This article takes a detailed and deep-dive look at the topic of smoking with wood in barbecue.
The flavor given by wood smoke sets barbecue apart from all other cooking methods. But because few of us ever grow up and learn to cook with smoking woods, there’s a lot to learn, and many questions need answering.
However, there’s a lot of conflicting advice out there, as well as a fair bit of wrong advice. It can take hours of study to get the correct information needed to get the best results from smoking.
So we’ve decided to cover everything you need to know on smoking woods right here.
We answer what are the best types of woods to smoke with? Which form of wood should you use in different smokers? How much wood should you add? Should you be pairing different wood flavors with different meats and foods?
We discuss everything from gathering and preparing your own wood for smoking to the science of how smoke flavors our food. And from what wood species to smoke with and which to avoid to a guide for identifying the most common trees and wood types for smoking, with photos and descriptions.
Contents (Jump to Topic)
- 1 Why do We Smoke Meat Anyway?
- 2 How Does Wood Smoke Flavor Food?
- 3 The Four Stages of Wood Burning, and How They Create Flavor
- 4 We Want Clean Blue Smoke, Not Dirty Thick White or Black!
- 5 A Few Words on The Smoke Ring
- 6 How Long to Create Smoke for?
- 7 Hardwood or Softwood
- 8 How to Prepare Wood for Smoking / Drying Wood for Smoking
- 9 Forms of Wood for Smoking, When and How to Use Each
- 10 Most Commonly Used Smoking Woods, Flavor Profiles and Food Pairings
- 11 Avoid Smoking With These Woods — Unhealthy or Toxic!
- 12 How Much Wood to Use and When to Add it
- 13 Should You Soak Your Smoking Wood?
- 14 Should You Remove the Bark?
- 15 Best Woods for Different Meats
- 16 Sourcing Your Smoking Wood
- 17 Wood Chunk and Tree Identification Guide — Photos and Descriptions
- 18 Resources for Identifying Trees
- 19 Conclusion
Why do We Smoke Meat Anyway?
Quite simply, we smoke meat because it’s absolutely delicious!
Have you ever eaten plain boiled ribs? Or straight oven-roasted ribs? They’re OK, but nothing to write home about. However, smoked ribs? Oh my!
I’m sure you’ve eaten a simply fried burger, done on the stove-top in your kitchen?
Again, they’re nice, but if you compare it to a burger that’s been grilled, with the fats dripping onto the coals creating smoke mixed in with charcoal smoke, coating the burger in extra flavor? The kitchen fried burger just doesn’t compare.
Smoke takes flavor up a notch. It’s an upgrade for already tasty foods and can bring out further and accentuate the luscious meaty flavors we crave.
Smoke is what differentiates barbecue and grilling from all other types of cooking. It’s the layer of flavor that can only be added by barbecuing.
How Does Wood Smoke Flavor Food?
First of all, we need to understand the composition of wood, which is the following core elements (with percentages indicated if ALL the water — as much as 40% to 200% the weight of the wood — was removed):
- Cellulose (40%-60%) — a polymer that crystallizes to create strong fibers. Cellulose is the principal wood-strengthening ingredient.
- Lignin (20%-30%) — a polymer that doesn’t have a clearly defined shape or form, unlike crystalline cellulose. Lignin serves as a matrix or binder for cellulose and is responsible for wood’s strong, fibrous texture.
- Hemicellulose (20%-30%) — a semi-crystalline polymer that also serves as a matrix or binder.
- Extractives —The organic impurities that give wood its color, fragrance, and, in certain circumstances, resistance to rot, fungi, and insects.
…Along with trace amounts of minerals, including potassium, sodium, and calcium salts and oxides, in amounts that differ depending on the makeup of the soil in which the tree is grown in.
Now, cellulose and hemicellulose are essentially sugars — Which is why wood smoke imparts sweet flavors on food. So wood could almost be considered a sugar stick, mixed with lignin to give it a solid, woody structure, then soaked in water.
And when lignin breaks down in a fire, it creates aromatic compounds called phenolics that bring spiciness and pungency to smoke flavor.
