There is nothing like the taste and aroma of well-smoked meat. The list of people who would honestly disagree with this statement would be shorter than the list of full-time professional musicians who have been elected President of the US. It is an ancient art, developed in prehistoric times, and appeals to the caveman and cavewoman that lives in all of us.
It may seem like magic to the uninitiated, but it’s really not that difficult to become a master smoker. It just takes a lot of practice, and knowing some tricks. In this article, I will share with you my 40+ years as a dedicated smoker, chef, and grillmaster, I will be keying on one of the most important aspects of smoking, which is the choice of smoke wood. This will determine what your finished product will be like.
A Little History…
The first ‘official’ record of anyone smoking meat was when the first Spanish explorers sailed through the Caribbean and watched the indigenous Native American tribes placing meat on hangers near smoldering fires (Don’t you love it when someone says they ‘discovered’ something, even though there were already people there..?)… Needless to say, one bite, and they were hooked, and I’m sure many sailors and soldiers thought that this was way better than fighting all the time, and looking for El Dorado… They brought the knowledge back to Europe, and it quickly spread world-wide.
But the credit really does not belong to the Spanish. Humans were smoking meat way before recorded history, as far back as when hunter-gathers moved from a nomadic existence, to establishing semi-permanent homes. They figured out, probably by accidentally leaving raw meat close to a soldering fire, that not only is smoked meat incredibly delicious, but it also preserved the meat. Since humans beings are incapable of not sharing really cool things with each other, the word got out, and soon, all of our neolithic ancestors were chowing-down on mastodon jerky and mammoth ribs. Just about every ‘primitive’ culture has a history of smoking food.
Over time, with lots of experimentation, they figured out which woods worked best with what meats and veggies. Smoking has had a long development, so it’s a good bet that we have it figured out by now.
Wood Is Good…Well, Maybe Not All Wood!
Most hardwoods are OK to use as a smoke wood, or at least they won’t kill you. Softwoods such as pine, spruce, conifers, cedar, evergreens, etc… should never be used for smoke wood. Their sap contains harmful chemicals, and besides, they would taste like turpentine. Most fruits work OK, and some are outstanding. Nut-wood trees like pecan, and hickory are also good. A good rule of thumb is that if the tree doesn’t smell like good food, it won’t create good food. You can safely smoke meat with ash as a smoke wood, but your turkey will taste like a Louisville Slugger… Some people like using oak, but I’ve always found it makes my brisket taste like a set of dresser drawers. A little common-sense goes a long way… You can even mix woods for unique flavors and aromas. I love to cold-smoke fish with a combination of mesquite, and apple, or cherry wood.
My Picks: The 46 Best Woods To Smoke
Here is a list of some of the more common woods that can be used for smoking. Of course, there could be other woods that would work. It was not possible to list all wood varieties here due to space and time constraints. A good rule of thumb is that if the wood does not smell like it would taste good, it probably won’t.
Acacia – similar to mesquite, but a little lighter in flavor. Good for most foods, especially beef and poultry.
Alder – musky and sweet, alder works with most foods, especially game meats, upland birds, fish and seafood. Alder is the traditional wood that Northwest Native Americans use to smoke salmon.
Almond – one of my favorites. Sweet, smokey, and a little nutty. Almond wood works with anything you can imagine. It would probably even make roadkill (Tennessee Pizza) taste good….
Apple – a little sweet and very fruity, apple wood is the strongest tasting of all the fruitwoods. It works with just about everything, especially game birds, pork and ham. It’s not commonly done, but I use a blend of hickory and apple wood when I smoke carp….outstanding.
Apricot – similar to hickory, but a little milder and sweeter. Like hickory, it works with everything, period. It is especially good for smoking cheese.
Ash – general woody taste and smell. I never use it, but I know people who do. If you decide to try it, be advised that ash burns fast and hot, so use it sparingly and refresh it often. Probably best when mixed with other woods. To me, it makes the food taste like it was prepared in a sawmill. Others make disagree…Vive la difference….
