How to Match & Pair Smoking Wood for Flavor to Meat

Smoking Wood Selection Guide

Matching wood to meat can be really simple, I like to use the universal smoking woods as a first choice. Some flavors are better suited to the stronger types of smoking hardwood available.

From my experience, I think they all lie on a spectrum light to strong. Light to medium wood has worked amazing for most meats. Strong woods which can be used by themselves, I prefer to mix them with the lighter woods.

I buy pellets, get given fruit wood and seems to always have lot so grape wood. But given the opportunity, I have tried a whole bunch using different methods and wanted to share my thoughts.

Guide to Pairing Wood to Meat for Smoking

Apple Pellets & Pohutakawa

Use fruitwood or other medium wood types for pork, poultry, fish, or seafood or vegetables. For dense red meat or red game meat, strong heavy smoke works best like hickory, mesquite, and walnut. Mixing one-third strong and two-thirds light wood is also suitable for many meat smoking projects.

Everyone’s tastes buds are a bit different, so the best way to figure out what you like is of course to just try it.

Less is better with smoking wood I have found since too much can make the meat bitter. Learned my lesson from smoking fish fillets with stronger woods in the early days, bitter tang – unpleasant.

Been very lucky over the years to get ‘homegrown’ wood from my own trees and people I know. Although I still experiment with bought pellets for my smoke generator and for pellet tube cold smoking (though I mix in wood chips with the pellets in the tube too).

So the goal here, this to give you some confidence to have a go. But don’t be afraid of some experimentation down the track. I reckon pistachio nut shells adds some ‘nuttiness’ to my smoked fish!

If your harvesting wood that isn’t bought make sure it’s:

  • Dry (not freshly cut) – all bought wood will be dry
  • Deciduous Hardwood (not an evergreen, ie. should be losing leaves in winter)
  • Not a sap/oil/resin wood (like pine or conifer etc.)
  • Not cut with a chainsaw, don’t want chainsaw oil in your food!
  • Ideally organic not sprayed heavily with pesticides

My matching of wood to meat is based on the density and the flavor strength of the meat, some meat like trout, seafood, salmon are subtle compared to red meat like beef or (greyish/pink) meat pork (also considered red meat)

Lighter less dense Meat – like fish, poultry, rabbit, hare

Medium Meats – Turkey, lamb

Dense meat – Pork, beef, venison, elk, reindeer, tahr or sheep (lamb a bit less dense)

Smoking Wood to Meat

Light Woods – Fish, Seafood, Poultry – mainly less dense meat (white flesh)

  • Apple
  • Alder
  • Cherry
  • Almond
  • Mulberry
  • Peach
  • Grape Wood

Medium Woods Fish, Poultry like wild turkey or chicken, red m, wild large red meat, wild small game, wild game poultry

All-rounder Woods works with most meats less dense or more denser meat.

  • Olive
  • Beach
  • Red Wine barrel chips (oak generally)
  • Manuka
  • Pohutakawa
  • Pecan
  • Oak
  • Hickory

Strong Woods – dense meat, ideally mixed with lighter or medium woods also. Ideally, use sparingly is my advice.

  • Walnut
  • Mesquite
  • Mahogany

Most fruit woods are generally universal like apple and cherry. They are best for fish, seafood, dairy & vegetables. Strong wood like mesquite & mahogany is for heavy dense red meats and deep smoke flavor.

I don’t like to think there are strict rules and the above is really just to give some straight forward guidance that works for me – disclaimer!

Apple, grapewood, manuka and a few others – haven’t tried the dried corn cob, supposedly early settlers used it for corn smoked bacon

How Much Wood for Smoking Meat?

Had to write a whole new post of this one.

As mentioned, less is best – nothing spoils a smoked meal more than over smoking.

For Low & Slow, 1 handful an hour for 3-5 hours, meat can’t take the smoke after that generally

For fast hot smoking in a portable smoker, I use half a handful (2 tablespoons) for 10-15 minutes on trout fillets.

Which Wood Can I Smoke Food With?

Now I wrote a full post on smoking wood, I went through my smoking books and did a heap of research to compile a decent list.

In short, anything with resin or sap is no good. Trees that lose there leaves and are seasonally, generally can be used. These are deciduous hardwoods as opposed to the evergreen types which are green all year round.

If you want further info on types of woods which you should and shouldn’t use, please find a post here.

Under Smoking Not Over Smoking

When you over smoke meat, which I’ve done with fish, all I had was strong wood and I used too much. The outcome is a bitter kind of tangy flavor.
I had this idea that if I use more wood, I can get more woody flavor into the flesh. But, that’s not how it works! You want to space out the smoke if your are a long slow cook/smoke session.

Many years ago I met a French man at a barbecue grill party, he made the most amazing smoked trout. He only used a few tablespoons of sawdust in a portable smoker. If you don’t know what portable smoker, I wrote a beginners post of all the different smoking techniques I have used, check it out here.

Stronger Woods for Denser Red Meat

So what I like to do with red meat as use about a 60-75% light/medium wood and 40-25% strong dark would like Hickory. Apple and Hickory go very well together for red meats!

In central Europe and Eastern Europe where they have been smoking meat for hundreds and thousands of years. They have developed many long-standing smoked meat recipes, especially with red meat.

They focus on the strong wood flavors and they smoke quite heavily compared to a lot of other countries around the world. A Dutch butcher friend was very fond of mahogany offcuts from a local furniture maker.

In the wonderful world of brisket, you’ll find Apple and Cherrywood used even with no mixer woods. It just brings out some different flavors using lighter woods. Of course, again it just depends on how much smoke flavor and what kind you like, the only way is to try it out and learn.

For Cold Smoked Bacon, I have had success with:

  • Apple
  • Alder
  • Cherry
  • Grape Wood
  • Peach
  • Pear
  • Pohutakawa
  • Maple
  • Pecan

Wild Game Flavor & Beef Woods that worked amazing:

  • Walnut
  • Mesquite
  • Hickory

Should I be Using the Bark for Smoking Meat?

I have used various different types of bark for light or heavy smoke sessions. I can’t say there’s been any issues and flavor or taste. So to me it seems find the use for any smoking project.

Should I Soak my Wood for Smoking?

Don’t bother!

Soaking will penetrate the wood only slightly, like really slightly. It definitely delays the combustion in the smoke creation so if that’s what you’re after.

Unless you want steam before the smoking starts it just isn’t worth it. Moisture may also lead to less smoke adhere to the meat, since a dried out pellicle on meat will have more smoke attach to it. For more on pellicle formation on meat check out a post here.

But it seems now people are starting to realize that soaking the wood, apart from delaying combustion doesn’t really make any other difference to the flavor. It doesn’t seem to make the smoke last longer in my opinion.

Seasoning Wood for Smoking

Wood has something like 50% moisture when freshly cut.

9-12 months of drying for chunky wood is necessary, but for grape vines and small pieces, I have found 6 months is ok too.

Related Questions

Can I Mix Wood for Smoking?

Mixing strong woods with light woods is a good technique for developing preferences in smoke flavor. Mixing wood ratios of 2:1 or 3:1 for light and strong woods will yield quality outcomes

Should I Soak Wood Before Smoking?

Soaking wood has little to no effect on helping the wood burn slower. Practically no penetration of water goes into the wood after 6 hours. Soaking wood creates a small amount of steam before combustion begins.

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