When you burn wood, it goes through four distinct stages as it progresses toward being a pile of ash. These four stages are important to understand when it comes to flavoring our food because different compounds and flavors are produced at different temperatures and times, and some of these we don’t want, while some we do.
So let’s look at the four stages of wood burning and how they affect flavor:
The Four Stages of Wood Burning, and How They Create Flavor
As detailed in this great article by genuineideas.com, wood burns incompletely and in a specific order of four stages.
And it’s important to know that although we are detailing four distinct stages of wood combustion, in reality, these will all be occurring at the same time, in differing quantities, throughout the wood in your fire.
For the record, we want to control our fire to get and keep our wood-burning in stage 3 of what I’m about to describe, to get the best flavor onto our food.
Stage 1 — Evaporation and Dehydration
This stage occurs while the wood is below 500 °F.
All that happens is that any moisture in the wood turns into steam and escapes, while some CO2 and methanol also escape. There isn’t a fire, and there isn’t much heat — yet.
In this stage, no flavor is imparted to the food.
Stage 2 — Pyrolysis and Gasification
This stage occurs when the wood is between 500 and 700 °F.
The initial part of the word pyrolysis, “pyro,” may be familiar from phrases like pyrotechnics and (for you Def Leppard fans) pyromania. It translates to “fire,” as you may have guessed. However, at this stage, ironically, there are still no visible flames.
Pyrolysis is the process of breaking chemical bonds in a material’s molecules by heating it over its breakdown temperature. The components typically break down to form smaller molecules, but they can also combine to form solid compounds and residues.
Pyrolysis happens inside the wood, creating oily substances and volatile compounds.
Gasification is similar but happens outside the wood surface, where compounds such as carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, water vapor, and other gases are released.
During this stage, hemicellulose decomposes into acids, ammonia, and volatile gases; Cellulose into tars and more gases; Lignin into a diverse range of aromatic compounds.
Also at this stage, the wood emits dense white clouds of smoke as water vapor, gases, and solid components such as soot and creosote are released but not ignited and burnt.
So when we notice thick clouds of white smoke coming from our BBQ smoking wood, it’s usually because the fire isn’t hot enough, the combustion isn’t complete, and the wood is stuck in this stage 2 Pyrolysis.
Stage 3 — Burning Bush, Ignition and Combustion
This stage occurs when the wood is between 700 and 1,000 °F.
Once these temperatures are reached, gases and vapors such as hydrogen, methane, and carbon monoxide ignite, and we have a flaming fire.
Also at these temperatures, ammonia and hydrogen cyanide combine with oxygen to form nitric oxide, which joins our vapor mix and is a key ingredient for the smoke ring many of us love, and which we explore in more detail in a section below.
Between 650 and 750 °F, flavorful, aromatic smoke is created from the combustion of the lignins. Above about 750 °F, the lignins still create aromatic flavors but also decompose into other undesirable, even toxic and carcinogenic compounds. This is what leads to discussions and concerns about BBQ causing cancer.
Anyhow, this stage 3 burning bush is when we generate the wonderful, clean thin blue smoke that we want to surround our meat and infuse it with aromatic flavor.
We want to maintain our wood-burning at these stage 3 temperatures for the finest smoke and taste.
Stage 4 — Char Burning and Charcoal Formation
This stage occurs when the wood is over 1,000 °F.
Most of the organic compounds, sugars, and lignins eventually burn away, leaving simply carbon — often known as char or charcoal — behind.
Charcoal, of course, burns, and it does so at extreme temperatures of up to 1500 degrees Fahrenheit. It doesn’t generate much smoke, and there’s no odor or flavor since no organic chemicals are combusting. That is why, while smoking meat, we add wood to burning charcoal for flavorful smoke.
We Want Clean Blue Smoke, Not Dirty Thick White or Black!
If you’ve been around the BBQ community for any length of time, you will have heard the terms ‘clean blue smoke’ or ‘thin blue smoke.’ But what exactly is it?
Thin blue smoke is nothing more than smoke that contains as little ‘unburned’ solids in it as possible.
