How to Choose the Perfect Wood for Smoking Meat

Wood being prepared for a barbecue. When you get the chance to enjoy a piece of expertly smoked meat, you quickly realize what you’re eating right in the very moment is unlike anything else in the culinary world. The complex flavors present in the meat are ones you will not obtain from any other cooking method. Even spices known for adding a smoky taste to food such as paprika cannot recreate the type of flavor you can get from outdoor grilling for an extended period of time.

But why does smoked meat taste so good? More importantly, why does smoked meat taste so different?

Those are just some of the questions we’ll be answering. Later on, we will also discuss the different types of wood used for smoking meat. You can also expect to learn more about which type of wood you should be using to smoke specific types of meat.

Without further ado, let us learn more about smoking and how it affects food.

The Fundamentals of the Smoking Process

To get started, let’s first turn our attention to the composition of wood. Wood is made up of different fundamental components. Among these components are cellulose and hemicellulose. They are made up of various carbohydrates and sugars. You can also see the component known as lignin in the wood. Lignin is a component found along the cell walls of wood. It is also the component responsible for giving the wood strength and it accounts for a lot of the wood’s weight. Other components present in wood include carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, among several other molecules.

Then there are the minerals found in wood. Examples of minerals in wood are chlorine, potassium, and sulfur, just to name a few. These minerals are also considered as the secondary properties of wood. What’s important to highlight here is they have a huge impact on the aroma that comes from the wood when it is burned. That aroma then translates into a distinct type of smoky flavor, which permeates whatever meat you’re cooking. Because the minerals present in wood vary from one type to the next, the smoky flavors ending up in your food also change noticeably.

Does the Type of Wood Affect the Flavor You Get from Smoking Meat?

As noted above, mineral content plays a huge role in determining what kind of aroma wood produces once it is burned. But why is this, you ask? It is mainly because of the components known as guaiacol and syringol. Guaiacol impacts the type of taste imparted by the smoke, while syringol affects the scent of the smoke. It’s also important to note here the chemical makeup of the wood you use for smoking will influence what kind of smoke it ultimately produces. Factors such as combustion, humidity, and oxygen levels will also affect what kind of smoke you will ultimately get, whether you use a vertical smoker or a reverse flow smoker.

For now, let’s focus on how your choice of wood affects the flavor and aroma of the smoke.

Here is where we now have to clear a few things up when it comes to how much of an impact the type of wood you select can have on the final flavor of your food. First off, the type of wood you put in your offset smoker ultimately decide to use is far from the only factor to determine the specific smoky flavor that will be present on the meat. Other characteristics of the wood, such as the climate where it was grown, how well it was dried, and even the amount of bark on it, can also affect the smoky flavor it produces.

On top of this, other factors unrelated to the wood can also have a say in what kind of smoky flavor you receive. This can even include the charcoal used for grilling the meat. The cut and the type of meat also matter when it comes to determining flavor, and the same goes for how long you smoke the meat. Don’t forget that the spices and/or marinades you use for the meat are also going to change its flavor profile.

So, does the type of wood you use have no impact whatsoever on the smoky flavor you achieve? That’s not an accurate thing to say either.

The best way to think about this matter is to treat your wood choice as a piece of a puzzle. On its own, the wood will not do enough to register anything noticeable, but combined with other elements, you’ll suddenly start to see the whole thing come together. Put all the pieces in the right place and you can smoke one delicious piece of meat. In other words, the type of wood you opt to use for smoking is not the most important factor for you to consider, but it will make a difference.

What Are the Different Types of Wood for Smoking?

Wood and fire being prepared. You can separate smoking woods into different categories. They can be categorized in terms of their size, their shape, and even their hardness. The amount of bark present on wood can also be used as a differentiator, although you will want to use pieces of wood with little to no bark more often than not. Generally speaking though, smoking wood is classified by the intensity of flavor it infuses into a piece of meat.

Wood types fall into one of three categories, with those being mild, moderate, and strong. Let’s further detail what these categories are.

Mild Woods

Pieces of wood from fruit-bearing trees are the ones most often categorized as mild woods. Specific examples of wood considered mild include apple, cherry, peach, and pear. As the category name suggests, the milder types of wood don’t give off a very pungent aroma or a strong flavor. They work more like background noises to complement the flavor of the meat as a whole. It’s a good idea to use a mild type of wood if you’re still new to smoking and you just want to get a preview of the smoky flavor.

Let’s now discuss the other characteristics of the specific mild woods.

Apple

Apple wood is known for having a slightly sweet flavor, but you may end up liking its fruity hints more.

Cherry

Cherry wood has a flavor profile very similar to apple wood. If you were a fan of the former, then you will probably have no issues using this type of wood in your food preparations as well.

