In this article, we quickly look at why we like to flavor our meat with wood smoke, and then dive right into the 7 best kinds of wood for smoking brisket.
We’ also tell you what size wood you should be using in your specific type of smoker for the best results when smoking brisket.
Now, if you’ve landed on this page, you probably already know what a brisket is?
For those that don’t, it’s a giant cut of beef (usually between 12 – 20 pounds) taken from the chest. It’s basically the equivalent of your pectorals. Only way, way, bigger, unless you’re Duane Johnson.
The thing with pecs is they get used a lot, even on a relatively sedentary cow. Think about it: they’re at the front of a very heavy animal that stands all day and walks around grazing for hours. All that working out makes the brisket area very tough.
So, to make it edible, you have to cook a brisket for a long time to break down the connective tissues. One of the best ways to do that is by smoking, and that brings us to our topic: what is the best wood for smoking brisket?
Time to put the brisket in the basket!
Contents (Jump to Topic)
Benefits of Flavoring With Wood Smoke
Of course, it’s entirely possible to cook a brisket without any smoke at all. But why would you? Since it’s going to take hours to cook one either way, why not take advantage of all that time and infuse it with smoky goodness?
Unlike a marinade, or even a rub massaged into the outer layers of tissue, smoke is so wispy and delicate it doesn’t penetrate deep into your cut of meat. This means you need to expose meat to smoke for quite some time to get that smoky flavor right through each bite, and not just on the surface. It’s also how you get that gorgeous bark on the exterior everyone loves to show off.
If you’re health-conscious… well, honestly, you probably shouldn’t be eating brisket. How about this: if you’re trying to reduce your sugar intake, smoke flavor is a better choice than sauce, as most BBQ sauces are brown sugar-based. Smoke is all-natural and doesn’t add even a single calorie or carb.
Plus, you can pick and choose and mix and match your wood types to experience different flavor profiles. It’s an easy way to broaden your culinary horizons.
7 Best Woods for Smoking Brisket
There are dozens of different kinds of wood to choose from for smoking. Many of them are difficult to come by, however, so most smokers tend to focus on just a handful.
There are perhaps 10 to 12 varieties that are the most popular. We’ve shaved that list down to 7 that we think are best suited to smoking brisket.
One of the classics of smoking, hickory has a complex profile that’s strong and savory, though not as strong as mesquite (more on that later). The nutty notes it gives to brisket are delicious, and it produces a lot of smoke, so a little goes a long way. Be careful not to overdo it, or you’ll end up with a bitter brisket.
Overall, hickory is a great choice for brisket, if a little safe. If you’re a traditionalist (and there’s not a thing wrong with that), put this wood at the top of your list.
Everyone knows oak is a premium choice for furniture and kitchen cabinets. But, it’s also one of the best and most popular woods for smoking.
Oak is well suited to smoking brisket, partly because it burns for a long time, so it’s perfect for extended sessions, but also because the medium-potency smoke flavor is a crowd-pleaser.
It also works well blended with smaller amounts of other, stronger-flavored woods for a complex, layered taste profile.
Another favorite choice for smokers and eaters alike, mesquite packs an intense punch of flavor into its smoky fingers. The scent and taste will be familiar to many, especially fans of Texas barbecue.
Mesquite burns fast, so make sure you have enough on hand to get the job done. On the other hand, remember it’s easy to over smoke with mesquite, and that’s worse than no smoke at all.
Consider blending mesquite with something mild to soften the blow a little. Unless, of course, you’re a smoke junky, in which case, give ‘er.
For a touch of sweetness and light smokiness, cherry wood is a tasty option. That’s great if you like subtle flavors.
If you prefer a more robust profile, blend cherry with oak or maple. The combo will enhance the smokiness without completely masking the sweet fruitiness.
You may also find that smoking with cherry darkens the bark of your brisket, making it look even more delicious. Cherry smoke often adds a touch of dark red color to the surface of meats smoked with it, so is a wood commonly used to add color as well as a subtle flavor.
Like other fruit woods, apple imparts a mildly sweet, fruity flavor to meat.
Despite generating heavy smoke, it’s not as strong as pecan (which we’ve written-up below). That means you can use it either on its own or paired with another wood for some sweet notes mixed in with bolder flavors.
Like oak, maple is a forgiving wood popular with people who are new to smoking. The mild taste makes it hard to overdo, meaning you’re free to test out smoking times without much fear of over smoking.
While some will find it too subtle for brisket, we think it’s an excellent choice for a subtle enhancement to the natural flavor of the cut. Plus, you can use leftover wood for chicken, turkey, and pork.
This wood isn’t on everyone’s go-to list for brisket, but one bite might convince you it should be!
It’s a unique, sweet and nutty flavor that really works with the rich taste of the meat. One thing’s for sure: you’d have to work at it to make your brisket too bitter with pecan. If you’re worried it’ll turn out too sweet, though, just blend with some oak or maple.