If we refer back to how wood burns above, in stage 2 pyrolysis where the fire is too cool to actually ignite and burn, water vapor, gases, and solids like soot and creosote are released, but due to incomplete combustion simply spew out as dense white or gray clouds of smoke.
Also, in this state, the cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignins are not decomposed into the aromatic compounds we actually do want.
So thick white or gray smoke contains acrid tasting, heavy unburned solids that will settle on our food that is OK in small quantities, but if too much can give it an unpleasant taste.
On the flip side, if combustion stage 3 ‘burning bush’ is reached, (almost) complete combustion occurs, and the vapors, gases, chemicals, and aromatics released from the fire are barely visible, like a thin blue haze.
And in this clean, thin blue smoke, we have all the compounds we desire that add flavor to our food, with none of the soot and creosote that we do not want.
It’s incredibly difficult to get true, complete combustion without super expensive scientific equipment, so we will always have some white smoke from our BBQs. But it’s our job to try to get as clean a smoke as possible, by ensuring there is enough oxygen and heat on our wood to keep it burning and combusting correctly in the correct temperature range, keeping it in stage 3 burning bush of the four stages of combustion
A Few Words on The Smoke Ring
We have an article discussing the smoke ring in depth, but I thought I’d summarize it here as it’s such a hot topic and definitely related to this discussion.
As discussed in stage 3 of combustion above, ammonia and hydrogen cyanide combine with oxygen to form nitric oxide when wood is burned.
Now, inside meat is a protein called myoglobin, which has the job of holding oxygen inside of muscle cells. Inside myoglobin are pigments called hemes that color the muscles red. The more hemes there are, the redder the meat.
When meat is exposed to air, it oxidizes and loses this red color, turning brown. The same thing happens as meat is cooked.
However, when nitric oxide is present from burning wood during us smoking our meat, it penetrates up to a centimeter inside the meat, reacting with the myoglobin and hemes to stabilize it. This in turn, creates a new pink pigment that remains despite oxidation and cooking.
So in this way, you get a pink band of smoke ring at the surface between 0 and 10 mm, while the rest of the meat still turns brown as it cooks.
Fun fact: Although many love a smoke ring and see it as a sign of skill and perfectly smoked meat, the smoke ring does absolutely nothing to the flavor. It is not a sign of skill, it merely shows that nitric oxide was present in the smoke during cooking, which cannot always be achieved, depending on the fuel and style of cooker used.
Fun fact 2: You can ‘fake’ or artificially create a smoke ring by adding a little curing salts to the rub you apply to your meat. Curing salts contain nitrates, which give cured meat such as bacon the pink and red hue. Adding these to your BBQ will give the appearance of a smoke ring, helped by the nitrates forming nitric oxide during cooking.
How Long to Create Smoke for?
For small cuts (steaks and chops), and delicate items (fish, vegetables), that cook quickly, it really doesn’t matter. Smoke for the whole cook, as the cooking time is so short, it’s all but impossible to over smoke them.
However, for large cuts such as ribs, brisket, pork butts and shoulders, they can take anything from between 5 and 16 hours to cook! Should you smoke for the whole time? Or just some of it?
It really is a case of personal preference and how much smoky flavor you like.
However, it’s commonly believed that meat stops taking on smoke once it’s reached a certain internal temperature, that temperature being somewhere between 135 and 145 °F.
But this is totally false! Meat will continue to take on smoke for however long it is subjected to smoke. The amount of smoke meat takes on certainly falls dramatically as a cook progresses, but it still takes on SOME smoke.
Why does smoke absorption fall? It’s because later in the cook, as BBQ bark forms, the surface of the meat becomes hot and dry. Smoke sticks easily to cold and wet surfaces but finds it hard to settle on dry, hot surfaces. Some sticks, but it’s drastically reduced. This has led to many people saying it doesn’t stick at all.
However, you can baste or spritz your meat during the cook, which will temporarily cool the meat’s surface and make it wet, so that smoke will again stick quite readily. So you can smoke for as long or as little as you like.
