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Best Woods for Smoking Chicken – Delicate, Flavorful, Not Overpowering

To nail a delicious smoked chicken, you have to pick a suitable wood. It’s an easy flavor to overpower and lose the poultry taste, but you want to add smoke if you want the very best flavor. So check out this guide on the best woods for smoking chicken.

Last Updated: November 8, 2021

Two chickens in a BBQ smoker, with rubbed and brown crispy skin

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 cours) 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.

Why Add Smoke At All?

A smoked rubbed chicken on a cutting board about to be carved

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

A roast chicken with a couple of slices carved away from it's breast

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.

Hickory

Pile of hickory chunks on a charred wood looking background

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).

Maple

Maple wood chunks on a dark colored wooden table

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.

Apple

Apple wood chunks on a grey background

The fruitiness of apple is more reserved than some fruitwoods, 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.

Cherry

Cherry wood chunks on a dark colored wooden background

Great taste and great looks — cherrywood 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.

Peach

Peach wood chunks on a dark wooden table background

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.

Pecan

Pecan wood chunks on a grey wooden background

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 dialled 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

A chicken smoking inside a Weber Smoky Mountain cooker, with the lid open

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 of the top names have burning in their smokers.

Malcom Reed

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 fruitwoods and other, stronger woods.

Steven Raichlen

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.

Susie Bulloch

What does the woman behind hey Grill hey put in her smoker? She tells her readers that any fruitwood 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.

Ted Reader

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.

Aaron Franklin

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?

Five photo montage of wood logs, chunks, chips, pellets, and 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.

Logs

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.

Chunks

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.

Chips

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.

Pellets

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.

Sawdust

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.

Final Thoughts

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!

Hi, I’m Jim! I’ve been grilling for nearly 20 years over charcoal, wood, and gas. Now I’m happy to share my experience and discoveries with you.

When I’m not writing about barbecue, I’m usually writing about food anyway, at a food marketing agency. Aside from my family and the perfect steak, my passions include travel and all things Disney.

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4 Comments

  1. Amanda l Wilson says:

    very informative post!

  2. I liked the explanation on all the different type of woods. However, being a novice with a new gas smoker, I would have liked a little more information …. such as, how much wood chips shall I use for smoking (ie. amount per lb. or quantity for a whole chicken) and, how long should I maintain the smoke for … that is 30 minutes, half the cooking time or until it is done smoking?

    1. Mark Jenner says:

      Hi James. There’s no single right or wrong answer for how much wood, and how long to maintain the smoke, as it depends on your smoker, how the wood chips are added, and your personal taste.

      Some smokers burn wood at a higher rate than others. And some people like only a mild hint of a smoky taste, and hate heavily smoked food. At the same time, others are huge fans of and love heavily smoked food.

      So the only way to know how much to use, that is right for your smoker and your tastes, is to experiment and find your preferred amount.

      This might sound like a cop-out answer, but it’s really not. On my gas grill, for pork ribs, I would need to use a good 3 or more loads of a full smoker box. In my electric smoker, same wood chips, I only need to refill the chip tray every 45 minutes, and end up using half as much as I would on my gas grill. My Kamado Joe and Masterbuilt gravity-fed smokers use chunks, not chips. No matter what I’m smoking, I will only ever add two or three medium-sized chunks in my Kamado. In my Masterbuilt I need to add double that for the same smoke flavor profile.

      Some grills and smokers simply need more wood than others, due to how they work. But then, this amount of wood is right for me, as I have learned what I like. You might learn your sweetspot is half, or perhaps double the wood and smoke flavor that I do on the same equipment.

      So my advice to you would be to keep a journal with notes on your cooks. What went right, what went wrong, temperature cooked at, amount and type of wood used, and so on. Start with just a couple of handfuls of wood chips. Smoke a chicken, and see how you like the smoke flavor profile. If it is too strong, then you know you need to use less next time. If you find the smoke flavor too weak, then you need to use more next time.

      Over a short number of cooks, you will learn what’s right for you.