Best rules for smoking meat- a guide to hardwoods

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A little knowledge goes a long way when selecting hardwoods for meat smoking.

A little knowledge goes a long way when selecting hardwoods for meat smoking.

We’re often asked about the best wood for smoking meat.  We often answer that it depends on what you prefer.  Different woods impart different flavors, and there are no hard and fast rules.   This guide explains the basic characteristics of woods commonly used for meat smoking.  If you’re starting from scratch or you are thinking about how to expand your meat smoking repertoire it will be a handy reference.  Of course, uniqueness and perfection can only be found through experimentation.  You might even keep … ahem …  a log of your results.  You can do this very easily with the highly-recommended Pit Pal BBQ App.

The Basic Rules of Using Hardwoods for Smoking Meat

The rule of thumb is to use “heavier” hardwoods like oak and hickory for smoking “heavier” meats like beef and pork. Use “lighter” hardwoods like alder, maple, fruit and nut-bearing woods for smoking “lighter” meats like poultry and fish. 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.

NOT THE BEST WOOD FOR SMOKING MEAT: Never use softwoods like pine and cedar. They are too resinous and will ruin your meat and your smoker.  

 

The Heavy Woods
Oak:    The mighty oak tree has long stood for strength and endurance.  There are few better woods with which to start your meat smoking adventures.

Smoke Characteristics: Medium to heavy flavor, but seldom overpowering
Burn Characteristics: Hot and slow
Best Used When Smoking: Lamb and beef, brisket and sausages.
Says the Pit Boss: 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!  

Hickory:  Hickory is a hardworking, everyday hardwood, and as such, hickory can be used to smoke meat in many, many ways.

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.
Says the Pit Boss: Start small and build. Too much hickory smoke can cause your smoked meat to have a bitter flavor.

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 birds.
Says the Pit Boss:  Sugar Maple, as you may have guessed, is the sweetest of the heavy woods.

Mesquite:  Mesquite is the Walker Texas Ranger of hardwoods. Not only is mesquite native to Texas, but it’s 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.  Also great for adding flavor when grilling.
Says the Pit Boss: Mesquite doesn’t put its taproot through the desert hardpan…The hardpan gets out of the way.

The Light Woods
Pecan:  Did you know that the Pecan was the state tree of Texas?  Neither did we.   Add Pecan wood to the fire when you want a sweet, rich, nutty character.

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
Says the Pit Boss: A friend of mine once roasted a brisket using Pecan-only and the result was a ten pound piece of meat that was too sweet to eat. It’s better to mix Pecan with some heartier woods like Oak, Hickory or Mesquite.

Apple:  Apple wood is mild, fruity, sweet and mellow.  Use apple wood when smoking chicken, quail, pork and poultry and rest assured that you’re using its powers for good and not for evil.

Smoke Characteristics: Light, mild, fruity, slightly sweet
Burn Characteristics: Hot and slow
Best Used When Smoking: Chicken, quail, pork and poultry
Says the Pit Boss: Use apple wood sooner rather than later, the light character of Apple smoke takes several hours to permeate the food.

Alder:  Alder smoke is lighter and sweeter than you’d think. It’s good for smoking fish, and for playing some tasty licks on your Fender Stratocaster (also made from Alder) when you’re done.

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.
Says the Pit Boss: Hendrix made the ‘Strat famous.  Use alder on your smoked salmon and you’ll become famous too.

Peach:  Peach is a regional specialty wood that is near and dear to the Pit Boss’ Georgia roots. 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.
Says the Pit Boss: Fresh is better!  Peach wood (and plum wood for that matter) tend to lose their flavor shortly after being cut.

Cherry:  Did George Washington feel a primal chill when he took his hatchet to his father’s Cherry tree? Maybe. Did he do the right thing by owning up to it? Yes he did. 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.
Says the Pit Boss: Mix your Cherry with with oak or alder or hickory. When it’s done just serve and get out of the way.
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