Best Wood for Smoking: The Top Kinds and How to Use Them

March 9, 2023
Written by Kristy J. Norton

As you may know, there is no one best wood for smoking, instead, each type of meat has to be paired with the right smoking wood. Hickory and mesquite are great for beef, while apple, cherry, maple, and pecan are great for pork and chicken.

Growing up in the South, I had the opportunity to try out lots of different barbecues. In turn, this helped me identify how different woods flavored meats. And now, I am here to help you decide which wood chips or chunks are right for you!

In this post, I will describe the strength and flavor of the most common smoking woods. I will also show you which ones go best with each type of meat. Let’s begin!

Best wood for smoking

What is the Best Wood for Smoking?

When smoking meat, there is no single wood that is right for all meats. This is because each type of meat has its own natural flavor profile.

What’s more, each type of meat has varying flavor depths. Some meats have a stronger, more robust flavor. These can work well with stronger flavored woods.

The more delicate meats, however, need to be smoked using mild or sweet flavored woods. This way, you don’t overpower the natural flavor of the meat.

Don’t worry, though, as I will be explaining all of this to you in great detail…

Hardwoods, Softwoods, Fruit Woods, Nut Woods, Oh My!

The first thing that you should be aware of is that there are different types of wood. It is important to understand this distinction so that you make the right choice.

Hardwood, fruit woods, and nut woods are all great for smoking. Hardwoods include hickory wood and mesquite. Fruit woods include apple wood, cherry wood, maple wood, etc. Then you have the nut woods. These are pecan wood, walnut wood, etc.

All of these woods have low amounts of sap, which makes them perfect for creating smoke.


What wood should you not smoke with?

Now whatever you do, avoid softwoods at all costs. There are far too many sap and terpenes in these woods making them unacceptable for smoking. In some cases, smoking with softwoods can be downright dangerous as the wood can release toxic gases when heated.

As you can imagine, you should also refrain from smoking meat with green wood. Here, much of the heat from the fire is used to evaporate the liquid still in this wood. To add to this, when green wood is heated it can release some unpleasant flavors and odors.

Types of Wood for Smoking

Before you can identify the best wood for smoking specific cuts of meat, you must know what the options are. There are a lot of different kinds of wood for smoking meat. I will be covering the most popular smoking woods, along with a few unusual options just so that you have a full picture.

The other thing to be aware of when choosing the best wood for smoking meat is that there are different intensities for each kind of wood. Some are fairly strong while others are more moderate and then you have the truly mild flavors too.

High Intensity Woods

If you are looking for an intense flavor when smoking meat, then these are the smoking woods to consider.

Now, you should know that it is important to use these woods in small or moderate amounts. If you use too much of these woods, it will result in a bitter taste that can be overpowering.

Barbecue Grill with Wood Fire

Hickory Wood

Hickory is a great smoke wood. It produces a good flame with few sparks – it also burns hot and for a longer period of time. And, when your cook is over, this wood leaves behind pretty clean ash.

Hickory is a very strong flavor which is why a lot of pitmasters love it. If you use hickory for smoking meat, you can definitely taste it in every bite.

Here’s the thing, though. The flavor profile of hickory can depend on the genus as well as where the trees are grown. Due to this, the hickory can come out tasting bitter, savory, sweet, or even a little nutty.

So, before you buy a large supply, make sure you know where your hickory has been sourced from and what smoke flavor to expect as a result.

Mesquite Wood

Mesquite can be even stronger than hickory.

So, if you are wondering:

What wood gives the most smoke flavor? This is your answer!

If you like West Texas barbecue, though, odds are that you have already tasted this wood. The trees are pretty common around this area so it is often used for smoking meat.

Now, mesquite can be somewhat of an acquired taste. This is because it has a rather strong, earthy tone to it. As a result, it is best used in small doses.

Walnut Wood

Odds are you have never even heard of using walnut as a smoking wood. And, I have to say that it is an unusual choice. It can actually have an even more intense flavor than hickory. Unlike the other woods, though, walnut doesn’t mask the natural flavor of the meat as much.

However, if you do prefer a really strong smoke flavor, then this is the way to go.

Medium Intensity Woods

If you are looking for a medium smoky flavor, then the following woods are the ones to consider. As these have a lighter smoke flavor, you can use them in larger quantities. What’s more, you are free to mix and combine the various smoking wood as they work rather well together.

