Section 8
Wood for smoking

  1. Wood for smoking

    8.1 Types of wood suitable for smoking

      Pat Lehnherr--

      • ALDER - Very delicate with a hint of sweetness. Good with fish, pork, poultry, and light-meat game birds.

      • ALMOND - A nutty and sweet smoke flavor, light ash, very much like pecan. Good with all meats.

      • APPLE - Very mild with a subtle fruity flavor, slightly sweet. Good with poultry (turns skin dark brown) and pork.

      • ASH - Fast burner, light but distinctive flavor. Good with fish and red meats.

      • BLACK WALNUT - Very heavy smoke flavor, usually mixed with lighter wood like hickory or mesquite. Can be bitter if used alone. Good with red meats and game.

      • CHERRY - Mild, fruity, but slightly bitter if it comes from chokecherry trees. Good with poultry, pork and beef (turns skin brown).

      • GRAPEVINES - Tart. Provides a lot of smoke. Rich and fruity. Good with poultry, red meats, game and lamb.

      • HICKORY - Most commonly used wood for smoking. Sweet to strong, heavy bacon flavor. Good with pork, ham and beef.

      • LILAC - Very light, subtle with a hint of floral. Good with seafood and lamb.

      • MAPLE - Smoky, mellow and slightly sweet. Good with pork, poultry, cheese, and small game birds.

      • MESQUITE - Strong earthy flavor. Good with beef, fish, chicken, and game. One of the hottest burning.

      • OAK - Heavy smoke flavor. Red oak is good on ribs, white oak makes the best coals for longer burning. Good with red meat, fish and heavy game.

      • ORANGE and LEMON - Light and citrusy. Good with pork and game birds.

      • PEAR - A nice subtle flavor. Much like apple. Excellent with chicken and pork.

      • PECAN - A cool burner. Nutty and sweet. Tasty with a subtle character. Good with steaks, ribs, and cheese.

      • SWEET FRUIT WOODS - Apricot, Plum, Peach

        Great on most white or pink meats, including chicken, turkey, pork, fish. The flavor is milder and sweeter than hickory.

      Rock McNelly--
      Well-seasoned COTTONWOOD is successfully used in several barbecue establishments near me in Colorado. It is a softer wood than alder and very subtle in flavor. Use some chunks of other woods (hickory, oak, pecan) for more flavor. I was told don't ever use green cottonwood for smoking.

      Dave Klose--
      On the subject of BBQ woods, I have found the best results to be from nut and fruit-bearing trees, cut down from 6 months to 2 years ago. Live oak, hickory, mesquite, pecan, peach, pear, apple, apricot, and maple to list a few. These are the safest types to use for cooking. I have found that wood over two years old tends to produce a dirty taste in the food more often than not. Wood can be cut down whole, and split after five or so months of seasoning. I recommend splitting three days or so before cooking with it.

      Bill Wight--
      The ACACIA tree is in the same family as mesquite. When burned in a smoker, acacia has a flavor similar to mesquite but not quite as heavy.

      Dave Klose--
      Herbs and Spices - Don't forget you can add soaked garlic, peppers, onions, herbs, and spices directly to your fire. Good with all meats and vegetables. Try using apple chips soaked in water, placed on the coals when you cook duck or goose in your smoker. It will taste like you rubbed your bird with honey. Delicious. Also try smoking a cherry pie on pecan wood. Great.

      Scott Mark--
      Be careful when you use hickory--it's a very strong-flavored wood. If you're going to be smoking for a long time (butts, shoulders, brisket), a lot of hickory can impart a bitter taste unless you first pre-burn the hickory to coals. As to the question of how long to season wood, in my opinion 3 months isn't long enough to dry the wood out enough. I personally don't cook with anything seasoned less than 6 months unless I'm preburning. Pre-heating the wood will help you to avoid the dreaded stale (cold) smoke and the nasties associated with it. I pre-burn my hickory when I'm doing only ribs.

    • [I just got a load of mixed hardwood. It all looks the same. The bark on the hickory looks smoother than the oak but I can't visually tell the difference between the oak and hickory. Can somebody help?]

