Best Wood for Smoking (With Comparison Tables)

Best Wood for Smoking (With Comparison Tables)

Not all wood is suitable for smoking food. Some woods release a pungent smoke that will turn the food bitter. While other woods can create a subtle sweet flavor.

So it’s important to pair the type of wood with the food being smoked.

After all, the worst feeling is tasting bitter food after spending all the time and effort of smoking the food correctly.

Generally the best woods for smoking are:

  • Alder
  • Apple
  • Cherry
  • Hickory
  • Maple
  • Mesquite
  • Oak
  • Pecan
  • Walnut

Each wood has a distinct flavor profile that complements different types of food.

So check out the comparison tables below for the best type of wood for your food. I’ve also included 8 practical tips for wood smoking and FAQs on the woods you should never use for smoking near the end of this article.

What Makes the Best Wood for Smoking

When heated, wood begins to generate heat and smoke. The type of smoke produced determines whether that wood is suitable for smoking food or not.

This is why heating pellets should never be used in a pellet grill. Heating pellets are not food grade and will release other chemicals and toxins that will ruin the food. So make sure to only use food-grade pellets intended for pellet grills.

Wood for smoking food has a distinct cellular structure that produces gases that give off a distinct sweet or savory smoky flavor.

At 300 degrees, the wood begins degrading as it dehydrates internally. As this happens, the hemicelluloses and cellulose fibers in the wood caramelize and release carbonyl compounds. These carbonyl compounds produce fragrant (fruity, sweet, or savory) aromas.

Lignin, the bonding glue for the cellulose and hemicelluloses, breaks down and releases smoky and pungent compounds including syringol, phenol, guaiacol, isoeugenol, and sweeting vanillin.

Hardwoods and deciduous trees (nut and fruit-bearing trees) contain this distinct cellular structure. The vaporized chemical compounds (smoke) from combustion are not pungent, bitter, or toxic. Instead, they release smoky compounds that complement meat, fish, and other food perfectly.

This is why these hardwoods and fruit woods are the most popular and commonly used woods when smoking food.

Top 9 List of the Best Wood for Smoking

Here is a table of the 9 most commonly use woods for smoking food. Below is a guide of the best food pairings for the different types of wood.

Type of WoodFood Category
1. Alder– Red & Game Meat (beef, venison)
– Poultry (chicken, duck, turkey)
– Fish
– Pork
2. Apple– Poultry (chicken, duck, turkey)
3. Cherry– Red & Game Meat (beef, venison)
– Poultry (chicken, duck, turkey)
– Pork
4. Hickory– Red & Game Meat (beef, venison)
– Poultry (chicken, duck, turkey)
– Pork
5. Maple– Cheeses
– Vegetables
6. Mesquite– Red & Game Meat (beef, venison)
– Poultry (chicken, duck, turkey)
– Pork Ribs
7. Oak– Red & Game Meat (beef, venison)
– Pork Ribs
8. Pecan– Poultry (chicken, duck, turkey)
– Pork
9. Walnut– Red & Game Meat (beef, venison)

Types of Wood by Flavor Intensity

Personally, I cannot tell the difference between a lot of fruitwoods (Apple vs Cherry) or other woods that create a mild smoke flavor.

So I use the table below whenever I want to have a lighter or heavier smoke flavor on my food. Generally, pork and beef will taste great with heavier smoke whereas fish and vegetables taste better with a lighter smoke flavor.

Test different types of woods with similar flavor intensities to find the one that best pairs with the food. Personally I use apple, cherry, and mesquite the most often to change my smoke flavor intensities from mild, to medium, and strong.

Flavor IntensitySuitable forType of Wood
Mild– Cheese
– Fish
– Poultry
– Vegetables
– Alder
– Apple
– Maple
– Other Fruitwoods
Medium– Pork
– Poultry
– Red & Game Meat
– Cherry
– Oak
– Pecan
Strong– Dark Red & Game Meat
– Pork Ribs
– Hickory
– Mesquite
– Walnut

Best Wood for Smoking by Food Type

Below is the most commonly recommended types of wood for each food category. The different types of wood do have different flavor intensities. So make sure to use a wood that will create as light or as heavy of a smoke flavor as you prefer.

