BBQ Pit Master Tips: Top Wood Choices for Smoking Meat

Which Wood Should You Use for Smoking the Best BBQ?

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©2015 John Livzey for Windy City Pizza and BBQ
If you go out of your way for the best barbecue restaurant (meaning Windy City, of course), then chances are you like to barbecue at home as well. The aspiring barbecue master, particularly one wishing to brave the world of cooking over wood, shouldn’t be limited by one kind of timber. Experimenting with different types of woods will help you discover which meats and seasonings you prefer. Additionally, the learning process will make you a real expert. As background in that process, here are two wood basics:

  • Keep in mind that the type of wood used is very important when wood is your sole source of fuel. 
  • When you use charcoal, gas, or another fuel for heat and are adding chips for the smoke, the effect will be subtler and may be overshadowed by the sauce or rub.

Woods Not to Use

Let’s get this out of the way first. If you ever, in your inexperienced youth, attempted to cook over a conifer-wood campfire, you know how really awful the result can be. Pine, cedar, cypress, spruce, and other conifer woods have resin that produces unpleasant tastes and soot. In a nutshell, it will coat your smoker and make a mess of it. Non-conifer softwoods such as eucalyptus and sycamore may also yield unpleasant tastes; use with caution, if at all. The same goes for woods you might expect to be nice such as sassafras and elm. Oleander is toxic, so don’t use this at all!. Lumber may be treated, so don’t even try it. What you want for the best BBQ are nutwoods, fruitwoods, or dried “heavy” hardwoods (see below).

The Nutwoods and Fruitwoods

Fruit- and nut-woods impart a lighter flavor that tends to echo the fruit they produce. It can be sweet – too sweet to be the main wood for a big, slow-cooked piece of red meat. Use these woods on their own for chicken and fish with less powerful sauces. Any fruitwood will burn well, generally hot and long, and give a special flavor: cherry, apple, pear, and plumwood are fairly easy to find, but if you can get your hands on grape, citrus, mango, or other less common types, don’t shun them, but try them out! The same is true of nutwoods. Pecan is a big favorite, and almond is common in California, but the occasional more exotic variety, such as pistachio or hazel, is great too. Also in the light-flavored category are alder and sometimes maple.

The “Heavy” Woods

Heavy here does not refer to the density of the wood, but to a more robust flavor that lends itself to pork and red meat. Hickory is the classic in this category. Although the hickory tree does bear nuts, hickory smoke is not sweet like pecan. Mesquite smoke flavor is very assertive, with an astringent, big taste, and not for the faint of heart or those who favor subtlety. Oak and walnut are excellent for standing up to a substantial sauce, flavorful meats, and long cook times. Of course, mixing woods across categories is a great adventure for the wood-smoke artist.

The Other Variables

It’s often noted that woods vary tremendously by locale, climate, and variety. You can’t expect Midwestern red oak to impart the same flavors as California valley oak. Is the wood you’re using stripped of bark? That will make a huge difference compared to wood with bark still attached, as different compounds (tannins, for example) are concentrated in bark. How dry the wood and how hot the fire will make a difference in the result.How to obtain the ideal amount and quality of smoke is a whole other subject, but it is a major factor. We’ll touch on that in another blog!

Expert BBQ Mastery Served with a Smile!

For those afternoons or evenings when you can’t – or don’t want to – cook, clean, or experiment, Windy City Pizza and BBQ has you covered. Bubba, our Pitmaster, takes his wood pickin’s very seriously. Dine in, carryout, delivery, or have it catered – you decide how you want to enjoy the best Texas BBQ west of the Rio Grande! Give us a call at (650) 578-1942 or place your BBQ delivery order online today!