How To Choose The Right Smoking Woods For A BBQ

What are the different characteristics of smoking woods?

Smoking woods can play a variety of roles, depending on how you want to use them. For some, smoking woods are limited to cabinet smokers and classic barbecue applications. For others, smoking woods can be added to the grill’s fire to impact additional flavor.

Of course, barbecue purists are quick to point out that their different smoking woods have different characteristics. In this article, we will take a look at some of the traditional and somewhat rare smoking woods that you might find for sale at the retail level. You might even be able to source some of them yourself with the help of a chainsaw.


This is one of the more common smoking woods, you can often find chips and chunks in any retail store that sells charcoal. It provides a modest smoke that works with beef and pork as well as delicate fillets of fish.

Wood chunks of hickory tend to smolder and will last longer than hickory chips. Chips tend to really produce a lot of smoke but can flare-up. This could lead to temperature control problems. If you do want to use hickory chips, you should soak them in water overnight first. Not only will this prevent flareups and prolong the burn time of each load, it will also contribute additional moisture to the smoking chamber.

Mesquite and Green Mesquite

Mesquite is more popular in the south and especially the southwestern United States. It creates a very powerful smoke that many barbecue purists like to pair with beef. It’s probably not the type of smoking wood you want to use for smoking fish and other delicate meats.

One small problem with mesquite is that it is very dry. The smoke it produces can compete with your internal water pan. If you’re not careful it can dry out lean pieces of meat.

Green mesquite is essentially mesquite that hasn’t been allowed to dry and cure. You likely won’t be able to find it in a store. If you live in the south and you know someone with a mesquite tree that is soon to come down, you might be able to score yourself some premium smoking wood for the price of a little elbow grease.

Green mesquite tends to produce a lot of smoke and doesn’t have the moisture concerns of dried mesquite. Though it does tend to carry a slightly different taste caused by the water-soluble compounds in the wood.


Applewood is much beloved by barbecue purists around the United States. It has a light pleasant flavor that has a knack for bringing out the natural flavors of many types of meat. It works and plays especially well with pork like Boston butt and pork belly. If you want to try your hand at making your own bacon, applewood should be at the top of your list.

Depending on where you live and the time of year it can be a little hard to find. Applewood is more likely in stores in the spring and fall. If you have an apple tree in your back yard, or you know someone who does, you might be able to use the spring pruning woods to augment charcoal in an offset smoker.

Cherry & Fruit Woods

There are some people who swear by cherry and other fruitwoods. They do certainly produce a white smoke that has its own interesting flavor. Many fans of fruit woods like cherry prefer to pair them with pork. Though it is a bit of a personal taste. You might want to try smoking with a small amount of cherry wood before you invest in buying it in bulk.

Cherry and other fruits woods are the sort of thing you can often source on your own if you know someone with trees. Cherry trees in particular need to be pruned every year to maintain an open center. If you can find an orchard, they might let you take home a year’s worth of wood from their spring brush pile.


It might seem pedestrian at first, but oak is actually a very traditional smoking wood that is used around the world. Even the British smoke kippers with oak. It tends to be a little more mile than hickory. If you live in a region where hickory and mesquite don’t grow, you likely can find an oak tree or two to source wood from. Just make sure that you thoroughly split the logs into quarters or eighths. Then give it a full 6 to 8 months to fully dry before using it.

Ground Wine/Whiskey Barrel Wood

Wine and whiskey matured in oak barrels. Some of which are charred in advance of adding the spirits. As time goes on the liquid migrates in and out of the internal pores in the wood, which infuses them with extra flavors and aroma.

When the wine or whiskey is fully matured and drained, the barrel cannot be reused. Some vineyards and distilleries have taken to grinding the wood from the barrels and drying it. When you use it to smoke meat, it imparts rich or fruity flavors which permeate the fat in the meat and spread a pleasing aroma in the air.

Nut Woods

Tree nuts like pecan can have their place in smoking meat. Just like fruit woods, there’s a fair amount of personal preference involved. They tend to bring a full-bodied robust smoke, which works and plays well with heavy cuts of meat like beef and pork. Nut wood isn’t the sort of thing you want to use with fish and seafood.

Nut Shells

This is another frugal angle that you can source yourself. If you enjoy eating nuts that are freshly cracked from the shell, you can save the shells in a 5-gallon bucket with a lid. Putting a mesh bag of painters desiccant in the bottom of the bucket can help dry them out and prevent problems with mildew or fungus developing on the shells.

Wood Pellets

Wood pellets are created primarily for wood pellet grills and smokers. They are made by taking sawdust and shavings from processed hardwoods, then binding them together with all-natural lignin. Some are also augmented with hickory and mesquite to accent the flavor they impart.

You don’t necessarily have to use the wood pellets in a wood pellet grill. A handful or two added to the charcoal of an offset smoker,or placed in heavy-duty aluminum foil over the fire of a gas grill can add a pleasant smoky component to the foods you grill.

Herb Stems & Rosemary Wood

If you grow your own herbs or maintain an herb garden, then chances are you have stems and stalks leftover in the fall. Things like rosemary wood, oregano stems or dried basil stems, can be added to a smoker to maximize the aroma. They play particularly well with chicken and turkey.

Woods That You Shouldn’t Use

There are of course woods you shouldn’t use for grilling or smoking. Softwoods like pine and cedar have a lot of resin and other chemicals which can significantly alter the flavor of the meat. In some cases, these compounds can even be hazardous to your health.

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