Barbeque wood is the magic ingredient for smoked BBQ food. There are a few ins’ and outs’ to which woods to use with what meats – and which woods to definitely avoid. You can collect wood locally or you can have bags of wood chips or wood chunks in a variety of flavors delivered to your door. There if you buy wood chips there is also a vital piece of equipment you need to buy before you start.
Barbeque wood is always some type of hardwood; softwoods are never used. This is because hardwoods contain cellulose – a sugar, which effectively “caramelizes” imparting a “sweet” aroma under heat.
Also, other chemical compounds impart the spicy and pungent aromas we associate with barbecue smoking or pit barbeque roasting. Softwoods like pine contain more resin, which turns to soot when burnt and contributes nothing desirable to the taste of the food – so we don’t use them!
I only mention all this, because although you can buy BBQ Wood in bulk, it’s cheaper i.e. free to collect your own – and also some newbies might know a pine forest and give that a try!
Actually, collecting BBQ wood – the right wood – is an amusing way to spend an hour or two outdoors with the kids.
BBQ Wood Chips
The simplest idea for anyone with a lidded grill or BBQ smoker is to buy bags of BBQ wood chips like these from Amazon.
They come in every imaginable variety and can be purchased anywhere that sells BBQ equipment.
First, soak them in water for a few hours, then put them in a BBQ smoker box above the heat source of your barbecue and close the lid.
The wood chips will smoke profusely adding a glorious range of flavors to your food.
Another similar product used in grill or grills or pit barbeques is wood chunks. They are basically tennis-ball-sized chunks of wood and come in all the usual flavors (if that is the correct term) of wood mentioned below.
If you can’t find them in local shops, there are several suppliers at Amazon.com – see the search box below.
Chart of Popular Barbecue Woods
|Mesquite||This is the classic TexMex and Southwestern flavor. It has a strong, biting, zesty flavor.||Use sparingly as this is the strongest smoking wood. A little goes a long way. I like it on brisket and ribs. Good on chicken too. One of the hottest burning woods.|
|Hickory||Hickory is more of a sweet, smokey flavor than mesquite. It is the most popular smoking wood and is what most people would associate with the “classic” American barbecue.||Can be used with any meat especially brisket and pork. Sometimes used in combination with oak for a milder flavor.|
|Red Oak||Most people describe red oak as a sweeter version of white oak but overall, oak is not as strong as hickory. Most people would describe oak as a neutral or mellow flavor.||Can be used with any meat and in combination with other woods like hickory and/or fruitwoods. I often think of oak as a heat source rather than a smoke flavor because the other woods are so much more distinct.|
|White Oak||Similar to red oak, but not quite as sweet of a flavor. Can also be found in the form of wine or whiskey barrel chunks. In which case, you would gain the extra aroma of the wine or whiskey.||Same as red oak.|
|Oak Wine Barrel Blocks||A great oaky smoke with a surprisingly strong wine aroma in the smoke.||Great with ribs and chicken but can be used with butts or brisket too.|
|Pecan||A sweeter, nuttier flavor similar to hickory but not as strong. Tasty with a subtle character.||Can be used with any meat similar to oak and makes a good stand alone source of heat and flavor. Good with poultry, beef, pork and cheese. Pecan is an all-around superior smoking wood.|
|Maple||A gentle, sweet aroma and flavor. Smoky, mellow and slightly sweet.||Great for chicken and pork. Good with pork, poultry, cheese, and small game birds.|
|Fruitwoods… apple, cherry, peach, pear, apricot.||These fruitwoods impart a mild, sweet, fruity hint of smoke flavor to your meats.||Usually used with chicken and ribs and can be mixed with oak to add just a touch of the fruity flavor.|
|Alder||Very delicate with a hint of sweetness. Similar to maple and the fruitwoods. It imparts a subtle, sweet aroma. Some say it has a hint of cedar and that its syrup smells like bananas.||Popular in the Pacific Northwest it is used a lot to smoke salmon. It can be used for chicken and pork too.|
|Grapevine||A rich and fruity aroma as you would expect from a fruitwood.||Mostly used for chicken, wild game or fish. Popular in the wine regions of the world.|