A good starting point is to smoke for approximately half the total cook time, or for approximately 4 hours, whichever comes first. Then taste the finished product, and if it’s too smoky, reduce the smoking time next cook, or if it’s not smoky enough, smoke longer next cook. Keep notes, and you will soon find your sweet spot.
Just know that food can be too smoky! Just because you COULD smoke for a full 16 hours doesn’t mean you should. Only the most hardcore would appreciate this, while most diners would liken the taste to that of eating an ashtray! So start small, go easy on the smoke at first, see how you like it, and gradually scale up over subsequent cooks.
Hardwood or Softwood
Because hardwoods burn slower, longer, with smaller flames, less fierce heat, and less soot, creosote, and lousy tasting or even dangerous compounds compared to softwoods, they are ideal for low and slow cooking.
So how are hardwoods and softwoods defined? The simplest explanation I could find and that I’ll paraphrase and add to comes from Horizonwood.com:
“To classify a wood as hard or soft depends on the seeds that the tree produces. A wood will be classified as a hardwood if the seeds that the tree produces have a coating. These coatings can either take the shape of a fruit or a shell.
A wood will be classified as a softwood if the seeds don’t have any type of coating and are instead dropped to the ground and left to the elements.”
They also note that hardwood is commonly known as angiosperm, and is the wood that originates from blooming plants. The phrase “angiosperm” comes from the Greek word angiospermous, which means “vessel seed.” Oak, ash, maple, and beech trees are examples of these sorts of trees.
The wood that comes from gymnosperm trees, which have needles and form cones, is known as softwood. The Greek word gymnosperm means “naked seed.” Most of these trees are evergreen or conifers, such as cedar, Leylandii, pine, and spruce trees.
As previously noted in my post comparing lump to briquette charcoal, softwood coniferous or evergreen trees contain high amounts of saponins and turpines, chemical compounds used to make soap and foam-free fire extinguishers.
Because of the high sap count, anything cooked over them takes on a weird taste which has been known to make some people sick.
Common softwoods include pine, fir, cedar, and spruce. You can tell an evergreen by its needle or scale-like leaves.
Go for the Hardwoods
Hardwoods are deciduous, meaning they shed their leaves in Autumn and grow new ones in the Spring.
Because they have a low sap level, they burn cleanly, giving off a variety of delightful aromas to enhance anything smoked by it.
Hickory, mesquite, oak, and many fruit and nut trees are most commonly used for smoking.
How to Prepare Wood for Smoking / Drying Wood for Smoking
Immature hardwood should be avoided. Nearly half the weight of freshly cut, or green, wood is water. Therefore, it is not suitable for the smoker; not only will it require 45% more energy to burn the wood, and the excessive steam carries substances that will give food an unpleasant, odd flavor, says Meathead of AmazingRibs.com.
Season, or dry, the wood before tossing it on the fire. How dry is dry? Generally, well-seasoned wood is left with about 20 to 25 percent of its water.
There are two basic methods for wood drying, each with their merits.
Air-dried wood is stacked to allow air to flow around each level. This method leaves the wood with a bit of moisture-producing steam when burned. The steam makes smoke particles lump together and more likely to cling to the meat rather than flow around it, explains Professor Blonder, science advisor for AmazingRibs.com. The nitrate/nitrogen ratio is also affected, creating thick smoke rings. If you plan to DIY wood for your smoking adventures, plan for at least a year of drying time.
Kiln-dried wood is put into a large, sometimes room-sized, oven which regulates airflow, temperature, and humidity, explains Eric Meier of The Wood Database. The process makes for a more even drying. It has its drawbacks, such as honeycombing or splitting, but it doesn’t matter if the wood splits or honeycombs for our purposes.
Blonder says kiln-dried wood creates a larger smoke ring than air-dried wood and yields a smokier taste.
Here is an area for personal taste and smokiness tolerance. Because some foods can become overwhelmed by a lot of smoke, you’ll want to experiment with degrees of smokiness here. Most people — including me — prefer the taste given by seasoned, air-dried wood over kiln-dried.
