rule as to how often you should renew the chips on your smoker but keep an eye on how they are burning and add as necessary. Depending on the quality of smoke you are getting, you may add one or two cups of new chips on top of the used chips each time.
How to use Wood Chunks
Chunks are very similar to chips in a lot of ways with the exception that they burn for a slightly longer period of time. In terms of versatility, wood chunks are the best there is as they can be used with a variety of smokers ranging from smaller offset smokers, gas, water, and ceramic smokers to barrel smokers and even gas grills. They continue to deliver smoke even after having burnt to ash which is a boon during long smoking sessions.
When using a water smoker or an offset smoker, add 3 to 4 chunks and replenish when the smoke ceases to flow. For an electric or gas smoker, preheat the smoker as per the manufacturer’s instructions and place 1 to 2 wood chunks in the fuel pan over the heating element.
Does Food Stop Taking On Smoke Flavor?
Many believe that food can only take on additional smoke flavor for a limited period of time or that meat stops taking on smoke after 3 or 4 hours, but that is simply one of the many myths surrounding smoking. Regardless of time or temperature, meat continues to bark and take on smoke.
The colder and moister the meat surface, the more smoke sticks to it. However, at an advanced stage of the cooking process when the bark is warm and dry, the smoke from the cooking chamber no longer sticks to it. Moreover, the heat source is also exhausted by then, producing less smoke. This can create the impression that the meat is refusing the smoke or is saturated with smoke.
Basting can easily fix this issue as it will help moisten the meat, allowing it to take on more smoke. Another popular method to cool the exterior of the meat and allow smoke to stick is spraying the meat with a 50/50 mixture of water and apple cider vinegar.
Should You Soak Your Wood?
To soak or not to soak is a popular controversy in the world of smoking. While many claim that soaking wood in water will prolong the burning time and contribute to a more controlled combustion, many firmly believe that using fruit juices or wine to soak the wood will add more depth and complexity to the smoke flavor. Although this is considered to be conventional wisdom, it is, without a shadow of a doubt, a myth.
First and foremost, it is important to note that hardwoods and fruitwoods, which are the two best kinds of wood for smoking, have a very tight grain and do not absorb much water even if you soak for as long as 24 hours. Burning a wet chunk of wood causes the water on its surface to boil, producing steam which gives us the false impression that it is producing more smoke.
Pale bluish smoke, which is the best tasting smoke, requires dry wood, a hot fire, and a steady flow of oxygen. Soaking your wood promotes none of those factors, but instead cools the fire and produces bad smoke. The steam carries the impurities of the wood with it and can give the meat an acrid, creosote flavor.
Pairing Woods With Meat
To conclude our discussion on all that there is to know about smoking with wood, let us finally take a look at which meat is best complemented by which type of wood.
Pork: There are several kinds of wood that can really accentuate the wonderful natural flavor of pork. Orange wood, for example, can be an excellent choice for smoking your pork as it will infuse the meat with some of its own characteristic citrus flavor. The smokiness blended with a hint of citrus will work wonders on your smoked pork and is so exceptional it could even turn a vegetarian into a normal logical meat eater. Maple wood also goes very well with pork. Not only does it impart a delicate and subtly sweet flavor to the meat, but it also gives it a divine golden crust. We recently published an article on the best woods for smoking pork.
Beef: The intense natural flavors of beef call for more delicate and subtle smoky notes like that imparted by oak wood. The gentle savory flavor of oak can complement it nicely. You can also add some hickory to the mix, although in that case, exposure to the smoke should be limited to prevent acrid flavors. Cherry and apple wood are other fantastic options not only due to their mild fruitiness but also because they impart a beautiful red hue to the meat. Here is a list of the best woods for smoking beef and brisket.
Chicken: When it comes to smoking chicken, fruitwoods are a popular choice. Woods like apple or cherry infuse the meat with their signature fruity flavor and really help balance the natural flavors of the chicken. Other than that, if you are looking for a more intense smoky flavor, you can pair your chicken with some of the more intense hardwoods like hickory. The robust natural taste of hickory gives the meat a complex and layered flavor profile without overwhelming its own taste. Here are our favorite woods for smoking chicken.
Seafood: Since a large part of the appeal of seafood lies in its natural flavors, it is best to pair it with light fruitwoods. Once again, apple and cherry would perfectly balance the rich flavor profile of seafood with their own mild sweetness. Nut woods like almond are also a great choice. Alder wood is a go-to for smoking salmon for similar reasons. It has minimal impact on the flavor of the fish while leaving a touch of smoky aroma and flavor. We did our research on the best woods for seafood like salmon.
With the practice of smoking steadily rising in popularity, there are a plethora of foods that you can smoke, from meat and fish to lapsang souchong tea. Despite being spoilt for choice, most BBQ aficionados have favorites. Here is a list of some of the most popular foods to smoke.
Ribs: Smoked ribs are a delicacy that has become indispensable to American BBQ parties. A crowd favorite for low and slow smoking sessions, the tenderness and succulence of this cut of meat is most enjoyable when smoked to perfection. A popular way of smoking ribs is called the 3-2-1 ribs method. The 3-2-1 method is great for beginners but for those of you that are tired of overcooking your ribs, we have the method for you. We really like using cherry or maple wood with our ribs.
Brisket: Smoked brisket is an American BBQ staple. It is a tough and gristly cut that responds extremely well to low and slow smoking. Brisket is rich in natural flavor and goes particularly well with milder woods like apple, pecan, and maple. Texas smoked brisket, also known as barbecue brisket, is one of the top choices for outdoor BBQ parties and tailgates for beginners and masters alike.
Cheese: Smoked cheese is fairly uncommon when it comes to smoked foods but it is delicious and makes the perfect snack. Alternatively, it can be an excellent addition to sandwiches and salads, or even act as a flavor booster for soups or pasta. Some of the most popular cheeses to smoke include cheddar and mozzarella. Smoking gives the cheese a delicious nutty taste while keeping its natural flavors intact. We prefer using apple and maple woods when smoking cheese.
Living the Good Life
For BBQ enthusiasts, smoking can be an important part of the culinary journey. For us, learning smoking techniques opened new doors and added a whole new dimension to our BBQ parties. Learning about different wood choices and how they flavor the food was an added bonus.
We hope the information provided here helps you understand the nuances of smoking food and cultivate your own smoking skills. While insight and technique can surely be your friend while smoking, the most important thing is to have fun with the process, experiment, and find out what works best for you.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s):
Can you mix or blend woods when smoking?
Absolutely you can. This is where real experimentation with smoking begins. You can really play around and combine hardwoods with fruitwoods. If you are not feeling up to the challenge and you use a pellet grill, you’ll be happy to know that a lot of the manufacturers are offering blended smoking woods. Lumberjack pellets has their competition blend that we love to use.
Which wood gives the strongest smoke flavors?
That would be mesquite. Mesquite also burns hot because of its high lignin content. This would be a great wood to consider blending with oak to smooth the smoke flavor profiles.
Should I soak my wood before smoking?
As we mentioned above it depends on what wood type you are smoking with. Wood chips can be soaked to extend their burn time because they are generally thin in nature. Wood chunks should not be soaked in water before smoking. After considerable amounts of testing it has been found that wood chunks do not absorb much water. Wood chunks naturally burn slowly and provide smoke for long periods. Never soak wood pellets and they will quickly absorb the water and swell. They will not be useable especially in a pellet grill or smoker.
If you have any other questions you would like answered, simply comment below and we would love to help. Cheers!