Over the next 5 minutes, you’ll learn which woods are best for smoking chicken and why. We’ve got a rundown of our top 6 types, plus we check in with the experts and stars of barbecue to see what they use in their smokers and why.
Got your chickens ready for the smoker, but not sure which wood to choose? It’s an important decision, and we’re going to help you make it with a rundown of the best lumber for the job.
If your only experience with cooking chicken is grilling a few breasts, you’re missing out. There’s nothing wrong with them, of course. But they just can’t compare to the sublime deliciousness of a fully smoked chicken, with dark skin and a heavenly taste of smoke in every bite.
Smoke can really permeate all through the tender chicken meat. Couple that with the compact size and correspondingly short smoking times, and it’s a recipe for backyard cooking glory.
But, you can undo the whole thing if you choose the wrong wood for your smoker.
If you’ve never experienced the disappointment of over-smoked chicken, consider yourself blessed. It’s like eating something you found in a brush fire. (That’s just a guess, of course) But by using the right type of wood, you severely help your chances of getting it right.
First, though, let’s answer an important question.
Contents (Jump to Topic)
- 1 Why Add Smoke At All?
- 2 Chicken Flavor is Delicate — Don’t Overpower It
- 3 Preferred Smoking Woods for a Mild, Complementary Flavor
- 4 You Can Mix Woods!
- 5 What the Experts Use
- 6 Logs, Chunks, Chips, Pellets, or Dust?
- 7 Final Thoughts
Why Add Smoke At All?
Why smoke your chicken? Why add whipped cream to hot cocoa? Why add barbecue sauce to ribs, for that matter?
Because it’s freaking delicious, that’s why! Smoked chicken is in a league of its own.
Not only that, but it looks tasty, too. Smoking chicken can change the color of the skin — how much and to what hue depends on the wood. But, done right, it’s incredibly appetizing.
Regardless of if you’re smoking a spatchcocked chicken, or an upright beer can chicken recipe, if you care about awesome flavor and presentation, you owe it to yourself and your guests to smoke that bird.
Chicken Flavor is Delicate — Don’t Overpower It
Have you ever eaten a plain chicken breast? To say its flavor is mild is, well, putting it mildly.
Tasty? Sure. Sensational? No. So, we enhance our chicken meals with sauces, seasonings, dry spice rubs for chicken, dips, and more.
But, we don’t want to overwhelm the natural flavor of our chicken completely. (Save that for chicken wings, which are nothing more than a vehicle for sauces and dry rubs, in my opinion.) We want to complement the chicken taste with a mild smokiness and perhaps notes of fruit or nuts, and avoid masking it completely.
Avoid intensely smoky hardwoods that you might use on beef, like mesquite, oak, and walnut.
In the next section, we’ll list and discuss some ideal picks for smoking chicken.
Preferred Smoking Woods for a Mild, Complementary Flavor
Here’s your go-to list for smoking woods that go great with the mild flavor of chicken.
This classic smoking wood gives chicken a wonderfully rustic, old-fashioned taste that’s medium smokiness with a hint of bacon-like sweetness.
Go easy on the wood because it’s possible to overdo it. Nail it, though, and you’ll forever be known as a grill god(ess).
Not surprisingly, the source of your waffles’ best friend adds sweet notes to chicken and mild smokiness.
Maple is a subtle but delicious wood that’s a crowd-pleaser — and it’s forgiving for first-time smokers afraid of overpowering their poultry.
The fruitiness of apple is more reserved than some fruit woods, so it’s ideal when you have other flavors to add or to enhance an apple juice or cider spritz.
Give it time to sink in, and you’ll be well rewarded.
Great taste and great looks — cherry wood has it all!
It’s a rich smoke with beautiful fruity notes, and it’ll leave your chicken skin a gorgeous mahogany. You may want to take a selfie with it.
Anyone care for some Southern BBQ flavor? Umm, yeah — everyone does!
Peach leaves your chicken lightly sweet and fruity and with a pale golden color.
