Wood has been an integral part of the smoking process for centuries. There are literally dozens of different types of wood that can be used with a smoker, but not all woods are equal. Wood provides the fuel to generate smoke that helps flavor food being smoked.
The type of wood will have a direct effect on the flavor profile and the cooking time. Most people use fruit tree woods for foods that require less cooking time, such as ham, ribs, pizza, or vegetables like asparagus or mushrooms. Hardwoods with higher boiling points are best for longer smoking jobs like beef brisket, pork shoulder, ribs, or turkeys and peppers.
Wood for smoking is a comprehensive term. It can refer to different types of smoke woods (fresh woods, seasoned woods) and different meats (fish, poultry, red, white). Different wood varieties will add their own flavor to the food they are cooking.
Wood Smoking Overview
Do you know that almost everything can be used for smoking? For example, in Iceland, people often use dried sheep dung. Yet, wood remains the best fuel for smoking.
The different varieties of wood and how they smoke are important considerations when choosing a wood type to use in your smoker. There are four main types of smoke wood (fresh, green; cured or seasoned; fruit-tree woods; hardwoods). Each type of wood has its own effect on the food being smoked, and different woods are used for each task.
The same is true with the meats they smoke; you’re not going to see many people using fruit tree woods when smoking ribs or brisket, but these same types of wood can be used to smoke fish or chicken. Be careful when selecting your wood to use for smoking; some woods may add too much of a flavor that is not desired.
The two main ways for using wood when barbequing are:
- Using wood as the main source of fuel – When the wood is burning, it produces heat and smoke. A good example of using wood as the main source of heat is when using an offset smoker. Another good example is the pellet smokers, as they use wood pellets for both heat and smoke.
- Using wood for smoke and flavor – When using another heat source like charcoal, gas, or electricity, the wood is used solely for producing smoke. This type of smoking is often used when grilling, barbequing, or when smoking in a smoker box in your grill.
The woods we use for smoking comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. It could be logs, chunks, chips, pellets, or sawdust. This is why when you go shopping for wood for smoking, it’s best to learn what each type of wood looks like so that you can make an informed decision on which type of wood you’ll use.
Woods used in smoking will affect how well it smokes and how desirable the meat is once it’s done smoking. For example, hickory wood can add a powerful and bitter taste to your food if misused. The same can be said for mesquite, but with a sweeter and stronger flavor than hickory.
It is also important to understand that the shape of the wood has a direct effect on how much smoke it produces. For example, knowing when to use chunks opposite to chips is as important as knowing what type of wood to use.
Explaining the Smoke
One of the most confusing aspects of smoking meats and vegetables that seems to be a sticking point amongst avid barbecuers is knowing when your wood has had enough heat to produce smoke or how much wood you need to use for different types of meat.
The smoke consists of more than 100 different chemical compounds. Most of the compounds will have a flavor profile that is as diverse as their smell. These compounds could be solids, gases, or liquids (oils), and they all have their own flavor.
The compounds in smoke are responsible for the color, smell, texture, and taste that you’ll experience when eating smoked food. It is a complex process for the most part because there isn’t just one compound inside of the smoke, but hundreds. The compounds themselves change the flavor with time and temperature when used in smoking. For example, the chemical composition of wood smoke is different when a smoker has been running at 225⁰ F, then say at 250⁰F.
To better understand the smoke, we need to look at the combustion process involving wood. When combusting, the wood goes through four main stages:
- Phase one – Dehydration – During the dehydration process, the water from the wood material is removed, and it drys completely. This happens around 500°F, and the wood catches alight because the water is removed. At this moment, the wood needs an external heat source to burn. Once the wood catches alight, it will begin converting into smoke until all of the available oxygen is used up
- Phase two – pyrolysis – Also known as charring or carbonization, this process begins when the wood temperature is between 500°F and 700°F. The wood compounds start to change, and some of them start to vaporize, creating flammable gases. These gases will ignite if exposed to fire and start to burn when they contact oxygen. This is the point when the wood catches on fire
- Phase three – Burning – The third phase of wood combustion is the most impressive and important stage. Once the wood temperature is between 700°F and 1000°F, the wood starts to burn, and the gases important for smoking are released. Starting combustion means that some of the compounds in the wood start firing off at a rapid pace, producing a lot of smoke and flame. During this phase, the actual firewood itself does burn; the fire gets its heat from the rapid burning of gases, oils, and waxes. To produce tasty smoke, the temperature needs to be between 650°F and 750°F. With the temperature rising, the compounds in the smoke start to change, and the smoke gets bitter and even hazardous. This smoke is scorching, dry and will contain a lot of charcoal particles
- Phase four – Formation of charcoal – When the wood temperature reaches 1000°F and above, all combustible gases, oils, and waxes are already burned. The only things left to burn are the carbon components that form charcoal. What remains is mostly charcoal with some soot and ash. Once this happens, all of the smoke taste is gone as well
How long should you cook with smoke?