      Rock McNelly--
      Just looking at the bark, it really is hard to tell the difference between hickory and oak, and I have a less than a perfect record guessing between them! But what I have found to work, almost 100% of the time, is to take a lighter and burn the edge of the wood just enough to release that good aroma that each one has. Hickory will jump out at you like a freight train! While the oak will be just a bit more subtle about it. Another idea is to make yourself sort of a "catalog" of the different woods once you've positively identified a chunk of it. Use a piece of plywood, or something similar, and mount chunks of each wood, with the bark on them. Put the name under each piece. Keep the catalog near your wood pile for easy reference.

    • [I was wondering what the BTU content of the different smoking woods is?]

      Danny Gaulden--
      I'm gonna make this simple for you. Pound for pound, all woods create the same amount of BTUs. Does this mean that a cord of seasoned pine puts out the same amount of heat as a cord of seasoned hickory? NO! The hickory will produce twice the amount of BTU's of the pine because it weights roughly twice as much as pine.

      So if one threw three 18 inch long, 4 inch round, seasoned hickory logs into their wood-burning stove, they would create about twice the heat of three pine logs the same size, for the hickory is much denser and heavier. But, if one was to put 20 pounds of pine, or 20 pounds of hickory into the firebox, the overall heat would be the same. Now understand the pine would burn much faster, and give off a lot of heat fast, then die down, as the hickory would burn much slower, and give its heat off at a more even rate. By the way, pound for pound, green wood gives off much less BTUs than seasoned wood, for it takes a lot of the heat energy to burn the moisture out of the green wood (i.e. turn it to steam). Do not ever use pine for barbecuing--I'm only using it here to show the differences in wood density.

      Ed Pawlowski--
      A cord of hardwood is about 12,500,000 BTU of heat.

      A hundred gallons of heating oil is 13,600,000 BTU of heat.

      Natural gas has a 1000 to 1100 BTU per cubic foot.

      Propane has 2519 BTU per cubic foot or 21,670 BTU per pound or 92,600 BTU per gallon.

      Note that the hardwood is an estimate that will vary depending on how tight it is stacked, the mix of wood, and the seasoning of the wood.

      As long as I'm tossing numbers, a ton of coal is 25,000,000 BTU and a pound of Styrofoam is 18,400 BTU.

      So, to answer the original question, the harder the wood the more power packed in the same volume. Wood density can vary considerably in the same tree so you will find little specific information about the heat content of a species.

    • [I have this wild cherry that has been down for a couple years. It is not rotten but it is blackened on the ends from the weather and has a few soft spots where ants have gotten into it. OK to use it for smoking?]

      Danny Gaulden--
      All seasoned woods tend to turn a dark color on the ends. If the areas where the insects have eaten are airy and spongy, then do away with them. I see no reason why you can't use the good areas for barbecuing.

      The only thing that concerns me about using wood that is very seasoned is that it tends to burst into flames rather than burn slowly. The problem this creates can be a serious one if you're not careful. When the old seasoned wood ignites, it can cause a fast rise in temperature in the pit, causing it to overheat. Most folks want to quickly close down the air damper, which causes the fire to starve and create creosote. Creosote is a very unforgiving enemy of barbecue, for it only takes a minute or two for it blacken and foul the meat in the smoker. Once this happens, you can wipe and wash off the meat all day long, but it will never be the same. The oily, stinky smell will be on and in the meat. I didn't read this from a book, I learned the hard way many years ago. You must be very careful when using very seasoned wood, as well as green wood.

      If you are going to use the wood for smoking only, and have another kind of heat source (charcoal, gas, electricity), then the cherry wood shouldn't present a problem. Being as old as it is, soak it in water over night, or for several hours before adding it to the heat source. It would probably be wise to wrap it in foil and punch a couple of very small (toothpick size) holes in it. You will be amazed at how much smoke will come out of these two little holes. Make too many holes in the foil, and the wood will stand a much greater chance of catching fire.

    • [I'm new at the burning wood in my barbecue smoker. Can you give me some general information about wood?]

