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Smoking Woods for Smoking Meat (Chart with Varieties)

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Writer / Enthusiast / Meat Curer / Forager / Harvester | About Tom

For decades, immersed in studying, working, learning, and teaching in the craft of meat curing, now sharing his passion with you through eat cured meat online resource.

Meat and wood selection can get a bit confusing. There is a huge selection, and sometimes, I buy it. Most of the time, somebody is trimming an apple tree or grapevine, and I get ample wood stock.

Blind taste tests have highlighted the variations, mainly whether it’s a ‘light’ or a ‘heavy’ hardwood. However, the internet reviews of woods I have been reading trying to break down the flavors.

Whatever the smoking project you are doing, whether it’s hot smoking, low and slow, or cold smoking, these are the woods that will work for beef, pork, fish, poultry & game.

  • Apple
  • Cherry
  • Apricot
  • Pear
  • Pecan
  • Alder
  • Maple
  • Oak

Some like to break down the wood into a light to strong range. Again, I will say it is very hard for anyone to guess the type of wood.

  • light/subtle – apple (medium also), fruit woods (many are medium also)
  • Medium – alder, pecan, maple, oak, apricot
  • Heavy – hickory, Walnut, Mesquite (better to mix)

I thought it would be good to highlight some useful advice so you can choose a useful wood and get smoking! Furthermore, the quality of the smoke is important, and I will provide lots of information on this below.

I’ll also try and talk about smoking woods to avoid.

There are many ‘opinions’, just like mine, so I will try to focus on what wood has a consensus and works for many different meats and foods.

These hardwoods below I would consider these for just about any smoking session. Don’t get too caught up on the wood, and hopefully get onto the curing and smoking!

What is the Best Wood for Smoking Meat? Certain ‘light’ hardwoods are mild and suitable for most meats. Common varieties include apple wood, cherry wood, and many fruit woods. Chestnut, maple, and pecan are also universal for smoking various meats and foods.

Wood Smoked Bacon

Wood selection is one aspect, and if you buy the wood from a store, it will be ready for use—as long as you buy the right size of wood to suit the smoking device you are using. I will elaborate on this below so you can get smoking.

For the beginner, I guess the assumption is that a lot of smoke is best—bellows of white smoke.

In fact, the term “thin blue smoke” is used which means the heat is hot and clean and the wood is burning nicely. The smoke should be transparent, which is a good sign you are getting clean smoke. Will get more into this detail at the end.

Universal Woods for Smoking Meat

As an overall guide, the denser the meat, like beef and pork, the stronger the smokey woods. For less dense meat, like chicken and fish, softer, sweeter woods work very well, like common fruit woods.

If you mix a 20:80 ratio of heavy woods to the lighter sweet woods, it can work very well for the denser meats, I have found.

Fresh Wood or Dry Wood

I believe you should always use dry wood, fresh wood (or green wood) has a lot of moisture and it can produce unsavory flavors.

From what I have read and tried, soaking wood barely penetrates the wood, so there isn’t much point to it.

This isn’t an issue with store-bought pellets or sawdust.

Woods to Avoid When Smoking Meat

Sap or wood with resin is a general rule of thumb to avoid.

Of course, any treated wood, plywood, or chemicals added – are definitely not something you wan to use.

These can give off bitter flavors and extra toxins

  • Elm
  • Cedar (red cedar planks are ok)
  • Cypress
  • Pine
  • Fir
  • Redwood
  • Spruce
  • Sycamore
  • Poison Oak
  • Eucalyptus

Difference Sizes for Different Techniques

Wood Saw Dust

I use sawdust in my portable smoker; it also works for the maze-style burner.

Saw dust is definitely the best use for these 2 aspects.

Small Wood Chips

A smoke generator I have specifically needs a certain size, but also it can take on pellets. It takes longer for the pellets to light, but once they are going, I get a steady stream of smoke

Wood Pellets

Used for dedicated pellet smokers which feed, slow-burning maze-style devices, and pellet tube smokers.

If you can find them, they are compact and convenient.

They need to be kept very dry.

Wood Chips

slithers of wood they can be used straight on a charcoal BBQ, bbq or other form of longer smoking. Being larger they will take longer to start smoking.

Wood Chunks / Small Logs

Some people like the really chunky style, they can go on the bbq flamer tamers/vaporizers directly.