Bonfire Embers BBQ Wood Fire

Oak Wood

Oak wood is one of the best known medium intensity woods. It is great for when you want a notable smoky flavor but doesn’t want the smoke to overwhelm the meat.

The thing about oak, though, is that there are far more varieties than most people realize. White oak is pretty popular among pitmasters as it is great for low and slow types of cooking.

If you are looking for a bit more of a sweet flavor, then post oak is the way to go. There is just a hint of vanilla with this wood for smoking.

A lot of people wonder:

Is hickory or oak better for smoking?

There is no right answer here. It all depends on the kind of meat that you are smoking as well as the level of intensity that you would like with your smoky flavor.

Pecan Wood

Unlike the other nut woods, pecan wood has a slightly stronger smoky flavor. At the same time, this flavor isn’t overpowering and you can still use this wood for milder meats. It will add a nice nutty flavor to the mix.

One of the things that I like about pecan is that there is a slightly smoky aftertaste that is left on the tongue. So, if you would like to elevate whatever meat you are cooking, this is definitely a good choice.

Low Intensity Woods

Finally, you have mild wood options. Here, you get a subtle smoke flavor that pairs really well with mild flavored meats.

The mellow flavor of these woods can be a bit too mild sometimes. This is why they are often mixed in with more intense woods.

Wood burning in a barbecue

Apple Wood

There is a slight sweet and fruity flavor to this wood. It imparts these flavors beautifully to whatever meat you are smoking. At the same time, the notes are quite mild so they don’t interfere with the other flavors of the meat.

Cherry Wood

Like the fruit, cherry wood has a sweet flavor but also has a slightly tart component to it. It is also a safe wood to smoke with as there is little chance of overwhelming the flavor of the meat.

The only thing to be aware of when using this wood for smoking is that it can take a little longer to light and smoke. So, your cook may be a little longer than you anticipated.

Maple Wood

I have to say that maple is one of my favorite woods to smoke with. While it is sweet, you don’t get that fruity taste. Instead, the sweetness is similar to that of maple syrup.

The wood smoke from this wood works well with pretty much any kind of food.

Peach Wood

Peach wood is not nearly as popular as other fruit woods, but I have to say that it should be moving up the list. This has a unique flavor as while it is only mildly sweet, the mild smoke has a rich flavor to it.

If you can get it, I would suggest giving Georgia peach a try – you will thank me for it!

What is the Best Wood for Smoking Based on Meat?

Now that you have a better idea of what kind of woods there are and how each wood burns, let’s now see what you should use for each kind of meat:


Beef has a strong flavor to it. Due to this, it works well with a lot of the stronger woods. You will be able to use hickory and mesquite without any problem. Oak is also a good choice.

Now, due to the tendency of a bitter flavor with the stronger woods, I do like to balance things out when smoking beef. I like to throw in milder wood like apple, cherry, maple, or pecan.


If you are smoking pork, you do have to be mindful that pork is one of the more delicate meats. Its natural flavor is quite mild.

As a result, I like to stick to fruit woods like apple and cherry when it comes to smoking pork and pork ribs. Remember that when you are smoking ribs that there is even less meat on the bones here. So, you do have to be very careful about choosing a wood with a mild flavor.


When you smoke chicken, I would suggest that the best wood for smoking is wood with a similarly delicate flavor. So, apple, cherry, maple, and pecan are all good options.

Wood Chunks vs. Wood Chips

The final topic to discuss is whether you should use wood chips or chunks when smoking food. This all depends on the kind of grill or smoker that you are using.

For charcoal grills, wood chunks are the way to go. If you are using a gas grill, then you will need to use wood chips, along with a smoker box.

As for a pellet grill or smoker, you must use processed pellets.

Wrapping It Up

Well, there you go! Not only do you know the best woods for smoking, but you also know which kind to use for each type of meat. Now go ahead and level up your BBQ!

By Kristy J. Norton
I'm Kristy – a chef and connoisseur of all things BBQ! You can find me either in my kitchen (or someone else's) or at a big outdoor barbecue surrounded by friends and family. In both my professional and personal life I’ve picked up more than a few tips and tricks for turning out delicious food. I consider it a privilege to share it with others!
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