      Danny Gaulden on wood--

      • Wood Storage
        Once the wood has been split, it must be stacked to dry or season. Drying occurs more rapidly ALONG the grain. Therefore don't stack the wood for drying until it is split. Avoid damp places or depressions where water will collect after a rainfall. The pile should be free-standing with maximum exposure to air and sunlight. A tarp over the wood pile in rainy season helps keep it dry.

      • Green Wood
        Green wood can be as much as 65 percent water. Much of this moisture evaporates very quickly. In three months of reasonable weather (evaporation depends on temperature and humidity), the seasoning is half complete and the fuel value is 90 percent of what it will be when thoroughly dry; in two years the wood is as dry as it will get.

        There is an appreciable difference in BTU rating for woods burned green or air-dried. Completely dry hardwood has about 7850 BTU's per pound whereas green wood when burned loses over one-eighth (1200 BTU's per pound) in evaporating the moisture.

        It requires no work to let the wood sit for at least a year. In the process you are increasing the heat value, the wood will be lighter, ignite better, and produce less smoke and fewer sparks. Wood will dry faster if it is split. Much depends on the humidity and the weather in your area. In some areas in May and June, wood will dry rapidly, it will reabsorb water in July and August, dry out again in September, reabsorb water in October. Potentially wood can increase its moisture content if not properly stored.

        Drying can be hastened if the pile is stacked criss-cross for three months, then stacked in the normal parallel fashion. Green wood is easy to identify. Just split a piece. The core will look wet and shiny; dry wood looks dull and the saw marks are less pronounced. Green wood is almost twice as heavy as seasoned wood and will make a dull thud when two green sticks are hit together. It is hard to handle, hard to light, and burns slowly. Much of its energy is lost in heating, then evaporating the excess moisture. As wood dries, the moisture evaporates naturally and the wood begins to shrink. Wood, even when air-dried, is still has 20-25 percent moisture content. Since wood shrinks unevenly, cracking and checking of the wood occurs. Dried wood can be recognized by the weathered ends, and by the cracks which will radiate like spokes out from the heartwood.

      • Buying Wood
        The delivery of wood is not yet a regulated business. Whether you are actually "taken" or not, you probably will think so. One delivery won't appear as large as the next, will be piled differently if at all, and may have assumed another name by the time it arrives. Wood is sold by the truck load, by weight, in cords, ricks, runs, or units. All this is as confusing to the wood-burner as to many dealers. Others simply take advantage of the fact that most homeowners don't know the difference between wood species or understand wood measurements. Wood usually is sold in divisions of a STANDARD CORD which is a neatly stacked pile eight feet long x four feet wide x four feet high covering 128 cubic feet. Since wood can't be stacked without air space, only 60-110 cubic feet of the 128 may be solid wood. (Usually it runs between 80-90 cubic feet with more solid wood content in round wood than split.) A FACE CORD is also called a RICK or a PALLET and is 1/2 a standard cord. There is a considerable difference in weight between woods; a standard cord of air-dried hardwood weighs 4000 pounds while a standard cord of softwood will weigh half that.

    8.2 To bark or not to bark

    • [When I smoke with a wood fire, should I leave the bark on or remove it?]

      Beverly Collins--
      I learned the hard way--ruining some good meat in my smoker by leaving the bark on. Now I save the pieces with the bark on and use for my grilled meat. Seems to work fine there where I am depending on burning the wood to coals instead of smoking.

      Rick Thead--
      I don't worry about the bark. I've read posts that said to take it off. It might depend on the nature of the fire. As I've said, I prefer a free burn and can get away with it since I have a large smoker. Under these conditions, I don't find that I have a problem with the bark. On other types of smokers, there might be a problem with bitter taste. I concern myself more with split wood versus solid logs. I've found that split wood burns much more cleanly and consistently than solid logs of the same dimensions (3 to 6 inches across).

      Mike Cain--
      I totally agree with Rick in that split wood burns much better than whole pieces of the same size. Much of this I attribute to having the heartwood exposed to the heat. I have formed a "postulate" that, if written, would state that it takes about as much "energy" (or fire) to burn through the bark to the heartwood as you actually reap from the piece of wood once the bark is penetrated.

