February 2020


Our reference guide for what wood to use for smoking with pictures of our double filet for each species

Our reference guide for what wood to use for smoking

WHAT WOOD TO USE FOR SMOKING

I see the question asked so many times and in so many ways.  What is the best wood to use for smoking? What is the best wood to use for smoking (fill in the blank with your favorite food)?

I’m going to shake things up a bit by stating there is no rule book saying a specific wood must be used with a specific food.  There are, however, some basic things you should know to reduce the risks of toxicity, damage to your equipment, and overall ruining your barbecue.  Use the wrong hardwood and you can bitter any food you expose to that wood’s smoke.

Absolutely No Softwoods

Right up front, let me tell you, only smoke with hardwood.  Softwoods or coniferous woods should never be used for cooking because they have elevated sap levels and more air in their cell structure.  This causes the wood to burn fast, hot, produce lots of sparks, and produce unpleasant flavors not ideal for flavoring foods.  Let’s be clear on what a softwood is: pine, redwood, cedar, fir, spruce, hemlock, larch, cypress.

I realize that cedar has been a popular softwood used for plank cooking or wrapping foods.  If you want to learn more about the risks associated specifically with cedar, see my earlier article  and learn why you should discontinue this practice.

Chef Bert helps the differences between hardwoods and softwoods.

#chefbertandtom

Tom contemplating the difference between hardwood and softwood

#chefbertandtom

Meet the North American Hardwoods for what wood to use for smoking

Now, meet the North American Hardwoods!  Known as deciduous trees that produce broad leaves, produce a fruit or a nut, and generally go dormant in the winter, hardwoods are the woods to use for cooking and makeup roughly 40 percent of all trees in the United States.  However, not all hardwoods are created equal when it comes to flavoring foods.  Let’s examine some of the specific hardwoods of North America.  I am referencing our key to the boldness of the wood’s flavor (= Mild = Medium = Strong)

 Alder:

Part of the Birch family of hardwoods, Alder is a relatively soft hardwood of medium density.  It is most commonly used to smoke fish but can be used with mild poultry cuts, pork, vegetables, fruits and spices for natural wood flavoring/smoking.  The flavor profile is mild on our scale of boldness.  Alder provides a neutral coloring to the outer skin of foods and is the preference for those who like to cold smoke.

Ash:

Ash hardwood is part of the Oleaceae family or olive family of hardwoods and can be used with any food for natural wood flavoring/smoking.  The flavor profile is on the light side making it ideal for most any food but in particular, it works great with wood-fired pizza as it can lose moisture quickly providing for a great bed of coals.  Ash provides a neutral coloring to the outer skin of foods.

Aspen:

Considered a lightweight hardwood, Aspen is known to have “wet pockets” which can lead to some difficulty with using this as a cooking wood due to its tendency for bacteria development.  Variations in moisture can result in temperature variation during cooking which is directly opposite the goal when fire cooking.

   Basswood:

This hardwood is known as the preferred wood for carving.  It grows commonly with red oak, white ash, and sugar maple trees.  This wood is soft and light which makes it a quick burner.  It does not have any notable odor or taste which makes it a poor choice as a cooking wood.

American Beech:

This hardwood grows in large stands and mixes in with many of the other dominate hardwoods.  It is a popular filler wood for making charcoal so you know it burns long and evenly.  It is classified as moderate in flavor boldness.

 

Birchwood:

This can be an ideal firewood choice due to the prevalence of the varieties of birch and the strength of the wood itself.  However, it is not a highly flavorful hardwood for cooking and burns too hot.  If used for fire cooking, you will have a challenge controlling the cooking temperature.

Buckeye:

This hardwood produces a poisonous nut as well as twigs.  For that reason alone, it is not recommended as a smoking/cooking wood.

  

Butternut:

This hardwood belongs to the genus that includes walnut though it is not as weight-heavy a wood as walnut.  Don’t let the name confuse you.  There is no buttery taste to this wood.  In fact, it does not offer any balanced qualities when used for cooking and for that reason, is not recommended.

 

Cherry:

Like Oak, there are many species within the genus of cherry.  It has an obvious fruity aroma and tends to light easily producing a steady burn and flavor.  Wild or forest grown cherry is very different from orchard cherry which can have bitter undertones which may in part, be due to the chemical application commonly applied to nursery trees.  Feel free to use it with poultry, beef, pork, lamb, even vegetables, as it is a workhorse when it comes to flavoring foods.  Be sure to use a meat probe when cooking with cherry wood as this wood provides a reddish-pink hue to the meat that can easily be mistaken for under-cooking.

