The casual BBQ fan isn’t likely to be able to discern whether a pork shoulder was smoked using cherry or pecan wood, most people just want their BBQ to taste like smoke. That said, occasionally folks ask me which wood I use and why, and when I was asked about this topic for porch.com I knew it was time to expand on the topic. So, what wood do I use? It depends on what I’m cooking, but there’s no right or wrong answer here—this is all about personal preference. Sure, there’s some BBQ etiquette amongst those on the competition BBQ circuit, but if you’re not a competition cook I say experiment and find what you like.
Does the Type of Wood You Use for Smoking Matter?
After many years of eating and cooking BBQ I’ve come to appreciate the various species of wood and how they complement the meat while increasing the depth of flavor. Most hardwood species are fine to use on their own, but definitely experiment to see if combining wood types enhances flavor. I do this often because different woods create different flavors and colors. Think of it as using more than one seasoning on a piece of meat. Using a fruitwood along with pecan for example, is a really nice combination.
As for chunks or chips? I prefer chunks; they are bigger and burn slower, but chips are fine in certain applications. That said, using wood splits is another option that I highly recommend. Not only are they great for smoke, they also impart a unique flavor when burned down into a bed of coals in order to cook food right over top of them.
Most importantly, remember that not all wood is good for cooking and smoking. Be sure the wood is dried, and without any rot or fungus on it before using it. If you have a great local source, you’re lucky. I don’t, (most people don’t) so I get mine from shipped to me from Cutting Edge Firewood. It’s top-quality stuff that’s clean and kiln-dried, so it’s perfect for cooking and smoking.
Finally, it’s important to note that where the wood is harvested can be more important than the species itself. For example, an oak harvested near a cherry tree may produce a flavor that that is closer to the cherry tree than another oak harvested in a different locale. This has to do with the soil the tree was grown in, and the subsequent amount of minerals contained within the wood.
Apple wood has a slight, fruity flavor profile with a hint of sweetness, but overall it’s pretty mild. Its flavor is subtle enough that it can be used with all types of meat. I especially like it with pork and chicken. It can be used to smoke beef when paired with some mesquite for a flavorful blend. Apple wood can also change the color of light colored meat like chicken, but the color change isn’t extreme like cherry wood.
Super versatile for all types of meat, cherry wood is sweet, fruity, and mild. Not only does it provide a great depth of flavor, it also changes the color, giving the meat a rosy red to a dark brown shade.
Hickory is the most common type of wood used for smoking. Sweet and full of flavor, some find it to be overpowering when used by itself, making it a great option to pair with another more mild type of wood.
Oak wood has a strong intense flavor, almost as intense as hickory. It can be used by itself or blended with a fruit wood like apple or cherry. It works well with any kind of meat, but it is a popular pick to use with brisket.
The ideal wood for pork, peach wood has an intense flavor like hickory but it is sweeter and fruity. It can be used for other meats, too, such as chicken and turkey.
Pecan wood has a mild flavor that is more intense than fruit wood but not as strong compared to hickory. Its subtle flavor that pairs extremely well with all varieties of meat including pork and even salmon.