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All About Smoke Woods

Originally posted: 09/01/2000
Last updated: 02/21/2014

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Since the Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker uses charcoal as its fuel source, and charcoal by itself doesn't impart much flavor to barbecued meats, we use smoke wood to enhance the flavor and aroma of the foods that we cook. Here are the basics you need to know about smoke woods and their use in the WSM.

As always...click on any of the pictures to view a larger image.

 


Appropriate Smoke Woods

A variety of sources on the Internet indicate that all the woods listed below are suitable for smoking various types of meat, poultry, or fish. Those shown in bold italics are some of the most popular, most widely available smoke woods.

  • acacia
  • alder
  • almond
  • apple
  • apricot
  • ash
  • bay
  • beech
  • birch
  • butternut
  • cherry
  • chestnut
  • cottonwood
  • crabapple
  • fig
  • grapefruit
  • grapevine
  • guava
  • hackberry
  • hickory
  • kiawe
  • lemon
  • lilac
  • madrone
  • manzanita
  • maple
  • mesquite
  • mulberry
  • nectarine
  • oak
  • olive
  • orange
  • peach
  • pear
  • pecan
  • persimmon
  • pimento
  • plum
  • sassafras
  • walnut
  • willow

Generally speaking, you want to use only hardwoods from fruit-bearing or nut-bearing trees. In my experience, fruit woods tend to impart a lighter smoke flavor, while the nut woods produce a stronger smoke flavor. If I could choose only one smoke wood, it would be apple, which seems to complement most everything I barbecue.

Some people say that sassafras is inappropriate for smoking, yet it is available from some mail-order wood suppliers. If you decide to experiment with it, use it sparingly.

Historically speaking, barbecuers have tended to use wood that is common to their region. In some parts of the United States, oak is common and it's the wood of choice. In others, it may be hickory or apple. So look around where you live and determine what's common and plentiful and give that wood a try.

Which Woods Go With Which Meats

Choosing the right type of smoke wood is an important decision each time you barbecue. Each wood imparts its own unique flavor to beef, pork, poultry and seafood. It's also true that certain woods are commonly associated with and go better with certain kinds of meat.

The table below offers some guidance about which smoke woods and which meats work well together. These are just opinions...your mileage may vary.

  Beef Pork Chicken Fish Comments
Alder X X - XX Delicate flavor
Apple XX XX XX XX Mild, fruity, goes with any meat
Cherry XX XX XX XX Mild, fruity, goes with any meat
Hickory X X X X Can be strong, mix with apple/oak
Maple X X X - Great with pork
Oak XX X X X Mild, nutty, great with beef and pork
Pecan X X X - Sweet, spicy, more assertive than oak

Below you'll find pictures and descriptions of the smoke woods I have used in the Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker.

Click each photo for a larger image.

Alder Alder

Alder is commonly used with fish, but also works well with beef and pork. It has a light, slightly sweet flavor and is not overpowering. It is much less dense than other smoke woods, and reminds me a little bit of cedar in it's look and smell.


Apple Apple

Apple has a light, fruity, slightly sweet aroma and is commonly used with pork and poultry. I especially like to use it with pork ribs. It can be mixed with other smoke woods like oak and cherry with good results.


Cherry Cherry

Cherry is one of my favorite woods to use with chicken. It has a slight red color and a subtle, sweet, fruity flavor. It goes well with beef, pork, and poultry and can be mixed with oak and apple.


Guava Guava

Guava, a member of the Myrtle family, is a fruit wood from Hawaii and other tropical regions. Its semi-sweet aroma goes well with beef, pork, lamb, poultry, and fish.


Hickory Hickory

Hickory is probably the most popular smoke wood used in barbecue. It has a strong flavor that complements all meats. Some people find that hickory alone can be overwhelming, especially if too much is used. I never use hickory alone, but mix it with oak. I use two parts oak to one part hickory.


Kiawe Kiawe

Kiawe (pronounced key-ah-vay) is indigenous to Hawaii and is related to mesquite. It has a strong flavor and works well with beef, fish, or poultry. The wood is very dense and heavy with a dark, smooth, thin bark. You won't find kiawe in stores...I am fortunate to have a friend who brings me this wood from Hawaii. Give it a try if you're able to acquire some.