It is a myth that, after a certain point, the meat will stop taking on smoke flavor, and further creation of smoke is pointless. The truth is each type of meat will have a different outcome. The amount of time that the smoke has to mix with your food can affect how much you’ll taste the smoke after it’s cooked.
The longer smoke mixes with the meat, the stronger it may taste after it’s done cooking. But there are other factors at play. For instance, translucent cuts of meat absorb smoke faster than meat with high-fat content. Even the type of wood that you use to smoke can affect whether your food will take on more smoke flavor or not.
As I said before, there are hundreds of compounds in smoke, and each compound has its own flavor profile. At first thought, it makes sense that the longer the smoke has to mix with the meat, the smokier it will taste.
When the meat is cool and moist, the smoke sticks easily on its surface.
With the smoking process, the meat will warm up and dry off, and the smoke becomes harder to stick to the surface of the meat. The best to overcome this is by spritzing or basting the meat while smoking to keep it moist and sticky.
Charcoal produces significantly less smoke than wood, so adding more wood will be necessary if you want to continue smoking.
Last but not least, remember that even the meat can keep on taking the smoke flavor, that doesn’t mean it will be good. You don’t want your meat to turn into a smoky bomb; you just want to add that subtle smokey flavor to give the meal a unique taste.
Using the main types of wood
This chart compares and contrasts the different types of wood used in smoking and some comments about unique characteristics.
How to add wood to your smoker
How and when to add wood depends on the type of smoker that you are using.
The rule of thumb here is that you don’t need a bone pile inside your smoker. It would be best if you had a small, hot-burning fire to create the perfect smoke.
The amount of wood we add to the smoker is directly connected to the type of smoker we are using, the weather conditions, and many other things.
If we are using an offset smoker, wood will be our source of heat and smoke. This means that the wood is not only a smoke source but also our main heat source. So, the amount of wood that we add will be bigger than when using other types of smokers.
And if it’s cold outside, we’ll need a lot of wood because the smoker won’t reach high temperatures.
If using a Weber Smokey Mountain, for instance, the main heat source will be charcoal. This means that 3-4 wood chunks will be enough to maintain the smoke.
When your charcoal is burning hot, the smoker is preheated, and the meat and the thermometers are set up, it is straightforward to add some wood chunks to the charcoal and immediately start producing smoke.
You can also bury the smoke wood into the coals or layer some wood chips and briquettes using the minion method.
Another factor to consider is the size of the wood that we will use. The bigger the wood, the longer it will take to burn on its own.
So if you have started smoking and you have seen that your smoker doesn’t reach 250°F, it’s a good idea to add extra charcoal.
We can always add more wood to maintain smoke, but it’s harder to remove it if we add too much.
How each wood flavor will play along with your meat
Smoking meat is like making love; it’s not something that can be done by following a specific amount of time or recipe. You must feel and sense what’s going on inside the smoker to really master this art.
Every piece of meat is different. The thickness, fat content, and texture will affect the whole process of smoking.
Every wood type has a unique flavor, and you’ll need to learn how each flavor will play along with your meat taste.
Have you ever thought that the way you burn the smoke wood matters more than the specific type of wood?
Speaking of wood, not only the type of wood that is important. In fact, it matters where the three grew up and lived. The important factors that define the flavor are climate and soil.
In the end, it comes that all that charts explaining which wood is best for a specific type of meat is nothing but a marketing strategy. You’ll have to experiment and taste it yourself!
Remember that learning how to create a good smoke is not an easy thing. It takes some time and practice to master the art of smoking, but it’s not impossible, and it’s the only way to develop your own BBQ style.
The best types of wood for smoking meat
The type of wood matters most when using a classic or old-school wood-burning smoker.
Nowadays, most smokers use charcoal, gas, or electricity as a primary heat source. Simply adding some wood chips is enough to create smoke.