  Chestnut:

This is a very hearty hardwood that is resistive to decay so it is not necessarily an easy lighting wood.  It can be used for smoking though I certainly feel there are better choices out there.

  Cottonwood:

This hardwood is part of the genus that contains the aspens and poplars.  As such, like its siblings, it does not make for a good smoking wood.  In fact, when it becomes wet, it produces a sour odor which can transfer to food.

 

  Elm:

Although this is a dominant hardwood in the USA it is a hardwood that has no characteristic odor or taste.  For that reason, it does not make for an ideal cooking wood.

  Gum (Sweetgum):

A very heavy hardwood that holds moisture for indefinite periods of time which causes it to be a poor choice for pleasant smoke flavors.  This can produce musty aromas that can transmit to foods.

  Hackberry:

This is a moderately hard wood that has a yellow to grayish heartwood that does not make it the best choice for smoking.  The benefits of exposing food to this wood are not well documented and for that reason, is not an ideal choice.

  Hickory/Pecan:

Since these hardwoods are part of the same genus they share similar qualities: dense wood that is strong, can be difficult to lite, but produce a lot of color and flavor to foods.  What should be noted here is that not all the species are the same.  Some hickory varieties are very bold and can have bitter undertones.  It is important to learn the differences between varieties before selecting one for cooking.

   Maple:

There are over 120 species of maple so let’s clarify some of the terms.  Sugar maple and black maple are also called hard maple.  Silver maple, red maple, and boxelder are called soft maple.  These maples make for excellent smoking and cooking woods producing beautiful even coloring and a moderate flavor level.

   Persimmon:

This is not a heavily populated hardwood in the USA and it is a slow grower.  It can be confused with Hickory due to similar coloring.  However, it does not produce the same flavors as hickory.

  Poplar:

An extremely light hardwood that does not hold any ideal moisture for smoldering to produce a clean smoke.  Poplar burns too quickly to be an ideal choice for cooking.

  Sycamore:

Although this hardwood has a medium weight and can burn evenly and for good length, it does not do anything for coloring foods or adding any pleasant flavor.  For this reason, it is not recommended for cooking.

  Red Oak:

The oaks are the one hardwood that worldwide dominates with the greatest number of species.  This is a heavy wood that can be difficult to light but once it ignites, it produces intense smoke and flavoring that is easy to distinguish when consuming foods cooked over it.  Red oak has a strong aroma and flavor, requiring a trained hand to use it.

  Walnut:

One of the heaviest hardwoods available, it belongs to the same genus as hickory and pecan.  If classified as smoking, it is on the bold side and should be used in small quantities.  The wood produces a very dark outer “bark” coloring.

  White Oak:

Similar in structure to Red Oak, the white variety tends to be less strong aromatically though it still produces an obvious bold flavor to foods.  Because it is a heavy, dense wood, it holds moisture for a long time making it more ideal for hot smoking and grilling rather than for cold smoke application.

There you have a quick guide on the hardwoods of North America and those considered ideals for fire cooking.  Experiment and keep a written log of what works with the other ingredients you use in your wood cooking.  Hope you enjoyed our discussion of what wood to use for smoking!

What is the best wood to smoke meat with?

Although we would all love to give credit to just one item, it’s a combination of the hardwood type, the cut of meat, what you do to the meat (marinade, rub, etc.), and how it is cooked (charcoal grill, gas grill, electric grill, etc.).

Generally, bolder meats like beef respond to bolder hardwoods like oak and hickory for pronounced flavor while more subtle meats like chicken tend to be flavored nicely with the more moderate hardwoods like maple, ash and cherry.  Pork is pretty-middle-of-the-road when it comes to the meat’s boldness, so it can take either a bold or moderate hardwood species.

In case you didn’t notice, we have purposely omitted orchard woods because at SmokinLicious® we are concerned about the spraying and chemical pesticides that may make these woods not suitable for smoking.

owhat wod to use for smoking

SmokinLicious® products used in this blog:

Wood Chips- Grande Sapore®

Wood Chunks- Single & Double Filet

More Related reading on this subject

More Related reading on this subject

Additional reading:

-BEYOND PRICING: THE TOP THINGS TO CONSIDER WHEN PURCHASING COOKING WOOD

-IS WOOD-TAR CREOSOTE THE ‘MONSTER’ TO WOOD-FIRED COOKING

-TO BARK OR NOT

what wood to use for smoking

Dr Smoke Our reccommendation on what wood to use for smoking

Dr. Smoke- Our recommendation on what wood to use for smoking

Try our technique on Smokey Sweet Potatoes for a great addition to your BBQ!

Try our technique on Smokey Sweet Potatoes for a great addition to your BBQ!

