Pairing the Best Smoking Woods for Popular Cuts of Meat

There are barbecue purists who believe that specific cuts of meat should only be smoked with certain types of traditional smoking woods. Violating these centuries-old combinations is sacrosanct to them.

Though for most of us, smoke just adds an extra dimension to the meat that goes beyond what basic charcoal Grilling has to offer. Yet there are some meats and traditional smoking wood pairings that don’t work.

After all, you wouldn’t smoke a delicate salmon filled with brash mesquite. Nor would you use cherry wood to cold-smoke hard cheese.

So, it’s only wise to look at some traditional smoking woods and the types of meat it pairs best with. This includes some of the reverent pairings that barbecue purists hold dear, as well as pairings taken directly from regional barbecue styles like Texas, Memphis, Lexington, and Kansas City. Along the way, we’ll also look at what popular cuts of meat work and play well with traditional smoking woods, even if that pairing breaks a little with tradition.

The Best Meats to Smoke with Oak

Oak is sort of a utility smoking wood. It’s usually easy to find and is even used as a base wood in a lot of wood pellets. It’s a hallmark smoking wood in traditional Lexington-style barbecues where you often see oak being used to smoke pork, lamb, and a lot of wild game.

However, some would point out that oak smoke doesn’t typically have a lot of character. It’s sort of one note and meant to add a smoky flavor or to use as a base for other accent woods like pecan, mesquite, cherry, or applewood.

Cuts of Meat to Smoke with Oak

  • Pork ribs
  • Pork shoulder
  • Fresh sausages
  • Dried sausages
  • Fish with red meat
  • Lean cuts of beef
  • Venison
  • Wild turkey
  • Wild hog

The Best Meats to Smoke with Hickory

Hickory smoke has a lot in common with oak, though most barbecue purists will, rightly, pound their fists on the table telling you that hickory has a lot more depth of flavor. It also tends to permeate larger cuts of meat with a smoky flavor.

Memphis-style barbecue has a rich history of using hickory smoke for their popular Memphis Ribs as well as their pulled pork. Though there are certainly tons of other barbecue traditions that use hickory as their primary smoking. This includes uber-popular Kansas City-style barbecue where many pit masters swear by hickory for all forms of pork and brisket.

Cuts of Meat to Smoke with Hickory

  • Pork ribs
  • Pork shoulder
  • Bacon & pork belly
  • Country sausage
  • Fresh sausage
  • Brisket

The Best Meats to Smoke with Pecan

Pecan is more of an accent wood that you often find being added to hickory base fires in Georgia and Alabama-style barbecue. It tends to be more popular in local pockets and isn’t always easy to find outside of areas where pecan trees are grown.

Pecan wood tends to smolder, which makes it a good accent wood to add to hickory base fires in long smoking sessions. This lets the subtle pecan aroma permeate through the meat. As fat caps on things like pork shoulders render they carry the nutty flavor deep into the meat where it accents the natural flavor of the meat.

Cuts of Meat to Smoke with Pecan

  • Pork shoulder
  • Whole chickens & stewing hens
  • Whole turkey
  • Duck
  • Lamb shoulder
  • Beef brisket
  • Untrimmed pork ribs

Best Meats to Smoke with Alder

Alder is a subtle wood that can be found in great supply in different parts of North America. It can often be used in place of oak where oak isn’t available. You even find it being used as a base wood in some types of wood pellets.

Alder tends to create a subtle smoke, which makes it a great option for times when you don’t want the smoky aroma to dominate a lighter cut of meat. This makes it a great pairing for a wide range of fish and seafood. Especially wild-caught or farm-raised salmon. Alder is also a great smoking wood for all kinds of poultry and can be used to add smoke to leaner cuts of chicken like bone-in, skin-on chicken breast.

Cuts of Meat to Smoke with Alder

  • Salmon filets
  • Chicken breast & thighs
  • Turkey
  • Seafood
  • Pork shoulder
  • Pork belly
  • Pork hocks

Best Meats to Smoke with Applewood

Applewood used to be a local specialty smoking wood. You’d find it in local pockets within die-hard Carolina, Memphis, and Lexington-style barbecue. Though its depth of flavor, sweet smoke, and versatility have helped it become increasingly popular with backyard pit masters from coast to coast.

Just like how Peter Brady famously loved “Pork chops and applesauce” pork and applewood smoke play well together beautifully. One could argue that there isn’t a cut of pork that isn’t elevated by applewood. Though fattier cuts of pork, such as ham, pork belly, and bacon, as well as pork shoulder, tend to make the most out of applewood smoke’s depth of flavor.

Cuts of Meat to Smoke with Applewood

  • Pork in general
  • Bacon & pork belly
  • Pork shoulder
  • Ham
  • Whole chickens
  • Turkey

Best Meats to Smoke with Mesquite

Mesquite is a hallmark smoking wood in a lot of southwestern barbecue styles. Though its greatest passion is typically found in classical Texas-style barbecue. Its powerful aroma and rich smoke make it a perfect pairing for most cuts of beef. Though it is certainly best known for Texas-style mesquite smoked brisket, thick beef ribs, and beef link sausage.

Mesquite can also be used to smoke larger cuts of pork like Boston butt pork shoulder. As an accent wood, it also adds an interesting dimension to wild game and waterfowl. It’s even been used to smoke nuts.

Cuts of Meat to Smoke with Mesquite

  • Beef brisket
  • Beef ribs
  • Link sausage
  • Fresh ring sausage
  • Wild duck

Best Meats to Smoke with Cherrywood

Cherrywood is another one of those local specialty fruit woods that you see popping up in pockets of regional barbecue styles. Because it’s not as easy to come by, a lot of backyard pit masters will use cherrywood as an accent wood added to a base of oak or alder.

Cherry smoke tends to be thick and pungent and can leave a dark patina on poultry skin. It tends to be a great way to accent wild game meats, duck, lamb, and even mutton.

Cuts of Meat to Smoke with Cherrywood

  • Lamb
  • Dark meat poultry
  • Duck
  • Wild turkey
  • Pork shoulder
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