They are a few things you need to consider before choosing a smoke wood:
- The wood needs to be dried for at least six months before use. This way, there is enough moisture left in the wood, and it will produce smoke instead of quickly burning on its own
- Often store-bought smoke wood is completely dried and will burn right away, creating difficulties trying to control the heat and smoke
- You can also choose the freshest pieces of wood available in your area and cut them into small chunks or chips for easier usage. Using wood that has some moisture in it will burn slower and emits less heat, which is great when cooking low and slow
I know we’ve talked a lot about how it is a myth that different types of wood create different smoke flavors. Yet, there are some rules of thumb that we shouldn’t deny.
- Oak – Woods like oak has a mild flavor and will burn even and slow; it’s a great choice for all types of meat, especially when smoking pork
- Hickory – It produces a stronger aroma than the Oak and heavy smoke flavor. This wood is preferred for beef and heartier meat such as ribs, sausage, and bacon
- Mesquite – Mesquite is the strongest flavored of all woods. It burns hot and fast and could also be used as coals when grilling
- Pecan – Strong flavor, better to use for short smoking sessions. If used for long periods of time, the flavor could become overwhelming
- Fruit woods – These wood could be used green, without the need of drying them. The flavor is milder and sweeter than the wood mentioned above
Check our dedicated article and find out which are the best woods for smoking
Woods, we should never use for smoking
Below we have listed the types of wood you should never use for smoking.
- Never use paint-soaked wood or chemically treated lumber for smoking meat
- Never use wood scraps and wood from old or used pellets for smoking because it is almost impossible to tell what kind of wood you are actually using
- Wooden pallets, old flooring, and plywood should not be used for smoking because they can retain toxic chemicals
- If you wish, use cedar when smoking salmon, but only as an additional ingredient, not as a main smoke wood
- Avoid wood covered in fungus or mold because this can be very dangerous for your health. The fungus and mold can release spores and toxins, which could contaminate your meat
- Never use softwoods for smoking meat. The smoke will taste bitter and produce a lot of soot, which might ruin your food. Softwood burns really hot and often contains terpenes, which will make your food taste odd
How to create a “smoke ring”
A smoke ring is a pinkish-red band that appears near the outer edge of a piece of cooked meat. It forms when juices from the meat mingle with the heat and smoke from hardwood. The natural sugars in the meat caramelize as they drip onto the surface, lending to an extremely flavorful crust on your smoked meats.
The smoke ring is an indication that your meat has been properly smoked. It doesn’t give the meat a special flavor or taste, but it’s a sign that you’re using the right technique.
- Always use cold meat at the beginning of the smoking; otherwise, it is impossible to create a smoke ring
- Add the smoking wood while the meat is still cold. The cold meat soaks up smoke better
- Always add the smoking wood when the fire is hot and the charcoal stop smoking
- Keep the meat moist during the smoking process. This way, the juices will stay inside your meat instead of evaporating in the smoke, and we’ll be able to form that pinkish-red color we are looking for
- Use rubs or brines before smoking so that the smoke can penetrate the meat more easily.
- Make sure you have a good thermometer and check the temperature inside the meat. You don’t want to over-cook your meat, because then the smoke ring will vanish
- The first time you make a smoked brisket, it’s usually tough to get that perfect smoke ring. Don’t worry if your efforts fail at first. With practice and patience, you’ll see the results start coming pretty quick
Controversies surrounded by wood
Soaking the wood
Soaking the wood before smoking seems straightforward, but there are a few reasons why it’s not.
Soaking it overnight might seem like a good idea, but the fact is that it won’t get very moist, and most importantly, the moisture will not travel more than a few millimeters into the wood. This moist will evaporate as soon as it hits the heat, so it’s not doing much good.
Also soaked wood creates more of a white rolling smoke instead of thin blue smoke. The white rolling smoke is a result of emulsified moisture in the wood.
After all soaking wood chips might be a good idea because the wood is thin enough, yet, soaking wood chunks is only a waste of time.
Greenwood vs. seasoned wood
On the one hand, we have greenwood, which has a lot of trapped sap and resin, which gives off unpleasant flavors and will produce sharp smoke. We should also say that greenwoods often burn irregularly and could be pretty unpredictable.
On the other hand, the seasoned woods have little to no moisture, and the sap and resin are also removed, and that’s why it burns very cleanly, but it could also be hard to control the temperature. A little bit of moisture could help the wood burn slower and increase the smoke’s flavor. In the end, it’s a matter of which one you prefer.
Bark on or Bark off
Different types of wood have different amounts of bark. The decision to leave or to remove the bark should be made on a case basis.
Some pitmasters remove the bark from the wood, claiming that it doesn’t add that much flavor and just burns way too fast.