Maple Maple

Maple has a mild flavor. Some say it has a slightly sweet flavor because sugar maple, black maple, red maple, and silver maple are commonly used in the production of maple syrup. You'll have to judge for yourself...I don't taste sweetness myself. Maple goes especially well with pork and poultry. The wood is dense in weight but light in color.


Mesquite Mesquite

Mesquite is commonly used in Texas barbecue, but it's often burned down into coals before being used as a heat source in wood-fired cookers. As a smoke wood goes, it's strong and can easily overpower your food. If used sparingly, it can compliment beef, fish, pork, and poultry. The wood is dense and dark red/brown in color with a very rough bark.


Oak Oak

Oak is one of my favorite smoke woods. It goes with just about any barbecue meat. It has a medium smoky flavor that is stronger than apple and cherry, but lighter than hickory. As a result, it mixes well with these three woods, but also works great by itself. It has a dense, tight grain and a color ranging from almost white to yellow to red.


Pecan Pecan

Pecan is great with beef, pork, and poultry. Its flavor is described as spicy and nutty. It can be used by itself or mixed with oak. I especially like it with chicken and ribs.


Wine Barrel Chunks Wine Barrel Chunks

When wine barrels reach the end of their useful life, they're often cut into chunks and sold as smoke wood. These oak chunks show the dark stain of red wine on one side and the natural oak grain on the other. They have the same aroma you experience when you visit the cellars at a winery. Do they provide a unique flavor to your barbecue? Hard to say, but they're fun to try if you have the chance. These chunks came from Trader Joe's gourmet food market.

Woods To Avoid

The conventional wisdom is that cedar, cypress, elm, eucalyptus, liquid amber, pine, redwood, fir, spruce, and sycamore are not suitable for smoking. When in doubt about a particular smoke wood, play it safeódon't use it until you confirm with a reliable source that it's OK for use in barbecuing.

Mixing Smoke Woods

You can use a single smoke wood, or you can mix together different types to good effect. Here are some common combos...feel free to experiment to find your favorite!

  • Apple + Cherry
  • Apple + Hickory
  • Apple + Oak
  • Cherry + Maple
  • Cherry + Oak
  • Oak + Hickory
  • Oak + Hickory + Apple
  • Oak + Pecan

Flavored Smoke Woods

Retailers sell a variety of flavored wood chunks and chips. Some are made from old wine or whiskey barrels, while others have just been soaked in wine or even Tabasco. Flavored woods add an interesting aroma to the smoke coming out of your cooker, but you'll have to judge for yourself whether they do anything for the flavor of your barbecue.

Logs, Slabs, Chunks, Chips, And Pellets

You'll find smoke wood available in all these forms. In retail stores you'll most likely find chunks, chips, and pellets. Chunks will vary in size from small pieces to fist-sized pieces. Chunks burn slowly and release smoke over a long period of time, and are the choice of most WSM users.

Chips burn hot and fast, releasing smoke in a quick burst. If you use chips, you will have to add them several times during the cooking process, whereas with chunks you can add them just once at the beginning of the process. To prolong the smoke from wood chips, they are often placed in a pouch formed out of aluminum foil and put directly on the hot coals. Small holes poked in the foil allow the smoke to escape.

Pellets are a processed wood product made from compressed sawdust. They come in several varieties and are used in a fashion similar to chips. Logs and slabs are too large to use in the Weber Bullet, but may be cut down into smaller pieces to fit into the charcoal chamber.

Should Smoke Wood Be Soaked In Water Before Use?


 

Apple chunk soaked for 24 hours
Photo 1
Split chunk shows little water penetration
Photo 2
     

Some people like to soak wood chunks in water for several hours or overnight before using them. This is not necessary, especially when using large chunks. Thanks to the vents on the charcoal bowl, the controlled air flow into the WSM allows the chunks to burn slowly throughout the entire cooking session. Besides, water doesn't penetrate seasoned wood very much, anyway.

Photo 1 shows a fist-sized chunk of apple that was submerged in water for 24 hours. Photo 2 shows the same chunk split open. Notice that there's barely any water penetration into the wood.

