Guide for Smoker Wood

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By Dave T.
from Cades Cove, TN

A little knowledge goes a long way when selecting hardwoods for meat smoking. First off, there are no hard fast rules for what kind of wood you should use, it all depends on what you like. Like condiments, some may like ketchup while others prefer mustards. Same goes for the wood you smoke with. Some may prefer the heavy smoke of hickory or oak say on pork, while others might prefer a lighter taste such as maple of pecan. This is just a simple guide for picking which wood would work best for you.

method Smoke


    apple and pear
    peach, plum, necterine

How To Make

  • 1
    The rule of thumb is to use “heavier” hardwoods like oak and hickory for smoking “heavier” meats like beef and pork.
  • 2
    Oak: Smoke Characteristics: Medium to heavy flavor, but seldom overpowering Burn Characteristics: Hot and slow Best Used When Smoking: Lamb and beef, brisket and sausages. There are two types of oak for meat smoking. White oak burns longer. Red oak is sweeter. Ironically, white oak has a redder color than red oak. Easy rule of identifying red oak from white oak: a red oak leaf has points like an Indian arrow head, white oak had blunt points like a cowboys bullet.
  • 3
    Hickory: Smoke Characteristics: Sweet to strong, hearty, almost bacony Burn Characteristics: Hot and slow Best Used When Smoking: Larger cuts like ribs and pork shoulders. Can also be used with nearly all red meats and poultry Go easy, Too much hickory smoke can cause your smoked meat to have a bitter flavor.
  • 4
    Maple: Maple is a little subtler than cousins hickory and oak, but it’s still a good choice for smoking. When used for barbecue, Maple imparts a milder, flavor than hickory or oak woods. Smoke Characteristics: Sweet and light, mildly smokey Burn Characteristics: Hot and slow Best Used When Smoking: Poultry, pork, game. Maple, is the sweetest of the heavy woods.
  • 5
    Mesquite: Mesquite is wiry, hardy and tough as nails. Mesquite also has a potent flavor. It is best used for grilling or in small doses for adding flavor to your meat when smoking. Smoke Characteristics: Strong, lots of smoke Burn Characteristics: Hot and fast Best Used When Smoking: Red meats, Salmon, Tuna, Also great for adding flavor when grilling.
  • 6
    Use “lighter” hardwoods like alder, maple, fruit and nut-bearing woods for smoking “lighter” meats like poultry and fish
  • 7
    Pecan: Technically it is a light wood, but it's great as a flavoring agent for heavier meats. Add Pecan wood to the fire when you want a sweet, rich, nutty character. One of my personal favorites on pork shoulder is a mixture of pecan and Apple with a few hands full of peanut hulls. Smoke Characteristics: Medium, fruity/sweet, nutty Burn Characteristics: Slow and cool Best Used When Smoking: Briskets, roasts and ribs. Very good as a complement to mesquite. It’s better to mix Pecan with some heartier woods like Oak, Hickory or Mesquite or maybe a fruit wood. It can become too overpowering sweet to use by its self.
  • 8
    Apple: A mild, fruity, sweet and mellow. Use apple wood when smoking chicken, quail, pork and poultry. Smoke Characteristics: Light, mild, fruity, slightly sweet. As I've stated above, I like mixing apple and pecan together. Burn Characteristics: Hot and slow Best Used When Smoking: Chicken, quail, pork and poultry Use apple wood sooner rather than later, the light character of Apple smoke takes several hours to permeate the food.
  • 9
    Alder: Alder smoke is light and sweet. Smoke Characteristics: Light, sweet and delicate Burn Characteristics: Cool temp, medium length Best Used When Smoking: Traditionally used with fish, especially in the Pacific Northwest. Alder can also be used for poultry and pork. Use alder on your smoked salmon and for veggies such as corn on the cob.
  • 10
    Peach: Peach is generally a regional specialty wood. If you have access to a ready supply, fresh Peach wood can impart a uniquely light and sweet flavor to your barbecue. Smoke Characteristics: Light, sweet and delicate Burn Characteristics: Burns hot and relatively long Best Used With: Fish, poultry and pork. Peach, plum, and nectarine wood tend to lose their flavor shortly after being cut. They are the only woods I would recommend to use fresh cut. If you see peach wood in a bag at the store, pass it by, it won't have the flavor of fresh cut peach wood.
  • 11
    Cherry: Mild and fruity, Cherry is a very popular choice when smoking lighter meats. Smoke Characteristics: Light, sweet and delicate Burn Characteristics: Relatively hot temp, relatively long length Best Used When Smoking: Chicken, turkey, fish, ham. Cherry is great when mixed with oak or alder or hickory.
  • 12
    There are many other woods, you can use. Don't forget the non traditional things such as walnut, grape vine, peanut hulls, corncob, nut hulls, and tree bark or some of these other "regional" woods: AVOCADO, BAY, CARROTWOOD, KIAWE, MADRONE, MANZANITA, GUAVA, OLIVE, BEECH, BUTTERNUT, FIG, GUM, CHESTNUT, HACKBERRY, PIMIENTO, PERSIMMON, and WILLOW. Over the last couple of years I've experimented with using peanut hulls, and corn cobs. I'm impressed with both. I like to add a hand full of peanut hulls or two with pecan for pork shoulder if I'm not going to be adding a heavy sauce or no sauce at all. The fun comes in when you start adding small amounts of the lighter woods to accent the flavors of your heavier meats and vice-versa. One hard fast rule is ALWAYS make sure your wood is seasoned otherwise you will get a very nasty ashtray taste. I also don't like soaking wood in water, as many will suggest. Really the only reason to soak wood in water is to cut down on the flair up and keep you wood from burning up and not producing smoke. My thoughts are, wood needs oxygen to burn, the less oxygen it has the less chance of flair ups and the more smoke you'll have. If you think soaking wood makes the meat your smoking more moist, you couldn't be more wrong.
  • 13
    NOT THE BEST WOOD FOR SMOKING MEAT: Never use softwoods like PINE, FIR, SPRUCE, REDWOOD, CEDAR, CYPRESS, etc. They are too resinous and could be poison and will ruin your meat and your smoker. Never use wood from old pallets, as it has been treated. 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 wood that has been stained or painted. Stay away from building material wood all together. Also ELM and EUCALYPTUS wood is unsuitable for smoking, as is the wood from SASSAFRAS, SYCAMORE and LIQUID AMBER trees. Though an old farmers recipe calls for using hickory, apple, and sassafras for smoking hams and bacons
  • 14
    I hope this helps. It's nearly a guide to get you started. Enjoy!!!!