|Cedar (planks)||DO NOT burn this in your firebox, rather use it for planking inside your cooking chamber. A sharp, unique, acidic citrusy flavor.||Mainly used with fish.|
|Beech||A hardwood similar to oak in flavor.||Use like oak if you have this wood available in your area.|
|Birch||A softer wood with a flavor similar to maple.||Good for pork and chicken.|
|Corncob||Usually ground into a powder and used in a foil pack or smoke box. It is strong, so use sparingly as an added flavor combined with other woods. It imparts a sweet flavor.||Good for chicken and fish.|
|Walnut||Strong, bitter flavor so use sparingly and in combination with other woods. Very heavy smoke flavor, usually mixed with lighter woods like almond, pear or apple.||Used mostly with heavy game. Can be bitter if used alone. Good with red meats and game.|
|Cottonwood||It is a softer wood than alder and very subtle in flavor.||Use it for fuel but use some chunks of other woods (hickory, oak, pecan) for more flavor. Don’t use green cottonwood for smoking.|
|Gravevines||Tart. Provides a lot of smoke. Rich and fruity.||Good with poultry, red meats, game and lamb.|
|Lilac||Very light, subtle with a hint of floral.||Good with seafood and lamb.|
Some types of wood are unsuitable or even poisonous when used for grilling. Don’t use any wood from conifer trees, such as PINE, FIR, SPRUCE, REDWOOD, CEDAR, CYPRESS, etc. Also ELM, EUCALYPTUS, SASSAFRAS, SYCAMORE, and LIQUID AMBER wood is unsuitable for smoking.
Which Wood is Best?
The barbeque wood you use could be dictated by what grows wild in your region, and your own taste – there is no best really..
In Europe, this would be Alder, Oak, Apple, and Cherry. In the US Hickory and Mesquite are popular, but with many other species (including Oak, Alder, etc) being used in different states or regions.
So here is your guide to which wood to use with which meat.
- Alder – relatively low heat compared to other woods, and delicate flavor, making it good for fish, especially salmon and slow-cooked pork.
- Oak – another with a lower heat output, but with a stronger flavor. Good for longer cooking times required by brisket, ribs, lamb or game.
- Apple – produces a sweet flavor, good with white meat – pork, ham, sausages, and poultry.
- Cherry – gives a distinctly fruity taste and goes well with any red meat, lamb, pork, ham, poultry, or even fish. It also darkens meat.
- Grapevine wood – quite fruity, awesome with chicken and whitefish. Hard to come by unless you have a vineyard nearby – search on Google though, you’ll be surprised how many there are around. Ask nicely and you’ll probably take a load of cuttings etc.
- Hickory – probably the most popular barbeque wood in the US, gives a strong aroma that sets mouths watering. Used sparingly it’s good for any red meat (especially ribs), pork, poultry, even burgers.
- Mesquite – a favorite from Texas, a lot of heat and a strong flavor needing care in use i.e. don’t use it on cuts that need long cooking times. Use with beef, ribs, venison, fish.
- Lilac – This gets used in the UK by those who know. Pleasant floral taste, very good with lamb and game birds like pheasant.
- Asado style fire pit barbecues use Espinillo – a type of Acacia that grows in South America which is often used as BBQ wood or to make charcoal.
Other commonly used, that I haven’t tried are Pecan and Peach, but they are on my shopping list.
Many experienced people use two or more barbeque woods in combination, either to combine types (combined 50/50), or to offset stronger flavored woods with another milder one (in which case reduce the amount of the stronger wood to say 75/25).
For example, apple and cherry together would be done 50/50, or apple and pecan might be 75/25 (pecan is nice, but I believe it’s relatively strong). Just experiment, it’s all a matter of taste and experience.
Where to Buy Barbeque Wood
Almost all of the BBQ woods listed above are available in the form of wood chips, chunks, and planks on Amazon. The rest grows wild, in gardens or commercially where the producers might be willing to let you take prunings and offcuts.
BBQ wood chips used in conjunction with a smoker box are best for indirect grilling or smoking.
- Read about other BBQ tools and accessories
- How to use a smoker Box with your BBQ wood chips
- BBQ smoking 101