There’s a whole science behind smoking. You might think you know it all once you figure out how to prepare a certain dish but you’ve barely scratched the surface. There’s so much more to a perfect meal than seasoning or barbeque sauce. In fact, choosing the right type of wood makes a big difference. Surely you’ve seen how many different choices of wood there are on the market.

You’ve got wood chips, chunks, pellets, even whole logs! Once you choose the shape, now you only need to choose the right type of flavor that will go well along with the type of meat you’re smoking. 

It’s important to keep in mind that the science of smoking wood isn’t exactly black and white. There are so many varieties and, in order to find which one works for you, you’ll have to go through a long trial period. We can’t tell you what would be your best option, but we can give you necessary information to make your first choices a bit easier.

Main Kinds of Smoke Wood

Basically, you should always use cured hardwoods for smoking. Cured means it’s dried for 6 to 12 months – the drying period depends on your climate. There’s a never-ending list of different kinds of wood people use for smoking. People use everything from Walnut and Apple to Lemon and Guava. Here’s a list of most used woods for smoking, and those you’re more likely to find in your BBQ store. 

Alder

This is a mild wood with a gentle touch of sweetness to it. It’s a traditional choice of wood in the Northwest and it’s great for delicate food, since it doesn’t overwhelm the taste of the meat. You won’t go wrong choosing Alder for white meat, vegetables and seafood, since it will give a subtle, sweet aroma and a nice amount of smoke.

Apple 

Apple is a classic BBQ choice. It’s one of those woods that go well with just about anything. This type of wood gives a mild, fruity aroma to the meat that works great for both red meat and poultry. 

Cherry

This is the second most popular fruitwood. Cherry is mild and sweet, but it also gives a tinge of bitterness. Like Apple, it goes well with all kinds of food, but it works the best with red meat. It also gives a nice smoke ring to the meat and it darkens it during the cooking process. If you want to reduce the darkening of the meat, mix it with lighter wood like Amber.

Hickory 

A lot of people would describe the flavor Hickory gives as “bacon-like.” It’s a good choice for red meat and it creates a nice smoke. It’s actually one of the most commonly used hardwoods.

Lilac 

This is quite an interesting choice of wood. It creates a subtle, floral aroma that’s best for delicate food like fish and chicken. It can work great for smoking cheese too. 

Maple

This is another type of wood that gives a mild, sweet and smoky flavor as well as a nice brown color. It’s a bit stronger than Cherry or Apple, but it works wonders with tender meat like chicken breasts or turkey. Some people also find it great for smoking cheese.

Mesquite

BBQ enthusiasts will say this is not a type of wood for beginners. It has such a strong earthy flavor that, if you’re not careful, will overpower the taste of food, making it too bitter. For inexperienced users, Mesquite might be a better choice for grilling rather than smoking food. However, it gives a beautiful, unique aroma to rich meats like lamb and duck. 

Oak

This is also a very popular choice of wood. It gives a mild flavor that leaves no aftertaste. This type of wood works well with different kinds of food and it creates a medium smoke and a nice dark color. Oak is often combined with other types of wood like Apple or Hickory, in order to intensify the flavor. 

Orange 

Like other fruitwood, Orange gives a light, fruity aroma that’s a bit tangy and goes well with white meat and pork. It also produces a bit more smoke than Apple or Cherry. Orange gives the meat a nice golden color that makes it look as good as it tastes.

Pecan 

Pecan is one of the go-to nutwood choices. It gives a mild, nutty flavor that’s also a bit smoky and spicy. Basically, it’s a subtle version of Hickory. Pecan is perfect for food with short cooking time, since the aroma takes in rather quickly. 

Walnut 

If we say Pecan is Hickory’s younger brother, then Walnut would be his big bro. It’s very intense and gets bitter rather quickly. It’s often mixed with lighter wood such as Apple or Almond. Walnut is not recommended for tender meat like poultry.

Types of Wood

There are two ways to use woods for barbecue. First, it can be used as a main source of fuel. Firing up the wood produces heat while also giving the meat a smoky flavor. Pellets and logs are those kinds of woods.

Another way to use wood is as a source of smoky flavor. In this case, another type of fuel is used to provide the heat, mainly charcoal and gas. We can do this by adding, let’s say, wood chunks to coals.

Here’s a list of different types of wood and what they’re used for.

Logs 

Logs are mainly used for Lang smokers, or otherwise called stick burners. This type of smoker burns wood in the firebox on one side of the unit, while the heat circulates around the meat in the main cooking chamber. Logs are supposed to burn down to ember before you start cooking. This type of wood is also used for pizza ovens. They aren’t good for anything else since they are unpredictable; you can get too much smoke or uneven heat areas.

Chunks

Chunks are wood pieces that are up to 4-inches large. These can be used for different types of smokers, and mainly serve as a flavor enhancer. Basically, you place chunks just above the charcoal, and they slowly release a flavored smoke. These burn low and slow – add them at the beginning of cooking and you’re set. Chunks are one of your best bets for flavor enhancers. 

Chips

These are typically around ¼ inches thick and up to 1 inch long and wide. They’re mostly used for gas and electric grills, but some people use them on charcoal too. They work similar to chunks, but they burn down much faster, and you’ll probably have to replace them during longer smoking sessions. 

Sawdust 

This is a wood that’s ground down into a coarse powder. It’s used for electric smokers and it basically creates an instant smoke.

Pellets

This type of smoking wood is made out of compressed sawdust that’s heated and squeezed together. It reminds of chicken feed in size and shape. These are made specifically for pellet smokers, but can also be used for under grate smoking boxes and pizza ovens. Pellets burn for a long time and they produce only a little bit of ash.  Plus, they work as both fuel and flavor enhancers and come in a great variety of flavors. 

Disks 

This is another type of compressed sawdust, shaped into a flat disk. These are used for electric smokers. 

Wood You Should Never Use for Smoking

Some of these things might be self-explanatory, but we feel we should mention them anyway. First – never use wood that’s painted or chemically treated in any way. Forget about old fences and pieces of backyard furniture. The paint used on these is most likely not safe to use with fire, and can be poisonous.

The same thing goes for wood covered in mold and fungus. These also release toxins when in contact with fire.

When it comes to using wood with bark, opinions are divided. Some BBQ enthusiasts will claim that bark creates an odd flavor and a different type of smoke. Others will say they haven’t noticed a difference smoking with or without bark. This is probably something you should try out for yourself.

Refrain from using softwoods too. These are sappy and can cause an awkward taste. Basically, we advise you to stick to hardwoods.

Soaking Wood

Chunks shouldn’t be soaked. This can cause them to not create smoke at all. Chips, however, need to be soaked. Otherwise, they’ll burn up in no time. We’d advise you to use hot water for soaking. Wood works just like our skin. Warm water opens up the pores, and this will allow the wood to absorb more water. The more soaked they are, the more they will last when fired up. 

Keep in mind though that, no matter how much you soak your chips, or for how long, they will never last as long as wood chunks. Usually, chips need to be added multiple times throughout the cooking process. Refilling them requires opening the grill and releasing the heat, which results in an even longer cooking period. 

Final Thoughts

You might be overwhelmed by the amount of information you’ve read about different wood for smoking and we can’t blame you. The choices are infinite and there aren’t many wrong answers. You simply have to try out a lot of combinations until you find out what works the best for you.