Food CategoryType of Wood
Red & Game Meat (beef, venison)– Alder
– Cherry
– Oak
– Mesquite
– Walnut
Poultry (chicken, duck, turkey)– Alder
– Apple
– Cherry
– Hickory
– Mesquite
– Pecan
Fish– Alder
– Apple
Pork– Alder
– Apple
– Cherry
– Maple
– Pecan
Pork Ribs– Hickory
– Oak
– Mesquite
Vegetables– Maple
Cheese– Lilac
– Maple

What to Look for When Buying Wood for Smoking

1. Size

The duration of cooking will determine the size of the wood chunks to buy. Get pellets for shorter cooking, like smoked fish or chicken. Choose larger wood chunks for longer smoking, like red meat or game meat.

Buying pellets, wood chips, or chunks is easier than a cord of 128 cubic feet. Buying a cord is more expensive because of delivery costs and labor fees for wood splitting.

However, if you are using a pellet grill then size is not relevant since all wood pellets are of similar size.

2. When the wood was cut down

Choose trees that were cut down at least 6 months to 24 months earlier. The wood could be air-dried or kiln-dried. Most restaurants use kiln-dried wood with at least 15% to 22% moisture.

Seasoned wood is also a wonderful option to add flavor to your smoked food. Avoid green wood because this wood contains more sap which will create thicker and dirtier smoke.

3. Type of tree

You may have noticed that our list of wood for smoking contains hardwoods and deciduous trees. Their cell structures make them ideal for smoking and cooking.

Deciduous trees are nut or fruit-bearing such as cherry, pecan, and fruitwoods. More deciduous trees include:

  • Almond
  • Chestnut
  • Citrus trees like Orange, Grapefruit or Lemon
  • Guava
  • Mulberry
  • Olive

For a beginner barbecue, start with any of the hardwoods or deciduous trees from our list. Over time and practice, you can mix different types of wood until you find your perfect flavor.

Check out the FAQs below for woods that you should not use for smoking.

4. Location

The price of hardwoods for smoking varies by location. If the hardwood is scarce in your location, then it’ll be more expensive. For instance, a cord of hardwood like Oak costs $80 in Texas but $400 in Southern California. So use wood that’s readily available in your area.

5. Your smoker

Your smoker will determine if the wood is the main heat source or/and the flavor source.

You may need to buy logs if the smoker uses wood as the fuel source, such as offset smokers. If you have a pellet smoker, you’d purchase wood pellets that serve as the source of fuel and the smoky flavor. For gas or electric smokers, you’d buy smaller wood chips, pellets, or even sawdust for the smoky flavor.

Where to Buy Wood for Smoking

  • Firewood or hardware suppliers – they’ll give you the best options for hardwoods or fruitwoods. Some even sell trimmings of different hardwood.
  • Referrals – ask your friends, colleagues, grill suppliers, and online BBQ platforms. They will most likely have useful contacts.
  • Barbecue specialty stores
  • Online wood suppliers

Solved: 4 Myths about Smoking with Wood

Myth 1: Meat stops absorbing smoke after some time.

Meat will continue to absorb smoke throughout the entire cooking process. Smoke attaches itself to the moist and cool surface of the meat. As you cook, this surface becomes dry and warm.

Spritzing or basting your meat keeps the surface moist so more smoky flavor can stick to it. Spritzing the meat will also create a thicker bark.

Myth 2: There is no such thing as too much smoke.

Too much smoke will create bitter-tasting food. So thick white plums of smoke is not a good thing to see when smoking food.

Make sure that there is enough air flow to allow the smoke to efficiently exit the smoker. Otherwise the the food cooked with too much smoke may end up tasting like charcoal.

