Choosing the Right Wood

Choosing the Right Wood

Stubb tending to his pit. He used post oak and hickory to smoke his meats.

When grilling or barbecuing, if you want to add some good smoke flavor to your meat, there are several good (and widely available) woods made for smoking. Hickory, mesquite, alder, apple, oak, pecan, and cherry are some examples. According to Rocky, Stubb’s grandson, Stubb himself used hickory and post oak because of their flavors.


You can choose different woods to add different smoke flavors to whatever you’re cooking. Apart from the list above, which are all pretty standard flavors, you can also purchase wood from wine or whiskey barrels. There’s some debate on whether or not these impart any real flavor to the meat you’re cooking, but they sure smell good while you’re smoking.


It’s advisable to only use hardwood from fruit- or nut-bearing trees; and never use cedar, elm, pine, sycamore, eucalyptus, redwood, fir, cypress or spruce. If in doubt about a certain kind of wood, don’t use it until you’ve determined its safety. Another important consideration is to make sure that the wood you’re getting is just that – wood. No additives, no nails or glue (it’s happened or we wouldn’t warn you)…you get the picture.



If you prefer wood chips, soaking them before use keeps them from burning too fast.


In terms of cut/size of wood to burn, chunks, chips and pellets are the most common. Conventional wisdom advises chunks, because they burn slowly. Chips are good for shorter smoking times, or you can always plan on adding more chips throughout the cooking time.


Of course, different flavors go better with different kinds of meat. Below is a list of “typical” smoke wood flavors and how they pair with types of meat.


Hickory is one of the most common woods for smoking—and it’s widely available—but it’s a strong flavor that some folks don’t like by itself. Some sources recommend mixing it with another wood to mellow out the flavor. Either way, remember that it’s impossible to salvage over-smoked meats, so less very well could be more when smoking.


Alder produces a light, sweet flavor. Good on fish, pork, poultry.


Apple is fruity, sweet and light. Works great on pork and poultry.


Cherry is great for nearly everything (beef, poultry, pork) and give meat a sweet, fruity flavor.


Mesquite is a strong flavor that goes well with beef, fish, pork and poultry. This is a Texas flavor that Stubb used in some of his famous recipes, but it has a strong flavor that can be easily overdone – especially since it burns hot and fast. It’s easy to find at retail, making it very popular.


Oak is a workhorse of a smoke wood; it’s good with most meat and has a medium flavor in terms of boldness.


Pecan works for beef, poultry and pork and has a sweet flavor that is sometimes described as “nutty” – no surprises there.