A Word on Wood Sizes
This is one of those situations where size really does matter. It’s essential to choose the right size and style of wood for your smoker or grill, or you may end up under or over smoking your meat.
If you’re packing a pellet grill, obviously you’re going to choose wood pellets as your fuel. You can use them in electric smokers, or in a smoker box on your gas grill, but, they tend to burn out quickly, though, since they’re commonly just compacted sawdust.
Without the auto-feed auger found on purpose-built pellet grills and smokers, you’ll find yourself replenishing them frequently on longer smokes. You’re better off with…
Nothing more than small, easy-to-burn chips of flavor wood, chips are great for electric smokers that don’t use open flame for a heat source. They’re also perfect for smoking on gas grills in smoker boxes or homemade foil smoking packs, or on brazier-style charcoal grills that lack the depth for chunks.
Wood chips are available in every flavor you can think of, and they’re easy to handle, too.
If you’re smoking on a charcoal grill, these hefty pieces of solid wood are the way to go. You’ll likely only need two or three chunks for a full smoke, but it’s easy to add more as needed. Position them on your charcoal pile, and as the coals ignite, the wood will, too.
Despite their larger size, you can readily purchase bagged flavor wood chunks.
For the most old school smoking of all, full logs are your wood of choice — no other fuel is required. Of course, not many smokers are large enough for logs, so these tend to be the domain of owners of offset smokers. The large fireboxes of offsets have the capacity needed to burn several logs at once.
Flavor wood logs aren’t as easy to find for purchase as chips or chunks, but they’re out there. Also, you can use your own wood, assuming you know your trees have never been sprayed with pesticides or fertilizers.
Once you’ve got smoking brisket nailed, you’re going to want it again and again, despite the work that goes into it. It’s a labor of love, but utterly worth it to experience the sublime joys of a delicious brisket. (Sorry, I get a bit poetic sometimes ‘cos this stuff is just so damn good!)
Have fun experimenting with the different best woods for smoking brisket we’ve described in this article!
Thanks for choosing us to help you improve your smoking experience. Have you got any questions or comments? Fill out our online form or drop a comment below, and we’ll respond! We also love to interact with you on social, so be sure to follow us on your favorite channel.
Here’s wishing you meaty meals that melt in your mouth. And perfect pecs.
THANK u 4 the great info on wood chips. Sometimes it’s good to mix em up 4 a different taste. Out door cooking is fun, accept when u screw something up. Happy trails neighbor, till we meet again. BIG JOE. LONGVIEW TX.
Thanks for the advice. I have a couple questions. When using a propane grill to do a brisket, would cherry and oak or cherry and maple chunk logs taste good for a brisket? And should I be putting a rub on the brisket before it gets smoked?
First time trying a brisket let alone smoking one. And lastly should a person cook the brisket on the BBQ on low for a few hours in foil before taking it out of the foil and smoking it. Any help would be appreciated
Your wood choices sound good. Many people often combine a lighter tasting fruit wood with one of the heavier tasting woods like oak. It gives a great flavor, and is not as strong or light as one of the woods alone. And many people choose to mix with cherry specifically, because cherry wood smoke has the effect of adding a beautiful reddish color to the surface of meat, great for aesthetic appeal, and as the saying goes we also eat with our eyes! So yes, your choice of wood mixes is good.
Yes, certainly add your rub before you smoke it. I also like to add the rub and then leave the brisket in the fridge for a good hour or more, to allow the salt in the rub to draw out some moisture, mix with the rub, and get some of that flavor back in. Plus to also have that moisture mix with the rub and form a kind of paste on the surface, rather than staying dry, which helps smoke particles to stick, increasing flavor and helping with bark formation.
Do not foil the brisket before smoking, no. Smoke it unwrapped for a good few hours first, before then wrapping if you wish to do so (I always do). If you wrap first, then smoke, you will not get anywhere near the smoke flavor, or nice crusty bark that we all aim for.
Please see the articles I have on smoking brisket here: Smoked brisket guides.
Great information, this will be my 1st time using a smoker to cook with. We cut down a Madrona tree last year that’s bone dry, so I’m going to give that a shot. My 15-year-old grandson can chip away at a few of logs this week with a hatchet to get what we need. That should also keep him off the video games and away from the girls for a minute or two, hahaha. I’ll let ya know how the brisket smoked up and how much the grandson whined this weekend.
Thanks for the info on the use of the different sizes of wood! I have an offset grill, a barrel grill, and a rotisserie 4-shelf grill with a fire box! So all the info will be used! Thanks
Mark, you are hilarious sir. Thank you so so much for all the great advice about cooking with wood. Duane Johnson pecs, really?? That had me cracking up. I am a Texan and love barbecuing and also love humor so I am seriously a fan of yours. I have smoked one or two epic briskets and I have also smoked some serious fails. The epic ones were lucky! I haven’t smoked in a while but I’m about to partake beginning in the morning. I seasoned tonight and will fire up the pit in the morning. Thanks again for your great advice…Rick
Thank you for the kind words, Rick.