Myth 3: Getting the specific wood for each meat is vital.

The truth is that focusing on the wood type over-complicates your smoking process. Meathead Goldwyn advises that you should focus more on where the wood grows. Soil and climate influence the flavor profile of the wood more than the actual species.

Myth 4: Wood-burning techniques are not that important

The truth is that how you burn the wood is critical. Technique plays a greater role in the flavor and color of the smoke. Focus on getting the technique right instead of deciphering between hickory and oak, for example. At the end of the day, smoking will work with hardwoods like maple, hickory, and mesquite. Work on getting the technique right.

8 Practical Tips for Smoking with Wood

  1. Do not add too much wood to the smoker as if you’re lighting a bonfire. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Start a small fire and let it burn steadily, adding more wood chips or pellets when needed.
  2. Your smoker will determine how much wood to use. An offset smoker uses wood as the fuel source so you will need to use more wood to produce smoke. Smokers that don’t use wood as the primary source of heat do not need a lot of wood to create smoke. You will just place the wood chips/chunks onto the hot coals.
  3. Your recipe will also influence the type of wood to use. For low and slow cooking like smoked brisket, choose woods that burn slower and evenly like oak. For hot and fast cooking, use quick-burning mesquite or pecan wood.
  4. Focus on perfecting the techniques for creating good smoke. It is more effective than cramming what wood species works with which type of meat.
  5. Use indirect cooking so that the food does not sit on top of the heat source/wood. With indirect cooking, the food cooks slowly from the heat. And it allows you to place a pan below the meat tray to collect the dripping fat.
  6. If you notice the wood flaring up, do not close the air damper. Doing so will starve the fire and cover the meat with a black, foul smell called creosote. In any flare-up, leave the firebox door open so that some heat may escape.
  7. Store the unused wood chunks or chips on a wood rack. Raise the rack off the floor to keep the wood from rotting.
    • Keep the wood rack as far from the house or garage as possible. This will prevent any insects or pests from migrating into your home.
  8. Use wood that’s got some moisture and not air-dried for too long (6 months is ideal). The moisture helps the wood burn slower while creating good smoke for slow cooking. Kiln-dried woods burn quicker and may not be ideal for slow cooking.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Which wood gives the strongest smoke flavor?  

A: Hardwoods such as Mesquite or Walnut will create the strongest smoke flavor.

Q: What wood gives the mildest smoke flavor?

A: Fruitwoods like apple or peach will leave the mildest smoke flavor.

Q: Which is the most popular wood for smoking meat?

A: Generally hardwoods are the most popular woods for smoking such as Hickory, Oak, and Mesquite.

Q: What wood should you not smoke with?

A: Do not smoke with softwoods. Softwoods contain a high concentration of sap that will give off a pungent flavor.

So do not smoke food with the following wood types:

  • Cedar
  • Cypress
  • Elderberry
  • Elm
  • Eucalyptus
  • Fir
  • Oleander
  • Pine
  • Redwood
  • Spruce
  • Sweet gum
  • Sycamore

Make sure to also not smoke any wood that has the following:

  • Wood that’s been stained or painted. Some paint may contain lead, which is toxic when consumed.
  • Wood that has gotten moldy. Some molds may release toxic gases that will attach to the meat when smoking.
  • Wood treated or sprayed with chemicals such as pesticides.
  • Old and new lumbar scraps
  • Wood from a furniture maker. This wood is unsafe because it is already chemically treated.

Final Thoughts

My list of best wood for smoking contains hardwoods and deciduous trees (nut and fruit-bearing). Most can work well with different types of meat, fish, poultry, pork, and wild game.

Don’t get hung up on matching the wood to the food type. Pick the one you fancy and try it out for a while.

When it comes to smoking food, focus more on maintaining a consistent smoke and fire. This will lead to a predictable cook which means your finished product will come out tasting better.


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