One of the most common sources of confusion people have when smoking food is the type of wood that is best to use. But, the fact is, there isn’t really a single best wood for smoking. Like the technicalities of the smokers themselves, there are some things to understand about wood that will make certain types of woods work better than others for different purposes.
The most basic rule of thumb to remember when searching for the best wood chips for smoking is to avoid soft woods – pine, fir, spruce, and other evergreens. These woods are sappy, burn fast, and release undesirable chemicals while smoking that can add unwanted flavors to your food. They can also create a lot of residue inside your smoker that is difficult to clean. These woods should always be avoided. Most hardwoods, however, are good to use for smoking food. An easy way to think of it is that if a tree produces a fruit or a nut, it will probably be good to use for smoking food. Another thing to remember is that any treated woods should be avoided. You definitely do not want the chemicals released from these woods on your food.
You do not have to use prepackaged wood for smoking, although this is a great way for beginners to experiment and get to know different types of woods and flavors. You can certainly gather wood yourself and cut it into chunks. Wood cut from live trees will need some time to sit and dry (often for several months) or the wood may be too “green” and wet to produce optimal results. Dried woods produce the best smoke.
Wood chunks vs. wood chips
Both wood chunks and wood chips can be used in your smoker. Chips are generally more readily available for purchase, and can often be found at your local grocery or hardware store. Many experienced smokers prefer to use chunks, however, because wood chunks will last longer than chips and will not have to be replaced as often during the smoking process. Wood chunks burn more slowly and steadily, usually making them more desirable. While chunks are also usually fairly easy to find for purchase, if you can not find them, wood chips are still a great option that produce wonderful results. Wood chips are fine for foods that will be cooked for a shorter period of time, but chunks are better for foods that need longer cook times. Some people prefer to soak their wood chips in water before use, but this is not absolutely necessary. The chips will still smoke very well when left unsoaked, especially when using an electric smoker.
Types of Wood for Smoking
Different types of woods will result in different flavors and even different color results for the food you are smoking. Fruit trees are sought after for their mild, sweet flavors, with apple and cherry being extraordinarily popular. Oak is readily available everywhere and is probably the most common wood used for smoking. Hickory is also very popular, as is mesquite. Woods can be mixed and matched to produce custom flavors, so don’t be afraid to experiment a little and find what flavors you prefer. The general opinion is that fruit and nut trees are best for flavoring poultry and fish while the woods with the stronger flavors – oak, hickory, and mesquite – are best for flavoring other cuts of meat. But again, there is room to experiment and find what flavors you enjoy with different types of food.
Some of the best types of wood for smoking: acacia, alder, almond, apple, apricot, birch, cherry, citrus, grape, hickory, maple, mulberry, mesquite, oak, peach, pear, pecan, plum, and walnut. There are many others and all have their slightly different flavors and benefits.
When starting out, do not worry too much about the type of wood to use. Instead, focus on the quality of the meat, using good spice rubs and marinades, and maintaining a proper temperature while cooking. These things will all impact the final results of the food more so than the type of wood smoke used.