Avocado – I ahem never used it, but I know some people in California who do, and they say it imparts a floral, olive-oily character with a mild smoky finish. Ill have to take their word for it, because it is not available in Georgia or Tennessee.
Bay – mild floral with overtones of cinnamon, nutmeg, and other spices. Wonderful with fish or poultry.
Beech – like oak, just a mild, generic woodsy smell and taste. Works with everything.
Birch – very similar to maple, only a bit milder. Outstanding with fish, pork, and poultry.
Blackberry – sweet, mild, and fruity. One of the best woods for small game birds like quail, doves, grouse, or even Cornish Hens and Heritage turkeys.
Butternut – like walnut, very strong and can be bitter. Best used with other smoke woods to enhance there properties.
Carrotwood – generic outdoorsy taste and smell. Mild. Works with everything.
Cherry – sweet and wonderfully fruity. One of the best for whole chickens or turkeys, but it will turn the skins dark brown. It will give light meats a rosy tint. Incredible with rabbit and squirrels. It also works good with opossum.
Chestnut – sweet and nutty. Great with ham, pork loins and poultry.
Corncobs – generic sweet aroma and taste. Use by themselves, they can overpower your food. Best used with other woods such as beech, ash, etc…, to sweeten them up a bit.
Cottonwood – not suitable for smoking, but can be used as fuel. Has no flavor, and green cottonwoods can be toxic.
Crabapple – very similar to apple, but puts out tons of smoke. Very rich and fruity. My 1st choice for turkeys.
Fig – fruity and mild. Great for ribs, pork loins, Boston Buts, etc…
Fruitwood – sweet and rich. Perfect for BBQ.
Grapefruit – mild and smokey. Great for when you want less of an in-your-face smoky flavor than hickory, but still want some smoke.
Grapevines – sweet, fruity, and milder than hickory. Wonderful for all white meats.
Guava – floral and fruity. Very similar to apple and can be used the same way.
Hickory – the absolute, undisputed King of Smoke Woods. Strong, smokey and sweet. The only smoke wood to use for making bacon or hams. Hickory is so strong that it can get bitter, so you should soak your hickory chips in water for a few hours before using them, to tame them down a little. You can also mix it with other smoke woods, like apple, or maple, for unlimited taste combinations. One of my favorites is 50/50 hickory and maple, or hickory and cranberry.
Oak Whiskey Barrel Staves – the only time you will read about me recommending used wood for smoking, This is the exception to the rule. Distilleries like Jack Daniels, and others, will sell you the oak staves from barrels used to age whiskey in. They make an unequaled, strong, very sweet and aromatic smoke that cannot be achieved by any other means. You food will be sweet, very smokey with a pronounced floral, whisky-is finish. The very best for BBQ, beef, pork and poultry. I get mine from a local distillery.
Kiawe – pretty much just Hawaiian mesquite, and can be used the same as mesquite. Not widely available outside Hawaii.
Lemon – sweet, fruity and citrusy. Outstanding with poultry.
Lilac – mild, sweet and very floral. One of my favorites for fish, seafood, sheep, and goat.
Lime – similar to lemon, only a bit strong and more limey. Use like lemon. Great on pork, and both lemon and lime can be mixed with other woods.
Maple – sweet, smokey, and as you might guess, a little ‘maple-y’. Great with poultry, especially turkey, game birds, and pork. Also makes great bacon when mixed with hickory.
Mesquite – sweet, smokey and earthy. Second in popularity only to hickory, this is the wood to use for Texas BBQ, beef and chicken.
Mulberry – sweet, with a mild tangy berry finish.
Nectarine – very similar to hickory, only more mild, and sweeter.
Oak – Generic woodsy smell and taste. Nothing to brag about.
Olive – very similar to mesquite, only somewhat lighter. Great for poultry.
