How to Choose Your Wood for Smoking Meat
Smoking meat is a great way to add flavor to any meat, poultry, or fish (even vegetables and cheese!). It doesn’t matter if you own a restaurant, or just want to add some flavor to your Sunday BBQ with the family.
Also, it is very accessible for anybody to smoke their own meat, gone are the days where quality BBQ was only found in restaurants. You can be your own expert!
No matter what the cause, you can’t just use any wood to smoke your meat because every type of wood gives off a different flavor and some burn differently than others. And yes, size matters.
Barbeque is about heat, smoke and time. If you are not careful with the wood you use, your meat may not take on the flavors you are looking for, or worse, your meat will be inedible!
If you want to know how to choose the best wood to smoke your meat and other food, keep on reading.
Use Seasoned Wood
No, seasoned wood does not mean adding salt and pepper to taste before burning it. When burning wood you want it to have been air dried for about a month (AKA seasoned wood).
You want to use air dried wood because fresh cut, or green wood, contains a lot of water. Up to 50% of wet wood’s weight is water and it creates a lot of steam and weird flavors when burned. Thus, if you have chopped or acquired fresh wood, make sure to let it sit in an area that it can peacefully and naturally air out for 30 days.
Also, you don’t want to use wood that has a lot of resin, or sap, like Pine and Spruce because it creates a thick smoke that is very bitter and makes your meat inedible. Some woods that are good for smoking, when wet, have sap but it goes away when you dry the wood.
Lastly, make sure you are using real wood! Sure, it may be easier to buy pre-packaged wood that is already dry, but ensure that it is not treated or mixed with other unnatural ingredients. Using this type of ‘wood’ can contaminate your meat and/or change the flavor.
The Size of Your Wood
Choose the size of your wood by how long you want to smoke your meat or other food. The longer you smoke for, the bigger the pieces of wood need to be.
Here are the different sizes of wood you can choose from, depending on your end goal:
1. Wood Pellets
Wood Pellets are tiny pieces made up of sawdust and other wood mill components. They are best used for small Pellet Smokers. They are perfect for adding a quick smokey flavor when barbecuing small pieces of meat, fish, poultry, vegetables, or cheese.
Wood Pellets are great for backyard barbecuing and/or impressing your dinner guests. They are not going to smoke a whole pig, however, they will bring the Southern flavors to your steak, burgers, chicken, etc.
2. Wood Chips
Wood chips are usually used for smoking small pieces of meat and fish, but they are no good for long smoking sessions because they burn too quickly. Although they do burn longer than pellets, wood chips are still not going to smoke a whole pig.
Also, they are ideal for adding a richer smoky flavor to smaller pieces of meat, unlike wood pellets which are really just a quick fix and only bring half of the flavor. Chips really infuse the meat with the flavor, as long as the meat is not too big because wood chips can only burn for so long before you have to add more.
3. Wood Chunks
Wood chunks are great for smoking larger pieces of meat (like a whole pig) for a longer duration of time. Unlike the two other options, wood chunks are big enough that they burn much slower.
Wood chunks are great for big smokers and making larger batches of meat. I don’t recommend you buy wood chunks if you are only smoking a couple pieces of steak, it’s more for smoking a whole batch of steak or more.
Also, wood chunks often come with the bark still intact. This creates a deep smoky flavor that you just can’t get with pellets, chips, or discs (that’s the next one!). It is easier, as well, to know that it is 100% wood and not mixed with other unnatural components.
4. Wood Discs
Wood discs are the most eco-friendly option as they are 100% recycled wood. Discs are like pellets as they are made up of sawdust and other sources of used wood.
Wood discs are great for smokers that need a bit more fuel than pellets. There are even some smokers that are made specifically for wood discs.
Also, that you are buying nothing but wood, as it is easy to mix other unnatural ingredients to the mix.
The Flavour of Wood
The size of your wood is only part of what will create that smokey flavor we all know and love. The wood itself defines the flavors essence.
The type of wood you choose will affect the flavor, and color of your meat. It can also create a crust on the meat for added texture and crunch. Smoking your meat really brings it to the next level, you get to play with the flavor, texture, and overall experience of barbecuing.
Choosing your specific wood is not the most important part when it comes to overall flavor. I don’t mean that you can throw just any piece of wood in your smoker (that would defeat the purpose of this blog post). But, what I do mean is that there are many types of wood which give the same smokey flavor. What you really want to watch is how mild or strong your wood is and how sweet or bitter it is.
As mentioned before, stay away from wood that contains a lot of resin like Pine, Spruce Cyprus, Redwood, Fir, and others. The smoke they emit is very pungent and no BBQ sauce can hide that!
Also, keep in mind that some wood has a more mellow flavor, like peach wood, so you have to smoke it for a longer duration of time to really make the most out of the flavors. Other wood is much stronger and can become bitter if the meat is smoked for too long.
Here are the levels of wood in regards to how strong their flavor is.
1. The Mild Side of Wood
This includes wood from fruit trees such as apple, peach, and cherry. This type of wood is much milder and sweet. Thus, as mentioned, it needs to smoke for a longer duration of time to fully benefit from the flavors.
Mildly sweet wood is ideal for smoking lighter meats like poultry, fish, and some pieces of pork. Smoking your meat with a sweeter wood pairs really well with savory side dishes, or can go nicely with a fresh and zesty salad. For example, you can pair a smoked pork loin with roasted potatoes and a fresh garden salad.
2. The Middle Side of Wood
This side of wood includes wood from maple, hickory, pecan, and oak. These types of wood are still sweet but much stronger than the wood from fruit trees. Also, you don’t have to smoke your meat for as long because it is stronger.
This type of wood pairs really well with pork, beef, and game meats. You can have fun mixing mild and middle types of wood. For example, a common mix is apple and maple wood.
At Bofinger, we smoke our meat with maple wood to bring in a fusion of southern and authentic Quebecois flavors.
3. The Strong Side of Wood
In a category of its own, mesquite is a very strong wood. If smoked for too long, mesquite wood smoke can make the meat very bitter and inedible. However, if used in moderation and with the mix of other, softer wood, mesquite can bring a very deep flavor to the meat.
Try smoking richer meats like beef, lamb, and some pork which will not get lost in the thickness of mesquite wood smoke.
When choosing your wood, put thought into it. Think about what type of meat, poultry, or fish you are smoking, the quantity, how long you will smoke it for, and the flavors you want to create.
The type of wood you choose is important in creating the right flavor, however, you shouldn’t beat yourself up if you can’t find wood from peach trees, because you get similar notes in wood from apple trees. The importance is in finding wood that compliments the flavor notes in your meat, side dishes, and overall beverage selection.
Lastly, have fun with smoking your meat. Try different combinations to see what works best for you and your taste buds. The more you try, the more you know!