When it comes to selecting the “best wood” for BBQ, the answer isn’t straight forward. The wood you choose when smoking meat is only one of several factors that will effect flavor. Other bbq variables (brine, rubs, pit temperature, moisture, duration, smoke density) have more influence on your BBQ than the type of wood you choose. However, each type of wood has its own unique flavor characteristic. This article is dedicated to understanding how these characteristics can enhance the flavor of your meat, once you dial in the other basics of smoking meat.
The biggest issue when determining which woods have favorable effects on your food, is the idea of all things being equal. Two pork shoulders on consecutive days with the same wood and temperatures can come out differently based on how heavy the coating of rub was, what the relative humidity was each day, how hot the wood burned, and the differences between the pigs the meat came from, etc. Yes, that means this may be an imprecise science, and some experts say that it doesn’t matter what wood you use, it is all about process. So we will be talking about the specific influence of wood in the process and what to expect in general from each wood type to help you have better control and better results.
How smoke flavors food
We want to briefly explore how smoke flavors food so that we can take better advantage of the smoke that is produced by the wood. There is a minute bit of space, stationary air that surrounds objects. First step, the cooler the item to be smoked the better it will attract smoke. The process is called thermophoresis, simply stated particles will migrate from warm to cool surfaces.
Secondly, wet surfaces will trap smoke particles more effectively, catching the flavors with them. So keeping the meat surfaces moist will increase the smoke flavor you can achieve and this will continue throughout the process. It is a myth that meat will stop absorbing smoke flavor after two hours. In general the smoke flavors will only penetrate the first quarter inch layer of the meat. However that flavor can be intensified over longer periods of time. It can in fact get too much of a good thing, so be cognizant of that.
Lastly, look for a clean, barely visible blue tinted smoke for the best results. White billowy clouds are filled with oil and probably some creosote, both of which impart bad flavors into your food.
Best Wood for BBQ
Wood from trees that bear fruit is becoming readily obtainable in most markets. Apple and cherry are the most commonly available fruit woods around. But pear, peach and mulberry, along with wood from citrus trees are out there in specific regional markets.
What fruit woods have in common are delicate flavors that will work with virtually any meat or seafood. They are the lightest flavors they work particularly well with delicate flavored foods, milder fish and cheeses. Fruit woods perform well if you are using your smoker as an outdoor oven specifically because they will not generally overpower the food. Don’t misunderstand, they will do a great job on pork, beef or lamb. Mostly because they bring a sweetness that is complimentary to all these items. They are not necessarily the top recommendation for brisket, imparting too much sweetness for the tastes of some pitmasters.
Hickory is the most prevalent wood for industrial smoking, and is included in the preferred hardwood choices along with oak and maple. They follow that order with how strong the flavors are that they impart. Hickory, oak, maple and then alder which is the softest of the ‘hardwoods’. Pecan wood is more of a hickory-light and part of the same family, imparting an almost identical flavor profile that is milder.
There is a reason most bacon is still smoked with hickory. Pork responds very well to the smoke of hickory, and to maple. Maple also goes well with veggies and cheese, both woods are good with poultry. Oak has flavors that are good with beef, especially brisket and sausages. Alder imparts flavor similar to fruit woods, a little more sweetness and a bit more delicate, and works well across the spectrum of smoking including seafood.
Mesquite is an even harder wood and is set aside specifically because it has some unique properties. It imparts very strong flavors. It also creates an oily, petrol like taste and smell which can be off putting if you are not careful. Frankly, we don’t recommend mesquite for low and slow smoking. It works exceptionally well for short high temperature cooking, as result mesquite will appear in all levels of restaurants for their steak broiling duties.
Even though mesquite is everywhere in Texas, white oak is still the preferred smoke source. You really need to gain some experience working with, mesquite in a variety capacities before you bring it in for your long and slow smoking process. There are very few value cuts of meat anymore, so or recommendation is that advance past the novice level at smoking foods before you introduce mesquite.
We understand that we are seeing the trees and not the forest in this case. There are a multitude of woods out there, they all can be burned with varying results. That doesn’t mean they should be used for your food. You want avoid resinous woods in particular. Some can even be mildly toxic, and the last thing we want is to make our dinner guests sick.
The ultimate key is to find what you like, to safely experiment and see what flavors are the ones that you really enjoy. Then keep on it and get cooking!