Try Smokey Sweet Potatoes for your BBQ Click To Tweet

Listen to the audio of this blog

 

We introduced you to smoked potatoes some time ago giving you an easy method of smoking cubed potatoes .  Now, we look at sweet potato, a very popular root vegetable that does particularly well on the grill.  This time, we’ll smoke the potatoes whole to allow for versatility for recipes.

Get 5 or 6 sweet potatoes selected, preferably of equal size, and let’s get to the grill!

Choose Your Equipment

I’m going to use two pieces of equipment today to demonstrate how easily it is to work with what you own to add a smoke component

For my gas grill, I’ll be using a smoker box equipped with 3-4 wood chunks in double filet size.  For the charcoal grill, I’m incorporating both lump charcoal and briquet for the fuel and adding double filet wood chunks for flavor.  My charcoal grill is a traditional kettle grill.  Both these units are set up for two-zone cooking which means the fuel is on one side – in the case of the gas grill, burners are lit on one side only, for the charcoal grill, charcoal is banked to one side of the grill, using both lit and unlit coals to sustain the heat level.  All cooking will be done on the side that does not have any direct heat.

Our Smokinlicious wood chunks on the coals providing great smokey flavor for these smokey Sweet Potatoes

#woodchunks

With a target cooking temperature of 325-350°F, these sweet potatoes will cook up and get smoky in no time!

Tasting Notes: Preparation of the sweet potatoes prior to smoking is simple.  Wash the potatoes well, pat dry, and then trim off the two ends.  Using a knife, pierce the ends one time and the sides several times to provide injection areas for the smoke vapor.  This will ensure an even smoke flavor.

No Work Grilling & Smoking Smokey Sweet Potatoes

Once the grill of your choice is set up, it’s just a matter of placing the whole potatoes on the grill grate, indirect side, and allowing them to tenderize.  This will take about 75 minutes total.  There is no need to do any rotation of the potatoes; just allow to infuse with flavor. 

Our double filet wood chunks in the smoker box on the gas grill providing the flavor for our smokey sweet potatoes

#twozonecooking

If you’ve followed our recommendation for the charcoal grill – placing unlit charcoal/briquets on the direct side of the grill, lighting a chimney starter of charcoal, and pouring over the unlit coals when glowing hot, then adding the wood chunks – you’ll have plenty of fuel for the entire cook time.

Once tender, remove from the grill and set aside to use in your favorite sweet potato recipe.  I’ll be making a smoked sweet potato and chipotle soup with mine, which we will post the recipe soon.

One important point is to know that the boldness of the smoke will be much greater from a charcoal grill than a gas/LP unit.  You can see the difference on the skin of the potatoes that I’ve grilled today.  Nevertheless, grilled and smoked sweet potatoes are full of sweet, smoky flavor you’ll want to enjoy all year long.

What’s your favorite sweet potato recipe?  Leave us a comment to opine and subscribe to get all our postings on tips, techniques and recipes.  Bringing innovation to wood fired cooking with recipes, techniques and the science behind the fire, smoke, and flavor. That’s SmokinLicious®.

SmokinLicious® Products Used in this recipe:

Foto de nuestros trozos de madera especial usó en filete flanco enrollado

#woodchunks

Wood Chunks- Double Filet

More related reading on smokey sweet potatoes- see our smoking & Grilling tips and technique see our directory on previous blogs!

More related reading on smokey sweet potatoes- see our smoking & Grilling tips and technique see our directory on previous blogs!

Other blog topics like this one:

-INFUSING WOOD SMOKE INTO BRUSSELS SPROUTS

-HOW TO TURN YOUR CHARCOAL GRILL INTO A SMOKER.

-SMOKED CHEESY POTATOES- WHAT A WONDERFUL TWIST

Dr. Smoke- Smokey Sweet Potatoes are just Yummy!

Dr. Smoke- Smokey Sweet Potatoes are just Yummy!

In the Bark or Not debate this Diagram shows the two key elements of the tree that can affect your Barbecue results. Smokinlicious® only harvest wood from the heartwood of the tree.

In the Wood Bark or Not debate this Diagram shows the two key elements of the tree that can effect your Barbecue results. Smokinlicious® only harvest wood from the heartwood of the tree.

This Diagram shows the two key elements of the tree that can affect your Barbecue results. Smokinlicious® only harvests wood from the heartwood of the tree.

Listen to the audio of this blog about Bark or Not

Listen to the audio of this blog about Bark or Not

TO BARK OR NOT

Should I cook with wood bark or go bark-free?

I’ve heard all kinds of reasoning for leaving the bark on: it burns up right away so you don’t need to worry.  It’s what gives the flavor to foods.  It’s what gives the color to smoked and grilled foods.  It is the essence of BBQ!