Forms of Wood for Smoking, When and How to Use Each
There are six basic forms of wood used for smoking: Logs, chunks, chips, pellets, sawdust, and planks.
Which should you choose? Your type of smoker mostly determines this. You can use almost any form of wood in many smokers, but the following is the most preferred and typical way to do things:
For pit grilling, monster offset smokers, pulley pits, fire pits, and commercial settings.
Wood splits are typically 18 inches in length, though you can and do get lengths anything from 12 to 24 inches, particularly from people that cut their own to match the size of their smokers’ firebox.
Logs are used to provide both the heat for cooking and as the source of smoke for flavoring food.
Traditionally the logs are burned down to embers before meat is added. The standard temperature aimed for is 225 °F, hot enough to generate smoke. In some cases, the recommended smoking temperature should be 275 °F, to ensure complete combustion and get the wood into the ‘burning bush’ stage.
For kamado ceramic grills, water smokers (such as the Weber Smoky Mountain), ugly drum smokers (UDS), smaller offset smokers, most smokers that burn charcoal, and also charcoal grills.
Wood chunks typically range in size from 1 to 4 inches. They are quick to produce smoke, comparatively long-burning, and provide a good amount of smoke, eliminating the need for too frequent replenishment during a smoking session.
Wood chunks are used to provide smoke flavor only, not as the heat source. They are typically used by resting the chunks on top of or buried within charcoal to ignite and smoke as the fire spreads across the charcoal bed.
For electric and gas smokers, and often also used on gas grills. They also work on top of or mixed into charcoal (though chunks are much preferred.)
Wood chips are real wood whittled and hacked into little pieces that vary in size, anything from between 1/4 inch and 3/4 inch thick and 1/2 inch to 1 inch in length.
Wood chips are a small, hot and fast-burning bit of wood. They are probably the most popular size used in grills and non-commercial smokers because of the convenience of their size and availability. The drawback, of course, is having to frequently replenish them during a cook because they do not produce smoke for long before burning out. You can use wood chip smoker boxes or make a foil pouch to hold the wood chips, slow down burning due to lack of oxygen, and help with a longer burn time.
For pellet smokers, some smoke boxes for gas or charcoal grills, and a handful of smoke generators.
Smoking pellets are pretty much just sawdust compressed into half-inch pencil-shaped rods called pellets or small rectangles called briquettes.
Several brands of pellet smokers are designed to be fuelled by these compressed sawdust products alone, where the pellets are both the source of heat and smoke.
But pellets can also be used in smoker boxes on gas or charcoal grills, where they are only used to provide a lick of smoke to your food, not there for heat.
Usually fed into a smoker through an auger, pellets are a highly controllable fuel source.
For some electric smokers, but mostly just for stovetop and handheld smoke generators.
Sawdust is finely ground wood in dust or powder form, which quickly burns up and provides smoke for a very short time.
It’s suitable for electric smokers that don’t have an open flame, the electric heating element causing a slow smolder, rather than an outright burning.
However, it works best in handheld electric smoke generators — A.K.A. Smoke guns — for giving foods a quick blast of smoke, such as fish, cocktails, and so on.
It’s also used extensively in cold smoke generators because if lit in just one area and then the flames blown out, it can smolder slowly, generating a low amount of smoke for many hours, which is good for cold smoking bacon, cheese, fish, and more.
For use in smokers and grills where a direct heat flame can reach the plank to generate smoldering smoke. Primarily gas and charcoal grills, and live fire smoke pits.
Planks are a piece of wood, usually 13 x 7 inches rectangle, which serves as the cook surface to provide a gentle hint of smoke to food items nailed to them, such as in planked salmon or other fish.
You nail some fish to the plank, then place the plank over a direct heat flame, so the wood heats through and the surface begins to burn and smoke, flavoring the food nailed to it as it cooks.
While cedar is the standard wood source found in stores, we suggest grilling lamb on olive planks, beef on black cherry, and chicken on sugar maple. Room for creativity seems pretty large, eh?
Most Commonly Used Smoking Woods, Flavor Profiles and Food Pairings
In the BBQ community, there’s a good amount of agreement and a good amount of inconsistency and disagreement when pairing different wood smokes with different meats and foods.
