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 SoftwoodsRight 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.
Meet the North American Hardwoods for what wood to use for smokingNow, 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!