      M. Bedouin--
      To me it doesn't make a difference--bark on or off.

      Harry Jiles--
      IMHO, the bark can add a bitter taste to the meat. Someone else might know more about this and can correct me if I am wrong, but I was told this was due to the tannic acid which the bark contains. I remove all bark from the wood I use in my Hondo and also remove all that I can from the chips I use in my SWOCS smoker.

      Ed Pawlowski--
      There was a discussion in 1996 on the list about bark giving the meat a bitter taste. If I recall, it was never completely settled. I leave the bark on the wood if it does not come off easy. Can't say as I ever noticed a taste difference, bark on or bark off.

      Rodney Leist--
      Like green vs. dry, this debate is never over. Most folks probably don't think too much about this one but some feel the burning bark can produce a bitter taste. Again, you decide.

    8.3 Pre-burning wood

    • [What is pre-burning of wood or charcoal?]

      Rodney Leist--
      A technique allowing the as-needed production of pure, hot coals for the use in the slow smoker firebox. The technique is especially useful for anyone having a smoker constructed of lighter gauge material, i.e. smokers less that $500, because controlling temperature is usually easier when working with hot coals instead of raw wood. Pre-burning is accomplished in an old grill, a half-drum or heavy duty pan, or even in a small pit if your yard can take it. Build a small fire with several split pieces or limbs of fuel wood such as hickory or oak. You can use the pre-burned pieces at different stages. Using pieces which have been only blackened on the outside provide smoke to blend with the primary smoking wood in addition to heat. Slight pre-burning also allows any undesirables, such as insects, spiders, mold, etc., to be burned off before they add to the flavor of the meat. Wood which has been pre-burned to hot coals is used to provide heat only. Using coals makes temperature control much easier since no extreme temperature drops occur as when adding cold wood to the firebox. Anticipate your needs and add additional pieces as needed to your pre-burn fire.

    8.4 Green or seasoned?

      Rodney Leist--
      This seems to be like a religious debate. Many excellent barbecuers and restaurants advocate one or the other. Some say green wood tends to produce a bitter creosote taste due to saps in the wood, while others say the saps produce the best flavor.

      Dave Klose--
      You can use some woods green for smoking, but under no circumstances should you use green mesquite for smoking. It will produce a bitter taste in the pit for years that cannot be sandblasted out. People have used this before because they saw someone in a restaurant using it. That was grilling with it, not smoking.

      We recommend that the beginning barbecuer use only seasoned wood until he or she gets some experience in smoking with a wood-burning pit. Using green wood without knowing what you are doing is a quick way to ruin barbecue.

    8.5 What types of wood should I not use?

      Dave Klose--
      Don't use any wood from conifers (pine, fir, spruce, redwood, cedar, cypress, etc.). I saw a man cook with the heart of pine one time that promoted some of the nastiest red splotches all over the skin of the unhappy diners; made them extremely sick.

    8.6 How much does lump charcoal and smoking wood cost?

      Editor--A summary of several posts--
      List members report lump charcoal prices in bags of 20 pounds to be between $6 and $10 per bag (in mid 1997). In 40 pound bags it can be a little cheaper per pound, running $10 to $18 per bag.

      Prices for smoking hardwoods will vary with your location. Prices are as of late 1997 include delivery and splitting. Where there is lots of hardwood, like in parts of the south, hickory can cost you as little as $75 a cord. In Carlsbad NM, you can buy a cord of pecan for $110. In the hill country of Texas, you can get a cord of oak for $80. In So. California, where hardwoods are scarce, a cord of oak or mesquite costs $400, a cord of almond about $280. In Virginia, a mixed cord of hickory and oak runs $135. In central Illinois, a cord of mostly oak with some hickory and maple mixed in runs $90-100. In western Connecticut, a cord of oak with a little hickory and maple thrown in will cost you about $90. In southern Oregon, a cord of oak runs $120, pear wood about $150.

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BBQ FAQ Rev 1.0 ©1997 William W. Wight. All rights reserved.