Peach

Peach doesn’t differ much from the other types of wood that we’ve already highlighted, but it does pair better with a specific type of meat.

Pear

The same qualities characterizing the taste of peach wood smoke are also found in pear wood. You can swap these two types of wood for one another and achieve the same flavors.

Moderate Woods

A step up from mild woods are the moderate woods. You can get a stronger smoky flavor from woods classified as moderate, but the key here is the flavor remains a complementary piece. The flavor of the meat, the spices and other flavorings you use will still stand out more than the smoky taste.

Examples of moderate woods you can pick up for cooking are hickory, maple, oak, and pecan.

Hickory

Many pitmasters prefer using hickory wood for smoking their meat and the reason why is simple. Hickory wood imparts a flavor loved by many. The flavor of hickory smoke is on the stronger side, so it doesn’t pair well with everything. However, when used correctly, this type of smoky flavor can add a whole new dimension to your smoked meats.

Maple

Maple wood smoke is stronger than what you’ll get from most fruit woods, but it does not completely take over the identity of a smoked meat. Depending on what you’re after, that can be a very good quality. The smoke from maple wood also possesses a tinge of sweetness.

Oak

On its own, the smoky flavor you’re getting from oak wood is not very distinctive. The great thing about oak is it plays well with other types of wood. If you want to try blending wood pellets together, oak is something you should consider using.

Pecan

Pecan wood possesses qualities very reminiscent of maple wood. The biggest differentiator between them is the hint of sweetness is missing. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is up to you.

Strong Wood

You may have noticed I dropped the “s” from the woods this time, and that’s because there is only one type of wood known for imparting a strong combination flavor and aroma, which is mesquite. Mesquite is very strong and it can overpower the spices and other flavoring agents you use in the meat. You also have to be careful when you use mesquite because it can easily produce a bitter flavor, which can ruin whatever it is you’re cooking. If you manage to work properly with mesquite though, the earthy notes can transform an otherwise unremarkable cut of meat into something you’ll always remember eating.

What Wood and Meat Pairings Make Sense?

Sliced meat on a cutting board. Now that we know more about the different flavors coming from the types of wood used for smoking, let’s take things a step further. This next section is going to focus on wood and meat pairings. I hesitate to say these are the best wood and meat pairings because personal preferences still have to come into play, but you can refer to these if you are still a beginner trying to gain a better grasp on smoking. Let’s begin by identifying the pairings for mild wood variants.

Mild Wood Pairings

A good rule of thumb to follow for meat and wood pairings is if the fruit coming from that tree works well with the meat you want to cook, then chances are they will also make for a sensible smoke pairing. For this reason, I would recommend using apple, peach, and pear woods along with pork. The sweetness coming from those wood variants work nicely with the richness of the pork to create a more luscious flavor. If you want to get more uses out of peach and pear woods, you can also smoke poultry with them.

Apple is one of the most versatile smoking woods available. Along with pork and poultry, apple wood smoke still complements beef, lamb, and even certain types of seafood. Cherry wood is also versatile in the sense it can be paired together with just about any type of meat, but it can get lost if the cut of meat you’re using has a stronger inherent flavor.

Moderate Wood Pairings

Oak is similar to apple and cherry in the sense it will still produce a fine flavor regardless of which meat you use it for. Consider it a go-to option if you want to impart a smoky flavor on any kind of meat.

Pecan is at its best when you use it for smoking poultry, but it can still serve as a good partner for other types of meat in a pinch.

Maple wood smoke has that right amount of sweetness to bring out the best in poultry. What really sets it apart is it can continue to be a good pairing for vegetables. If you want to cook something lighter, you will want to use maple wood.

Hickory is not as versatile as the other wood variants already mentioned, but you will struggle to find something to works as well as this does with pork. As much as possible, you should use hickory whenever you’re preparing pork.

Strong Wood Pairings

Seafood and poultry will not work with mesquite. More often than not, the more subtle flavors of those meats will not be able to hold up to the robust flavor presented by this type of wood. I would recommend only using mesquite if you are going to smoke beef or the darker and fattier cuts of pork. That way, the earthy flavor coming from mesquite will not completely overpower everything.

A Few Final Reminders

Wood and fire in a barbecue. First off, you should always make sure the wood you’re using is safe for cooking. Some types of wood have been treated with chemicals and you don’t want any of that in your food. You should also refrain from using softer woods for smoking. Even if they won’t render your food inedible, they can still leave behind an unpleasant flavor. Always make sure to clean your smoker grill with a grill cleaner and grill brush before you start cooking. Your BBQ gloves can also added extra safety.

The choice of wood you use for smoking is not the only factor determining whether your food turns out great or not. As you become more experienced with smoking, you will observe the subtle differences can have a tangible impact on your food.