Well, my intention is to simply provide you with more detail about what is in the bark and then you can decide for yourself if you want to include it in your wood-fired cooking method.

What Is Bark?

There are two types of bark in every tree: living bark which is called phloem and dead bark called rhytidome.  For today’s discussion, I am only focusing on the rhytidome or dead bark which is the outer bark layer.

Outer bark’s main purpose is to protect the wood tissues against mechanical damage and preserve the wood tissues from temperature and humidity variations.  Bark chemistry is much more complicated than wood tissue chemistry but let’s cover the basics.

Chemistry of Bark

Outer bark has high concentrations of pectin, phenolic compounds, and minerals.  Although the exact chemical levels vary by species, the location of the tree, the age of the tree, and growth conditions of the tree let me list some of the common extractives:

ethyl ether – a common laboratory solvent as well as a starter fluid component

dichloromethane – common compound used in paint strippers and degreasers as well as to decaffeinate coffees and teas

calcium oxalate crystals – a calcium salt found in plant materials with a link to kidney stones in humans

Air Pollutant Meter

For many years, university and research facilities around the world have used tree bark as a bioindicator of air pollutant levels as the bark is highly porous, rough, and high in lipids making its surface ideal for absorption.  It’s been proven that tree bark soaks up airborne gases and particles.  In fact, in my own home state of New York, the Niagara Falls area trees have been noted to have significantly higher levels of Dechlorane. Plus, a flame retardant chemical that is produced by a factory in that city.  How much higher?  Several thousand times higher!

After many decades of non-regulated chemical use in various products – think pesticides, flame retardants, building material preservatives, etc. – and with the subsequent halting of production of many of these highly toxic chemicals in the 1980s and 90s, research now shows that as those chemicals evaporated, they became airborne particles.  Those particles landed and were absorbed by the outer tree bark.

Temperature Fluctuation

My experience with bark-on woods used for the intended purpose of cooking has been that bark results in temperature control issues.  Often, when the bark combusts it does so in variable levels, producing a short burst of elevated temperature.  This is likely due in part, to the chemical air pollutant particles that have settled into the outer bark layer.  Knowing that bark harbors impurities that the tree is exposed to, I hypothesize that there likely are other particles, likely transferred via air as well as direct contact from the carrier (think animals, humans, etc.), that are absorbed by the tree’s bark.

Change of Taste

Just as lighter fluid can add unpleasant or at the very least a distinct taste difference in foods cooked over product lit with lighter fluid, I caution that some of you will also find an off taste to foods cooked over bark-on woods.

If you are lucky enough to have a source of wood within your own property, that has no neighborly contact with chemical industry, and you feel confident that the bark-on wood is safe, then the choice to cook with it may be easy.

If you rely on an outside source say a firewood supplier, you may want to rethink cooking over that bark-on product. Click To Tweet

Can you use bark in a smoker?

Bark on wood used for cooking isn’t at all a good thing!  A tree’s bark is its outer skin which protects it from exposure to external elements like mold and harmful chemical air pollutants. This should not be confused with the dark outer layer found on smoked foods- this is not harmful. Tree bark cooking wood is not a healthy choice and could be tainted by even trace amounts of pollutants that have been absorbed over a tree’s life.

Chef Bert explaining that bark protects the tree

#chefbertandtom

Chef Bert warns Tom that bark absorbs toxins

#chefbertandtom

We hope you found the article interesting and helpful.  Leave a comment or suggestion as we’d love to hear from you so we can bring the information you’re looking for.   And don’t forget, follow us and subscribe so you don’t miss anything!­­

 

 

 

More related reading on Applewood and other orchard woods see our smoking & Grilling tips and technique see our directory on previous blogs!

More related reading on bark free cooking wood see our smoking & Grilling tips and technique see our directory on previous blogs!

Additional Reading You May Like:

10 Thinks To Consider Before Purchasing Wood For Cooking, Grilling & Smoking

-THE BALANCE OF WOOD LIGNIN IN BARBECUE

-APPLEWOOD – WHY WE DON’T USE IT! – HERE’S WHY

SmokinLicious® products referenced in this blog:

Smoking Wood Chips- Grande® Sapore

Dr Smoke- "Dr Smoke is very biased over this topic. After years of cooking, the inclusion of bark in a smoker adds impurities trapped in the bark to your food. We are a no bark proponent!"

Dr. Smoke- “Dr. Smoke is very biased over this topic. After years of cooking, the inclusion of bark in a smoker adds impurities trapped in the bark to your food. We are a NO bark propendents in the Bark or not debate”