How to Choose the Best Smoking Wood
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How to Choose the Best Smoking Wood

One of the best ways to add smoky flavor to all types of meats is to use grilling planks or wood chips, but it can be difficult to match the flavor of the wood with the type of meat or seafood you’re grilling or smoking. An example: beef does not benefit from being cooked on alder wood, because the added flavor just isn’t strong enough; Alder is more suitable for salmon or poultry.

That’s why today we want to show you the differences between woods, so you can find the most suitable one for your recipe.

Wood Chips, Wood Planks, Wood Logs

Wood Chips
Image Credits: John Kinnander on Unsplash

Generally, wood can be used as chips, chunks, logs, or planks. Which one of these you select depends on how you grill. Chips and chunks can be used on both charcoal and gas grills. Logs, however, are used in place of gas or charcoal, and grilling with wood alone is a more complex undertaking than conventional grilling, so few people do it. It’s relatively difficult and can produce uneven results.

Chips and chunks can be purchased in hardware stores, supermarkets, and other retailers. You can also gather your own wood and break it down into chips and chunks. Dried and seasoned wood works best, although some adventurous cooks actually use green woods. For foods that cook quickly, use wood chips, and for foods that take longer to cook, use wood chunks.

Plank cooking is a different style where the food is cooked directly on a plank of wood. Planks are generally soaked for at least an hour before use. A little salt or lemon can be put in the water while the plank is being soaked. White wine can also be added to the soak for additional flavor. When plank cooking, the food is placed on the plank and cooked at a slightly lower temperature than normal. The lid is to remain closed as much as possible and the food is actually not flipped during the cooking.

Should You Dampen Your Wood Before Cooking?

Image Credits: Photo by Z Grills Australia – zgrills.com.au on Unsplash

The constant bone of contention among avid barbecue experts is whether or not wood chips for BBQ should be wet or dry. Well, it depends. Dry wood burns faster and produces less smoke, so it depends on your desired intensity of flavor. When smoking meats, you generally periodically re-wet the chips to keep a continual flow of flavorful smoke.

If you’re grilling meats we recommend you experiment with wet chips (soak them for an hour before grilling). This will ensure you get the flavor you’re hoping for. If it’s too strong, you can adjust next time.

Wood Pairings

close up wood chips
Image Credits: João Guimarães on Unsplash

The most important decision when it comes to smoking wood is the type of wood that is used. Different woods will create different flavors for your cuts of meat. Certain woods are more appropriately paired with certain foods, so having the right wood is essential.

    Western Wood Smoking Chip Variety Pack

wood chips variety pack
    These aren't huge individual bags, but it's a good variety if you want to start experimenting with different flavors.

Hickory, Pecan, and Almond

Hickory is the most commonly used nut wood. It is most often used to flavor pork, but it can also be used with lamb and beef. It’s a strong flavored wood that will quickly remind you of bacon. Pecan wood is slightly milder than hickory wood and is sometimes used as a substitute. It is a little bit lighter in flavor compared to the hickory wood. It also has some sweet notes.

Walnut

Walnut is one of the heaviest flavors when it comes to all the woods. It is great with game meats and larger pieces of red meat because of its nutty flavor. However, the walnut can leave a bitter taste if used alone. It is best if paired with a fruitwood such as an apple to help balance the flavors.

Apple, Peach, and Pear

Wood from just about any fruit tree can be used to enhance the flavor of grilled or barbecued foods. The fruit woods are all mild and usually add a light, sweet flavor. It can even bring a bit of spicy flavor to meats sometimes. They are particularly good for poultry and pork, but can really be used for just about anything, including fish, beef, lamb, goat, game, or other types of meat. If you are new to using wood smoke as a flavor enhancer, one of the fruit woods would be a good place to start since it’s hard to ruin a dish by infusing it with a fruity taste.

Apple is a great choice if you are looking to add some sweet and fruity flavor to your meat. It is dense in flavor so it will stand up to red and game meats, but will also be a nice complement to ham and lighter meats. A lot of people use apple wood for almost anything that is cooked on the grill.

Both peach and pear have a sweet woodsy flavor to them. They pair well with poultry and smaller pieces of red meat. These woods also pair well with salmon and other seafood.

Cherry adds a nice fruity flavor to whatever is being cooked. It is especially good for ham, poultry, and pork.

Maple

If chicken or pork is on the menu then maple wood is the best choice. They’re mild woods what makes them sweet in nature.

Oak

Oak is one of the very hardest of hardwoods and it is another of the types of wood chips for BBQ. It’s the mainstay of barbecues in the southern USA much like the chips of the birch tree. These are often the choices for BBQ ribs and beef.

Alder

Alder, a wood that grows in the Pacific Northwest, is gaining many adherents. Alder is a light, sweet wood that is especially suitable for adding flavor to grilled fish and poultry.

Mesquite

Another popular wood for grilling is mesquite. Mesquite wood doesn’t originate from a tree but a plant that grows in the southwestern USA and Mexico. It’s a pretty plant with dark green, almost fern-like foliage, and slim, tubular shafts of wood for limbs. The aromatic scent of mesquite is unmistakable. Unlike some woods that emit an acrid odor, mesquite is not quite piney and yet not quite as pungent as some fruitwoods.

Using mesquite wood chips for cooking over an open fire is a relatively old tradition. Because they are so highly prized for barbecues, they tend to be slightly more expensive than other types of BBQ wood chips. Mesquite is a great pairing for chicken, mild beef, or veggies. It’s one of our favorites.

Once you get a taste for the woods, you will have a better idea of what you would like to pair with them. Most of these woods are also good for grilling vegetables and warming up cheeses. The fruit woods are also good for grilling hard fruits for a twist on dessert.

Woods Not to Use

Image credits: Josh Clemence via Unsplash

Never grill, barbecue, or smoke meats with any wood that has been painted, stained, pressure treated, used in construction, or contains nails. Not only can these woods ruin the flavor of your meat, but they can also infuse food with dangerous toxins.

Only use wood from commercial sources that have been produced and packaged for flavor enhancement or wood from logs that have never been chemically treated. You can also harvest and use tree branches provided that they have no mold on them.

Never use pine, conifers, eucalyptus, sycamore, cedar, elm, cypress, sassafras, redwood, fir, and spruce. These woods impart bad flavors to meat and some may be dangerous.

To Wrap Up

There are a lot of different types of wood that can be used for smoking. It is relatively simple to do and will add a unique flavor to whatever is on the grill. One of the best parts of grilling with wood is that a person can experiment with different mixtures to find the perfect flavor. So don’t be afraid of trying if you want to find the best wood for your favorite grilled and smoked recipes. Just make sure that you know how to smoke meat, and that you are using only the best smoker.
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