BBQ Smoking Wood – The Complete Guide

Choosing the correct BBQ smoking wood for certain meats can be a bit of a minefield. This complete guide will give you all the information you need to choose the right wood for each meat, to get the best flavor out of your BBQ.

You will meet BBQ enthusiasts that are obsessive about certain woods being used on certain meats, and while they are right, it is as with everything on a BBQ down to your own personal taste preferences. Because my guide will tell you that applewood goes well with pork it doesn’t mean you can’t use it with beef, it’s just the taste notes from the applewood complement pork best. Note this article does not refer to wood chunks or wood chips just the wood in general.

The BBQ smoking woods

Hickory

Hickory is described as having a hearty flavor. It is quite sweet has a nutty taste to it, so really brings out the best in pork. Can also be used with red meats but other woods work better. You do need to be careful with Hickory as it can bring quite a bitter taste when overused. Hickory burns very clean and is quite a slow-burning wood, it works very well on larger cuts of pork with longer cooking times.

Hickory wood flavor works the best with:

  • Pork
  • Poultry
  • Red meat

Cherry

Cherry is one of the universal fruit bbq smoking woods. Cherry produces quite a dark-colored skin on poultry which can be alarming but it is just the nature of using cherry. On large cuts of brisket, it’s found that cherry brings a darker red smoke ring which is visually appealing. Cherry woods flavor is very mild like other fruitwoods it is not a strong flavor however packs a sweet and fruity flavor.

Cherry wood works with:

  • Pork
  • Beef
  • Poultry
  • Fish
  • Game

Mesquite

Mesquite wood is known for its unique intense flavor. It requires a delicate hand and for this reason, it is not recommended for beginners, it requires a bit of skill not to overpack your meat with this strong flavor. Mesquite is the go-to BBQ smoking wood for most BBQ restaurants all over the world for its sweet and smoky taste. Large Briskets work extremely well with Mesquite as the meat is large enough to soak in the strong flavor without it becoming overbearing.

Mesquite goes well with:

  • Red Meat 
  • Beef

Olive

Olive wood has a very similar sweet, smoky flavor to Mesquite but with a lot less strength. Olive wood compliments Mediterranean meat dishes and the spices used.

  • Poultry
  • Game
  • Lamb
  • Fish

Pecan

Pecan has a similar nutty flavor of Oak crossed with Hickory. Pecan is a match made in heaven for injecting flavor into Poultry because it is not a heavy smoke. Pecan burns quickly and is sometimes added with Oak for a heavier smoke to penetrate beef. Pecan wood is not sweet so if you want to add a bit of sweetness to your BBQ you can mix it with fruitwood such as apple or cherry.

Pecan suits:

  • Poultry
  • Beef

Maple

Maple has a sweet, mild smoke flavor. There are different variants of Maple which add or improve the taste. Sugar Maple has the sweetest taste and is considered the best of the Maple variants for smoking. Maple burns very hot and very fast and apart from meat works well when smoking vegetables and cheese. Maple when combined with harsh flavored woods is one of the best at bringing a sweet flavor to smoked meat.

Maple wood smokes well with:

  • Pork
  • Poultry
  • Small game birds
  • Vegetables
  • Cheese

Apple

Applewood has a mildly sweet and fruity flavor. The mild flavor from applewood takes a long time to soak into meats so is suited to longer cooking times. The longer smoking times used with applewood do not add an overpowering taste so it can be very forgiving for beginners. Pork ribs and Pork butt respond very well to being smoked with applewood.

Apple wood goes well:

  • Pork
  • Poultry
  • Fish

Beech

Beech Wood is a very mild nutty flavor, although a different flavor it is similar in strength to apple wood. Like applewood, Beech is suitable for beginners in that it is difficult to overpower meats with too much smoke flavor.

Beech wood suits:

  • Pork
  • Beef
  • Poultry
  • Fish

Pear

Pearwood has a sweet flavor much sweeter than apple wood. Its sweet notes mean that it works well with harsher tasting nutty woods such as Hickory to balance out the flavor. It is interchangeable with applewood which means it is very good for smoking beginners.

Pear wood works best with:

  • Poultry
  • Fish
  • Pork

Oak

Oak is a versatile wood for a smoker that goes with most foods. Oakwood has an earthy flavor and gives off heavy smoke, Oaks flavor profile is not quite as strong as mesquite making it a bit more user-friendly.

Oak wood suits: 

  • Lamb
  • Beef
  • Fish
  • Red meat
  • Turkey

Alder

Alder has the earthy taste of Oak but with a subtle sweetness. It is a little less intense than hickory. This makes Alder the best all-rounder suitable for all meats. Cold smoking cheeses are normally done with Alder wood, also Alder planks are the choice wood used to smoke Salmon.

Alder wood suits:

  • Fish
  • Pork
  • Game
  • Red meat
  • Poultry
  • Beef

Which wood give the strongest smoke flavor?

Mesquite gives off the strongest flavor of all the BBQ smoking woods. It is the reason all famous American BBQ restaurants in Texas use this wood only.

Because of the very strong taste, Mesquite is a love it or hate it smoking wood.

Which woods should you not smoke with?

It’s important not to think it’s ok to smoke with some of the woods below as some can be hazardous to your health and under no circumstances should be considered.

  • Any treated woods such as lumber or pallet woods are chemically treated and may contain harmful toxins if used for cooking.
  • Softwoods such as pine, redwood, fir, cypress, spruce, and cedar should be avoided due to the high levels of sap will give off a funny taste when burnt which can make you ill. Cedar planks are used for smoking salmon but they are not directly burnt so do not get this confused.
  • Painted or stained woods from old furniture are not suitable for the same reasons as chemically treated woods have potential harmful toxins that could result in funny tasting food that will make you unwell.
  • Fruit woods from trees used on farms for cider making or fruit juices should be avoided as they may have sprayed chemicals or pesticides onto the trees.
  • Moldy woods should be avoided as mold can release harmful toxins and will also give your meat a bad taste.

What is the best wood for smoking on a bbq?

I’m classing the best BBQ smoking wood as being the most versatile. This being Cherry as it compliments almost everything perfectly without much risk of overpowering your meat. Especially relevant if you are a beginner at smoking meats.

How can you tell if wood is seasoned?

You can tell if the wood is seasoned by the darker color and the dry cracked ends of each log. There will be no green parts of the log still visible, if there is any sign of green then your BBQ smoking wood isn’t ready yet and should stay in the store carrying on with the seasoning process. Read more here.

seasoning wood

How long does wood take to season?

If kept in the correct environment, stored correctly, and in the right climate, it can take around 6 months for wood to correctly age, or ‘season’ as it is referred to. If the climate you are storing the wood in has quite a high moisture level in the air then the seasoning process will take a lot longer.

We touched on this in another post here. You shouldn’t be alarmed if your wood isn’t fully seasoned even after 12 months, it will be ready when it’s ready. It’s not a process that you can hurry along or do much more to speed up other than store correctly.