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Another favorite from the South, pecan packs more smoky punch than fruit woods but still has distinct sweetness.
No one will mistake it for oak, but it’s a great choice for anyone who prefers the smoke dialed up a bit.
You Can Mix Woods!
Part of the fun of smoking is experimenting with different woods. As you gain confidence with your technique, why not try blending woods for custom flavor profiles?
Many smokers enjoy adding more robust woods, like oak, to their fruit woods for some extra smoke to pair with the sweetness.
Chicken is fun to play around with since it isn’t expensive and doesn’t take as long to smoke as some meats. Mix it up with your favorite flavors until you find your signature style.
What the Experts Use
We know a lot about smoking and grilling around here. But, we still love to see what the big-time stars of barbecue are up to.
Let’s learn what some top names have burning in their smokers.
Everyone loves a good beer can chicken, and Malcom is no exception. His wood of choice for this sudsy recipe is cherry for that knock-out color and taste. He also likes apple and blends of fruit woods and other, stronger woods.
The star of the Smoke Project chose pecan for his Smoke-Roasted Chicken with Horseradish Dip. He used just a few chunks to enhance the taste and Southern vibes of this flavor-laden recipe. In another version, he went with hickory — a bold wood for a bold recipe.
What does the woman behind hey Grill hey put in her smoker? She tells her readers that any fruit wood is a good choice and that apple, in particular, works really well. Logical picks, since she uses her brown sugar-based sweet rub for a whole smoked chicken.
Canada’s barbecue wizard picked whiskey oak for his Whiskey Barrel Smoked Chicken Thighs, I think for pretty obvious reasons. It’s a great example of pairing the flavoring ingredients (in this case, a long soak in Bourbon) with your smoke.
One of the kings of BBQ, Aaron recommends pecan for chicken. He correctly points out that the strong, sweet taste would be too intense for any smoke session longer than a few hours, putting it right in the — ahem — sweet spot for smoking chicken.
Logs, Chunks, Chips, Pellets, or Dust?
So many wood types — which should you choose for your chicken? It’s easy; just pick the style that’s right for your smoker.
The big wood goes in the big smokers. Logs are just right for full-size offset smokers, with their large fireboxes set well away from the food. They’re great for cooking over a fire pit, too.
Use these “baby logs” (my term, but help yourself) in your compact offset smoker, kamado, or other ceramic cookers, or your drum, barrel, or bullet smoker. Just rest the chunks right on top of the charcoal.
If you have an older gas grill, and you aren’t afraid to mess it up, you might try putting a few chunks on the flavorizer bars or heat deflectors to do some smoking on your grill. I’ve never tried it (and I won’t until my new grill is much older), but I’ve seen others try it.
Real wood, whittled and hacked into thin pieces, chips ignite easily and will smolder decently for a long time.
You see wood chips used mostly in electric and gas smokers, but they also work on top of charcoal.
People with gas grills can try them in a foil packet on the grate to add some smoke, too.
Tiny bits of left-over wood and binding agents are compressed into smoking wood pellets — they look a lot like rabbit food — for use in pellet smokers, as made famous by Traeger.
Gas grillers can also use them in metal smoker boxes to get some smoke on their propane or natural gas grill.
At the bottom of the flavor wood size scale is this powdery stuff. It catches fire very easily, so it’s suitable for electric smokers where there’s no open flame. It’s also used in handheld smokers (aka smoke guns) for giving food a blast of smoke.
You’ll find that many of these same woods are great for other food, too. So, don’t be afraid to buy a few that sound appealing — you don’t have to use it all on just chicken.
Smoking food is a bit like being a mad scientist, really. You can mix it all up and create custom combos to suit your personal preferences.
And of course, there are no hard and fast rules; if you want to smoke your chicken with a bit of mesquite or oak, go for it! Just follow a key guideline for cooking: start small and build up. You can add more flavor if you need it, but it’s really hard to take it away when you go too far.
Thanks for reading, and be sure to share with your family and friends. Have fun smoking your chicken!