Other pitmasters claim that it’s ok to leave the bark on because the flavor comes from the inside of the wood, and the bark gives no effect.
Mixing different wood for a unique flavor
Many people try mixing different types of wood to create a unique flavor. Actually, the effect is quite minimal, and you’ll get better results by using more of one type than mixing it with others.
Before mixing different types of wood, it is better to use them separately to find out which wood you prefer. You could mix different types and get the desired result when you know what to expect from each type of wood and what flavor it brings.
Where to Buy the wood from
You can find smoke wood almost everywhere in nature, where there are trees and plants. Yet, storing it and aging it is a bit harder. To prepare the best flavor for your food, you should make sure that you properly dry it and season it before using it.
For most people, that is not the case. Stores tend to sell wood chips from the lumber industry that are very inexpensive and quite good.
Local BBQ shops – The wood can be bought from a lot of sources. The best thing to do is to find some local places that sell quality wood chips. You can ask around, do some research or simply go and test the different ones you come across until you find something that will satisfy you. The most popular are local BBQ shops, where you could buy cheap fresh or half-dried woods for smoking. The advantage of buying locally is that you could try the samples before you purchase and talk to the salesman.
Amazon – One of the best sources online is Amazon. They have some great offers from different companies that sell high-quality wood chips for smoking. It is important to check the shipping taxes and the price of packing. This will define your final decision.
Basically, all these woods smoke well. The only thing you need to know is how each one affects the flavor of your food. This will help you choose the best type of wood for smoking to get the exact taste you want.
Other Online Shops – Other online shops sell wood as well, but they tend to be more expensive than Amazon. Still, you can look there for better options and deals.
Wood suppliers – By simple google search, you can find local wood suppliers. They can sell you wood in bulk so u can prepare it for smoking. The wood suppliers can also give you information on where the wood was harvested and how old it is. The type of wood you choose is critical if you want to achieve the best results from smoking. The better the quality of smoke, the more flavorful your meat will be.
Scavenge for wood – a good option for those living outside the city or near the forest. When you are out camping or hiking in the woods, keep your eyes open for small dead branches and trees that fell down. You can use such wood for smoking, and it will provide you with a fresh flavor of the forest. Yet, you must be observant about the wood you pick up. You must pay attention to the durability of the wood you are bringing home and ensure that it is properly dried before using it for smoking.
A few Tips When Smoking with Wood
As we mentioned above, smoking meat is an art. And like any art, you need to practice. Most likely, you won’t get perfect smoking the first time around, but after a few attempts, all sorts of things just fall into place.
Keep in mind that everything from your grill set-up (including the smoker) and even what you use to smoke is directly related to how good a final product you end up with. Feel free to experiment with different woods. It doesn’t hurt to even soak the wood with your favored wine or beer before you place it on the fire to smoke.
So let’s get to the point here, how can you improve your smoking? There are several things you need to consider before purchasing wood chips for smoking:
Get the smoke from the smoke wood – While it seems obvious, many BBQ enthusiasts mistake adding the smoke wood while the charcoal is still smoking and not burning well. The smoke from the charcoal has nothing to do with the smoke from the wood and could ruin the taste of your food. Lastly, if your wood catches fire, don’t worry. It will produce clean and thin smoke, always better than the white smoke from incomplete burning.
Store the wood outside – Most people store their smoke wood indoors since it is easier to do so. You should consider storing your wood outside so it won’t completely dry out. Remember to always store the wood up off the ground. This way, it won’t get contaminated by fungus and mold and won’t rot.
Pick the right wood chunk size – First, you need to consider how wong you are going to smoke. If you use the wood to smoke a whole chicken or ribs, pick some larger chunks or even logs. Otherwise, if smoking just for 20-30 minutes, you can go with smaller pieces like wood chips or pellets.
Always check if the wood smells bad – Don’t use wood that is mildewed or rotten. If you do, your meat will taste bad and can even make you sick if not handled properly during the smoking process. Some molds are toxic, and when burned, these toxins will turn into a gas and be absorbed by the food.
Control the oxygen flow – Grey soot is produced when the charcoal in your smoker is smoldering due to the lack of oxygen. The last thing you want is that soot on your food. The good news is you can always rinse the contained meat and try again. This time try to find the right oxygen flow before bringing back the meat into the smoker. A good thing is to remove the ash from the charcoal. This will let more oxygen, and the coals will burn even.
