Best Woods for Smoking Food:Types, Profiles, and Where to Buy

This guide will help you select and pair the right woods - or pellets - for smoking food.

Best Woods for Smoking Food:Types, Profiles, and Where to Buy
AI generated image of smoking woods in front of a smoker.

A guide to smoking woods, what to pair them with, and where to buy

We've all been there. Whether at the grocery store or the butcher shop, a delicious protein catches our eye. Maybe it's the brisket that we've always wanted to smoke? Or maybe a boston butt is on sale and you've been craving pulled pork.. so, you buy it.
Then you wander over to isle to pick up some wood – or pellets – to smoke this amazing protein. Before you are dozens of options.. Alder, Maple, Fruit (Apple, Cherry, etc.), Hickory, Oak, Mesquite, and Pecan. This list only expands when you consider suppliers and their own custom blends they create as well.

Smoking woods and their profiles

For the sake of making this guide as helpful and beneficial as possible, I am not going to include every type of wood. Rather, I think the best approach is to share the most common woods you will encounter and a little information on their profiles. Here is what you will commonly enounter:

  1. Oak: not only is white oak or post oak commonly used for whisky barrels, but this wood is king in central Texas. Some of the worlds most popular bbq restaurants exclusively smoke using post oak and is a great choice for longer cooks and produces mild smoke. Proteins: oak is a common choice for beef, pork, and poultry.
  2. Hickory: similar to oak as it is commonly selected for longer cooks. Those who think oak is too mellow or mild will often select hickory as it is known for a stronger aroma and flavor. Proteins: beef and pork.
  3. Mesquite: mesquite has as very strong, earthy flavor. Mesquite will typically burn hot and fast, making it the perfect companion for shorter cooks. Few woods are better for cooking steaks than mesquite. Proteins: beef and chicken.
  4. Pecan: a personal favorite, pecan wood has a rich, nutty, and sweet flavor that doesn't overpower the protein but remains noticeable throughout every bite. Pecan doesn't burn as long as other woods but is fantastic for medium-length cooks or as a supplemental wood for oak or hickory for longer cooks that needs a heavier, sweeter flavor profile. Proteins: beef, pork, and poultry.
  5. Fruit: the fruit woods (apple, cherry, peach) are similar to pecan in that they burn faster than oak and hickory. I often use fruit woods to supplement another wood and will not use fruit woods for beef. Proteins: pork, poultry, and fish.
  6. Maple: have you ever seen chicken or turkey that has a beautiful, dark color and has a mild, sweet profile? It was probably smoked with maple. In Utah, maple is surprisingly hard to come by but is always a treat when we can pick some up. Proteins: chicken, veggies, cheeses, and smoked desserts (bread pudding, cookies, pies, etc.)
  7. Alder: you will find alder everywhere in the PNW, which is perfect as it pairs incredibly well with fish. Alder will not product a strong smoke and is a common choice for those that are sensitive to foods that have a hearty, smoky flavor profile. Proteins: fish, fish, and fish. And if you like a very delicate smoky profile, use it for poultry as well.

Where to buy smoking woods

Just ten years ago, finding and sourcing smoking woods was far more challenging than it is today. The beauty and joy of pellet smokers is they removed multiple barriers of entry for smoking meats and with the availability of multiple brands sold at almost any store imaginable, buying and purchasing wood and pellets has become easier than ever.
So, where does a bbq competitor and hobbyist like myself purchase woods and pellets for smoking?

  1. Find a local shop: my local shop for all things barbecue is BBQ Pit Stop. If you're in Utah, there's probably a store near you. Order online or visit in person, not only is the staff friendly but they are super knowledgable as well. Not only do they carry all of my favorite brands like Jealous Devil, but the store is a one-stop-shop for rubs, seasonings,fuel, and almost any cooker you can imagine.
  2. Ace Hardware: almost any town of any size will have an Ace Hardware. The best part? Most are locally owned and operated. The staff at Ace is helpful and every now and again, you will find an employee that loves barbecue and is a wealth of knowledge. This is just more difficult with a store like Ace where the employees are required to have a more general level of expertise across all of their products and services. However, Ace will allow you to place a custom order for any wood you need if you have appetite to purchase an entire pallet of splits.
  3. Other: Home Depot, Lowes, Walmart, and grocery stores will commonly carry a limited amount of product for the grilling enthusiast. Most commonly, you will find wood chunks and pellets at these stores. Personally? I think they're great but I will always make every effort possible to support locally owned and operated stores than those who wouldn't think twice about putting the others out of business.
SMOKING WOODS GUIDE by Sterling Davis © Slothstradamus

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