When you get log-type chunks, I have only used this on charcoal smoking sessions.

Wood Planks

Since this only produces charring around the plank, its very light smoking and more presentation.

Direct heat on a soaked plank with some tasty salmon on the top, can still be something different to share with friends.

Should I Soak the Wood Before Smoking?

From my experimentation, I generally avoid soaking. Unless it’s just plank on a bbq.

Some points of interest:

  • soaked wood can change the temperature, which means tweaking is needed
  • soaked wood steams it doesn’t smoke at the start, so are you getting a longer smoking time or steaming time?
  • Even soaking for 6 hours, doesn’t really penetrate the wood very much.

The technique can influence also:

  • Portable Smoker (more info on portable smoker) – saw wood dust
  • Tea Smoking – sawdust or green/black tea
  • Pellet Smokers – pellets
  • Charcoal Smoker – sawdust (quick), chips, pellets or chunks
  • BBQ Gas Grill Smoker Box– chips, pellets, or chunks
  • Electric & Propane/LP Smoker – chips, branded biscuits, pellets (depends on the brand of the smoker)
  • Horizontal Offset Smokers – pellets, chips, chunks

Please note, below this is what I prefer – I will repeat it again. If you use the universal sweeter woods – you can have great success regardless.

We all have different reactions to flavor and our taste buds are different. So don’t get to caught up with the below recommendations.

Certain smoking methods like pellet tube, bbq box smoking and maze style wood dust smoking. These might need strong/heavier hardwoods to produce a stronger flavor of smoke – if that is what you are after.

Best Woods for Smoking Salmon

  • Alder
  • Apple
  • Cherry
  • Oak

Sweet & subtle woods work best with salmon. I have found that sweet light woods also work with most seafood & freshwater fish.

Best Woods for Smoking Turkey

  • Peach
  • Apple
  • Cherry

Sweet & not overpowering work best from my experiences.

Best Woods for Smoking Brisket

  • Apple (or any fruit wood for subtle flavor)
  • Oak
  • Hickory
  • Mesquite
  • Pecan
  • Maple

Due to the heavy smoke and dense meat, mesquite is a Texas classic, though it has to be used carefully. I like to mix it up with some ‘medium’ woods.

Oak vs Hickory for Smoking Meat

Lots of people argue over oak vs. hickory, but then you see competitions won using cherry wood, so again, I think the universal woods are a good way to go. Cherry can also give the meat a different color.

Best Wood for Smoking Poultry

  • Apple
  • Cherry
  • Peach
  • Apricot

Similar to fish & seafood, light & subtle smoke works very well. Fruit woods in generally are a good choice

Best Wood for Smoking Ribs & Red Meat

  • Oak
  • Hickory
  • Pecan
  • Cherry
  • Grapevine

Different Colors of Smoke

Blue Smoke – long smoking sessions

Blue-thin smoke is really useful for long, slow smoking sessions. It’s about getting the right airflow in and out. Getting the right temperature is a lot easier with gas/propane or electric. With charcoal, it becomes more of an Art!

White Smoke – short smoking sessions

It’s great for short, fast smoking sessions, but you don’t want it for long rib or brisket runs. It will make the meat bitter.

When I use a portable smoker when camping/fishing. If it pumps out white smoke whilst some salmon or trout is cooking I’m happy. It comes out great, since it’s only a 15-30 minute smoking session with wood saw dust .

Yellow Smoke

When hunting and fishing in New Zealand, I have used local native wood like pohutakawa or manuka hard wood (which is what all the locals use). These can give some yellow smoke, but it’s thin& light and flavors nicely.

Related Questions

How Do You Smoke a Moist Turkey?

Salt brining will help hold moisture in the bird. If you brine effectively prior to hot smoking (here is a link to the hot smoking category list on this site). Once the cooked temperature has been reached, the meat should still be juicy.

What is the Best Wood for Smoking Turkey?

Turkey and other poultry are best smoked with mild-flavored woods. These woods include apple, cherry, apricot, and pear. Most nut woods are also mild and suitable for smoking turkey.

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  1. The wood dust Iv just started using is not smoking just keeps going out 🤷‍♂️ Really frustrating

    1. Author

      Heya, could be damp or airflow maybe.

      Drying it out in the sun a bit might help.
      Good luck!

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