With practice comes proficiency – It sure is a lot of work to smoke meat, and many people could do it quite well with just a few attempts. So, if you are not getting the results you want the first time around, don’t get discouraged. Just remember that practice makes perfect, and try to go outside the lines.
If you follow the tips listed above, you are sure to get some good results from your smoking projects. You can also check our dedicated article that can provide you with more great tips on smoking meat.
Always use a reliable thermometer – A good thermometer is a must-have when smoking meat. This way, you will be able to measure the temperature of the meat and control it properly. You can use a digital thermometer with a probe, which will attach to the meat you want to smoke. The other option is a Bluetooth thermometer or a dual thermometer that measures both ambient and meat temperatures.
However, no matter which thermometer you decide to use, make sure to clean it after each session since bacteria may reside on your thermometer and contaminate your meat next time around.
Keep your smoker clean – All the residue imposed by smoking will stay in your smoker unless you clean it often. If not cleaned, the residue may burn and ruin the flavor of your meat.
One more reason why you should keep your smoker clean is that during the smoking process, a lot of fat will drip on the bottom of the interior. If this happens to be charcoal briquettes, they can ignite and create a fire inside the smoker.
You can use a smoker cleaner or some water and vinegar to remove the residue.
Use the smoker box properly – If you are using a smoker box on your electric or gas grill, make sure it is placed right above where the heat comes out. If the heat doesn’t hit the box, then it won’t do its job of producing smoke.
Always have a water pail – If you are using some kind of wood for smoking, don’t forget the always keep a bucket filled with water close to your smoker. You will use this in case if something goes wrong. For example, there might be an accident, and your charcoal may catch fire inside the grill or smoker.
For a longer smoke session, use the indirect method – When planning to smoke long, we suggest the low and slow approach. This means that the heat source will be separated from your food. This will let the heat cook your food indirectly, making sure that your meat is tender and juicy. This method also allows you to have better control over the temperature inside the smoker or grill. The offset smokers work at this principle.
For a quicker cook process, use the direct method – This is when you allow the heat to hit your food directly. The most obvious advantage of this technique is that it will be much faster compared to the indirect method. However, you won’t have absolute control of the temperature inside your smoker or grill. The direct approach is used when the meat has a good thickness and is well marbled with fat.
All the gear you need
When planning to use wood as the main fuel source for a barbecue or smoker, you need to get an array of items to complete your smoking gear. These include:
Firewood rack – this is the place where you store your firewood. Using a rack to prepare and keep the wood handy makes transferring it easy. You need one that will hold your desired quantity of wood without breaking it down under its weight. This means using one made from either stainless steel or wood.
Good quality racks come with a cover, which protects the wood from the weather while keeping off animals.
The size of the rack should be according to the amount of wood you need. Before buying, you need to consider how often you need to smoke meat and what is the amount of wood you need to smoke per session.
Axe – when getting bigger woods for smoking, you’ll need an axe to chop them. Chopping is done so that the wood can fit easily into the burner. You can find a wide range of axes at Friskas. They offer a lifetime warranty for their products. Also, these axes come in different sizes, so no matter how tall or short you are, you will find one that’s best for you.
Friskas has developed a special design for their axe head, so the chances it to stuck into the wood log are minimal.
Work gloves – When working with wood, you must protect your hands. A good pair of industrial gloves is an important investment to avoid fire and burn injuries. Olson Deepak Gloves are made of cowhide leather and are popular for their flexibility. Yet, they might be a bit stiff initially, but the more you use them, the softer they will get.
Metal scoop – Cleaning the ash from your smoker is one of the chores you need to perform while using your smoker. You can use a metal scoop to move the ash easily and without much exertion. Grabbin Ash Pan is made in the USA of heavy-grade steel and is a great option to consider. A strong and adequately designed scoop will be able to serve you for a long time and help you do the cleaning without expending too much of your energy.
Firestarter or grill lighter – if you are smoking using wood or charcoal, you may need a fire starter to ignite the wood. Firestarters are available at most stores selling barbecuing materials, and they come with different designs, sizes, and prices. We do not recommend using lighter fluid in your smoker, as this can affect the quality of the smoked meat. If you seek deeper knowledge of that topic, check our dedicated article about how to start charcoal without lighter fluid.
Well, even if we covered a lot about this topic, we are aware that there is still much to learn when it comes to smoking meat. However, this guide will give you a head start and save you hours of trial and error, as well as help you become comfortable with the process of smoking your meat.
We hope this article will prove to be useful. We would love to hear from you, so leave a comment below, and share your thoughts with other readers and us.