Now that summer is here, there are few things better than sinking your teeth into a piece of finely smoked meat you cooked on the backyard grill. But with so many choices of wood chips available, from alder and cherry to mesquite and oak, which wood is the top choice for smoking meat? As you may have suspected, the answer isn’t so simple. The ideal wood largely depends on what kind of meat you are cooking. With that in mind, this guide will help you pick out the best wood chips for smoking meat in any occasion.
In general, wood can be separated into three different categories in regards to smoking meat: light, mild, and heavy. The different categories have a direct correlation with the type of meat being cooked. With that in mind, light woods are perfect for smoking meats that are considered lighter in flavor such as poultry, fish, and occasionally pork. These type of woods include pecan, apple, alder, peach, and cherry. The main point to remember here is that light woods will add a certain sweetness to the meat without being too overpowering. While some light woods burn slow and cool, others do not so make sure you double-check the burning times of your choice of wood and plan accordingly.
Mild woods are best for those occasions when you need something in-between a light and heavy flavor. These types of woods are best used for strongly flavored fish, like salmon, and are also great to use with pork, beef, and game meats. While birch wood is a staple to use when smoking salmon, other mild woods include hickory, maple, and oak. Maple and hickory, which is the most commonly used smoke wood due to its bacon-like flavor, both offer a sweet taste and burn hot and slow. Meanwhile, oak generally has a medium to heavy flavor and is great for lamb and beef. It is also an ideal choice if you have a larger cut of meat to cook, as oak has a slower cooking time than other woods.
Heavy woods are great for when you need to grill up heavier meats like beef and pork. These woods are very strongly flavored and should be used sparingly. The king of the heavier woods is mesquite. Mesquite, which is native to Texas, is a very strongly flavored wood that creates a lot of smoke. It is the ideal choice for red meats and burns at a high temperature, therefore making it quick to burn. While some experts will place oak, hickory, and even maple in the heavy woods category, these woods generally don’t have near the overpowering flavor as mesquite. Keep in mind that mesquite should only be used in small doses or whenever you need to add an extra bit of flavoring.
When deciding on which type of wood is best for smoking meat, the only tried and true way of finding the perfect balance is experimenting. For instance, if you're considering smoking a rack of ribs, then pecan chips, which offer a medium, sweet and nutty flavor, are an excellent complement to the strong flavor of mesquite. Another thing to keep in mind is the sweetness of the lighter woods. For example, if you're smoking a piece of meat with pecan and you don’t mix in a different flavor, then you run the risk of the meat being too sweet to eat.
Another tip to keep in mind is to not over-smoke the meat. It's a generally accepted rule to never smoke meat exceeding around half of the cooking time. Lastly, remember that smoking meat isn’t solely about flavor -- a good smoke also adds enticing color to the meat, which will make it more appealing to eat.
A Note on Softwoods
One thing to keep in mind when experimenting with your own blend of wood smoke is to never use softwoods. Softwoods, such as pine, fir, redwood, cypress and cedar, are far too resinous and tend to ruin the flavor of meat. Additionally, use of soft woods can make a wreck of your smoker. Included in the list of woods never to use when cooking meat are elm, eucalyptus, sassafras, sycamore, and liquid amber.