Orange – distinct tangy, citrusy smoke. Turns food a beautiful gold color. Good for pork, poultry and beef.
Peach – similar to hickory, only much milder. Works with everything.
Pear – similar to apple, only a little milder and sweeter. Especially good with poultry, game birds and pork.
Pecan – similar to hickory, only milder, sweeter, with a unique character. One of the best woods for turkey. You can also toss the pecan shells in.
Persimmon – mild generic smoke flavor and aroma. Works with everything.
Pimento – A great unique smoke with a nice peppery finish, and overtones of cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice. The wood to use for Jerked chicken or beef, and is unbelievable when used to smoke fish and seafood. Also great for cold-smoking cheeses.
Plum – similar to hickory, only milder and sweeter. Works with everything.
Sassafras – if you love real root beer, then this is your wood. Has a nice, sweet, musky taste and aroma with a mild root beer-like finish. Wonderful with beef, pork and poultry.
Seaweed – spicy, with the flavor of the ocean. Traditional for smoking seafood, fish and shellfish. Make sure it is thoroughly washed, and well-soaked in clean water before use.
Walnut – similar to hickory, only stronger and more intense. Used alone, it will make your food bitter. Best used with other, milder woods.
Safety First: 5 Woods you MUST Avoid Burning
- Never use wood from conifer trees like pine, spruce, fir, cedar, redwoods, cypress, Sweetgum, eucalyptus, elm, sycamore, or any tree that makes liquid amber. They contain toxins that can make you very sick.
- Never use wood that has been painted, or stained, for obvious reasons.
- Never use any wood that has been used to make anything (except whiskey or rum barrels), because it most likely has been treated with harmful chemicals.
- Never use wood from old pallets. They could have had hazardous materials stacked on them.
- Never use any wood that appears to have mld or fungus on it. Some species of fungus and molds are deadly.
Extra Smoking Tips
For best results, you need a good smoker. Check out my articles on smokers on TastyMeat for advice on buying or building a smoker. Whatever kind you use, start your fire well ahead of when you plan to cook, and let it burn to coals. Then place your smoke wood chips, chunks of pellets on the fire. Using a smokebox, or wrapping them in foil will help to make them shoulder better, rather than just burn up. Some people also like to soak their smoke wood, which is also OK. I have a product I use all the time for smoking called the “A Maze N smoker” tray. It is a metal mesh tray that is divided like a maze. You pack it with wood pellets, or small chips, light one end of it, and it smolders like a fuse, for around 8 to 10 hours. It really cuts down on the time you have mess with the smoke woods.
The main thing to remember about smoking is go low and slow. Anything over 275ºF is not smoking…it’s cooking. My general rule for smoking times is 30 minutes per pound, no matter what it is. But you should really go by internal temperature rather than time. You food is ready when it has reached an internal temperature of at least 160ºF, unless you are cold smoking.
If you have never tried cold smoking, you’ve been missing something great. For cold smoking, you really need a horizontal offset smoker, or an electric smoker. First, you cure your meat, except for cheeses. Curing is similar to brining, which you should always do to anything you plan to smoke. However, curing uses only dry ingredients. A good basic cure for fish, seafood, and shellfish is simply to coat the pieces with equal amounts of salt and sugar, then chill them for 24 hours before smoking. Rinse the cure off completely before smoking. Pat the pieces dry. The food should now have a shiny, silky appearance.
To cold smoke, you start a low fire in the smoke box, place your smoke wood on top and let the smoker fill with smoke. In the main compartment, you place your fish, seafood or cheese on a rack on top of a tray filled with ice, and place the whole thing in the smoker. Change the ice as often as necessary. Make sure the temperature in the main compartment stays at around 55ºF to 68ºF. Smoke the food for 12 to 24 hours. Let the food set in the refrigerator for at least another 12 to 24 hours before serving. Now you know how to make your own smoked salmon and smoked cheeses. And your homemade products will be superior to the store-bought varieties.