It's also not necessary to soak wood chips before use if you're putting them in an aluminum foil pouch. When placing wood chips directly on the fire, soaking them first won't do much to keep them from bursting into flames.

If you do decide to soak wood chunks or chips, shake off any excess water before adding the wood to the fire.

Should Bark Be Removed?

Some people are adamant about removing the bark from smoke wood, believing that it introduces an undesirable flavor to their barbecue. On the other hand, I know of one gentleman who barbecues using only the bark. I don't bother removing bark from my smoke wood. You'll have to try it both ways and see if you can tell any difference.

Quantity Of Smoke Wood To Use

It is possible to apply too much smoke to meat, resulting in a bitter or overpowering flavor. In general, I've found that the equivalent of 2-6 fist-sized chunks of wood work best for most meats in the Weber Bullet. You should experiment with using different amounts of smoke wood to determine what works best for you, depending on if you like a heavier or lighter smoke flavor.

When using a new smoke wood for the first time, I suggest using a small amount for a lighter smoke flavor. You can always increase the amount of smoke wood next time, but there's no way to salvage a piece of meat that's been oversmoked.

Apply Smoke Wood To The Fire

Here are some of the ways that people add smoke wood to the fire.

By the way, don't bother soaking wood chunks before use. It's not necessary as long as you're using decent-sized chunks, and the water doesn't penetrate seasoned wood very much, anyway.

  • Place Smoke Wood On Top Of Hot Coals
    This is my favorite approach regardless of how I fire-up my WSM. Distribute the wood chunks evenly over the surface of the charcoal after putting the meat in the cooker. This keeps you from getting blasted with smoke while adding the meat, getting the Polder thermometer setup, etc. If using The Minion Method, make sure some wood touches the hot coals to start generating smoke right away.
     
  • Bury Smoke Wood In Unlit Charcoal
    Only possible when firing the cooker using The Minion Method. Bury wood chunks throughout the unlit fuel, followed by a few chunks on top. Distribute the hot coals evenly over the unlit fuel, making sure some wood touches the hot coals to start generating smoke right away.
     
  • Layering Charcoal And Wood Chips
    I don't advocate the use of wood chips, because I think chunks burn longer and more evenly. However, some people put down a layer of charcoal in the bottom of the chamber, then a layer of wood chips, a layer of charcoal, and so on, until the chamber is filled to the top. Light using The Minion Method.

Where To Buy

The best smoke wood is free smoke wood! Check with local orchards, golf courses, and tree trimming services, especially after storms. Tell them that your hobby is barbecue, you're looking for a few split pieces of wood, and you're likely to get some for free.

If you have to purchase smoke wood, it's best to buy locally whenever possible because of the high cost of shipping.

Hickory and mesquite chunks are readily available at most hardware stores and home centers. Check Home Depot, Lowe's, Orchard Supply Hardware, Ace, True Value, and other such stores. Better grocery stores will often have these products, too.

Alder, apple, cherry, oak, and pecan can be purchased from Amazon.com and at specialty stores like Barbeques Galore and from suppliers such as Char-Wood.com (800-443-6450) and Chigger Creek Products (660-298-3188). Guava can be mail-ordered from Guava Wood Farms in Hawaii. You can also find a number of other smoke wood suppliers listed on The Smoke Ring.

Many of the "exotic" woods listed at the top of this page are not available through retail suppliers. Most people harvest these woods from trees on their own property or on a friend's property, or purchase them from orchards and other property owners.

By The Bag, Box, Or Truckload

If you buy smoke wood at retail stores, it will probably come in paper or plastic bags in small quantities sold by weight or volume. This is convenient for those who live in urban areas without a lot of storage space and without access to cut trees or branches.

If you order smoke wood over the phone or Internet, you'll probably have to buy a minimum quantity by weight, usually a 50 pound box or sack of wood. This is fine if you have storage space, and the price of the wood is reasonable, but you'll pay about as much in shipping as you will for the wood itself.

If you're lucky enough to have appropriate smoke wood trees on your property, or know someone who does, you can chop up green logs and branches into chunks for use in your Weber Bullet. Most people let the wood season before use, but others will use a mix of green and seasoned wood chunks.

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