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When it comes to barbecue, there are three main components that work together to give you the flavor you want. Heat, time and smoke. Smoke comes from adding wood to your fire, but it’s also a traditional method of adding flavor to food. While the practice of smoking meats was used to cure and preserve meats before there was a Maytag in every kitchen, today’s pitmasters use wood to create the smoky flavor found in your favorite low-and-slow dishes. But they don’t use just any wood, and neither should you. Good smoke comes from good hardwoods. And choosing the right wood can make a noticeable difference in how your food tastes.

Which Wood Should I Use?

As a general rule, any wood that is hard and free of sap is a safe choice for smoking. But each type of wood is going to provide a different flavor profile. Some woods, like apple, produce a more mellow and subtle flavor. Because of this, apple is a wood that can be used for longer smokes without overwhelming the food. But other woods, like mesquite, produce a much bolder flavor. Burn this wood too long and you’re going to find yourself with bitter, if not inedible, food.

If you’re new to smoking, start small. We suggest using a small amount of wood chips the next time you use your grill. How? Simply soak the chips in water for 30 minutes and then place them in a smoker box or on a piece of foil with holes poked in it. Another option is to use wood pellets with a pellet smoker. Pellet smokers sit on your grill grate and come in a variety of shapes. The pellets themselves are pure hardwood and are available in several flavors. Any of these methods will allow you to gain experience while experimenting on smaller, less expensive cuts of meat.

woods pellets tube smoker

We used our tube smoker to make smoked chicken and a batch of smoked salsa

Woods Safe for Smoking

Use the list below to choose the right wood for your next meal.

  • Acacia is similar to mesquite but not as bold. It burns hot. Use it in small amounts and for shorter burns.
  • Alder produces a light flavor and is the wood of choice for smoked salmon.
  • Almond has a sweet flavor that goes well with most meats.
  • Apple is mild and goes well with both poultry and pork, imparting a slight sweetness.
  • Apricot produces a sweet and mild flavor that’s great for poultry and pork.
  • Ash is a fast-burning wood with a very light flavor.
  • Black Walnut produces a bitter taste. Use it in small amounts and mixed with a milder wood.
  • Cherry is one of the most popular woods for smoking. It’s mild and sweet flavor is complementary with most foods.
  • Crabapple  is not the same as “apple”, but you can use both varieties. Crabapple will produce a mild flavor similar to that of apple.
  • Grapefruit is mild and enhances most types of meat.
  • Grapevine can be used but can also overpower the meat and leave it bitter.
  • Hickory is a popular wood for beef and lamb, but used alone it can impart a strong flavor.
  • Lemon wood is just like the fruit: mild. It’s a good choice for most meats.
  • Lilac isn’t a wood you would typically think of for smoking, but it’s widely used for smoking cheese due to its mild flavor.
mixed woods for smoking

A combination of woods gave us great smoke and flavor

  • Madrone is a hot burning wood very similar to mesquite. The strong smoky flavor works best with beef.
  • Manzanita is a thin wood with a subtle and mellow flavor. Use on chicken and seafood.
  • Maple is a very popular choice among smokers, who like to use it for poultry and pork.
  • Mesquite is strong. It’s a hot and fast burning wood, which means it’s best for grilling, not low-and-slow cooking. It will produce a bitter flavor if used for long periods.
  • Oak is a good all-around wood. It produces a strong flavor without overwhelming the meat and is best suited to beef and lamb. For a distinctive flavor burn the wood from oaken barrels used for bourbon and whiskey.
  • Olive produces an intense smoke but a mild flavor. It can be hard to find, but goes well with fish, lamb, pork and poultry.
  • Orange, like lemon and other fruitwoods, has a mild flavor that goes well with most meats.
  • Peach is a delicious option when smoking poultry or pork due to its sweet flavor profile.
  • Pecan is hickory’s quieter little brother. It has a long burn that produces a subtle flavor. It’s a very popular choice with pork but can also hold its own with beef.
  • Pimento is the wood you want if you’re making authentic Jamaican jerk. But too much can be overpowering, so experiment until you find the flavor profile you want.
  • Plum has a sweet flavor that pairs well with pork and poultry.
  • Walnut is another strong-flavored wood. Mix it with a milder variety.

More Safe Hardwoods…

The following woods are also considered safe:

Avocado Cove Beech
Butternut Chestnut Fig
Gum Hackberry Willow

Woods to Avoid

Avoid the following woods, as they’re high in resin, contain sap or produce an acrid black smoke:

Cedar Cypress Elm
Eucalyptus Pine Fir
Redwood Spruce Sycamore