As an indication, see how many different tables, charts, and infographics people have put together on the topic, and how very different much of the information is: Smoking wood and food pairing charts.
I have my thoughts on the topic, too.
I have been BBQ and smoking multiple days a week for over a decade now, and in this time, I have read dozens of books, hundreds of magazines, thousands of articles, and a handful of forums end to end. The topic of pairing smoking woods to different foods comes up constantly, advice and views vary, and a lot of it comes down to personal beliefs and tastes.
I have formed my own thoughts and way of working with smoking woods from all this.
So what I’ll do, is give you the most commonly accepted pairings from the community and then discuss what I personally believe and work from.
The following table I have pieced together from multiple sources, including charts and guides at napoleon.com, thespruceeats.com, smokewoodshack.com, charbroil.com, virtualweberbullet.com, bradleysmoker.com, and smokingwood.com.
All are reasonably accurate, good to follow, and will see you do well. They commonly agree on most of their flavor profiles and food pairings, though they do disagree in places.
I have listed in the below table only the most commonly used woods and ones that I have bought and used myself.
In the ‘Flavor Profile’ column, I list the most commonly used words to describe each wood’s flavor.
Finally, it’s important to know and remember that this tables contents are just opinions! Not concrete fact, just generally agreed opinions, and that some will disagree.
|Wood||Flavor profile||Food Pairings|
|Alder||Mild and light — Delicate, subtle, slightly sweet, musky.||Fish (particularly salmon), poultry, and light-meat game birds.|
|Apple||Mild to Medium — Light and sweet, slightly fruity. Can be mixed with other woods for great results.||Poultry, beef, pork, (particularly ham), lamb, game birds, and cheese.|
|Ash||Mild — Light, unique flavor.||Poultry, fish and seafood, beef, pork, lamb, game, and game birds.|
|Beech||Mild — Well-balanced, good all-rounder. Can pair with stronger woods to make less overpowering.||Poultry, fish and seafood, beef, pork, lamb, game, game birds, and cheese.|
|Birch||Mild — Clean and not overpowering. Similar to maple. Remove the bark, which is oily and strong.||Poultry, fish and seafood, and pork.|
|Cedar||Medium — Sweet and tangy. Big, bold flavor, but not strong and overpowering.||Only ever really used for 'planked' fish (particularly salmon.)|
|Cherry||Medium — Subtle, sweet and fruity, to mildly tart. Gives a rosy red tint to meats. Great mixed with oak and apple.||Poultry, fish and seafood, beef, pork, lamb, game, and game birds.|
|Chestnut||Mild — Nutty and slightly sweet, a little tangy.||Poultry, fish and seafood, pork, and cheese.|
|Hickory||Strong — Bold, universal flavor. Sweet and strong. Bacony flavor. Can be pungent. Can be overpowering, good to mix with oak.||Poultry, beef, pork, game, game birds, cheese. Most popular with pork, ribs, and bacon.|
|Maple||Mild — Somewhat sweet, subtle, balanced flavor.||Poultry, fish and seafood, pork, and cheese.|
|Mesquite||Very strong — Strongest of all. Earthy and spicy. Use sparingly.||Beef, pork, and poultry.|
|Oak||Medium — Traditional rustic flavor. Stronger than apple and cherry, lighter than hickory and mesquite. Bold but not overpowering.||Poultry, fish and seafood, beef, pork, lamb, game, game birds, and cheese.|
|Olive||Mild — Similar flavor to mesquite, but very light in comparison.||Best with poultry.|
|Orange||Mild — Light and fruity, tangy and citrusy. Lighter than most other fruit woods.||Poultry, fish and seafood, and pork.|
|Peach||Medium — Sweet and earthy Similar to hickory, but sweeter, fruity and milder.||Poultry and pork.|
|Pear||Medium — Light and sweet, slightly fruity, very similar to apple but lighter.||Poultry and pork.|
|Pecan||Strong — Similar to hickory, not as strong. Sweet and nutty. A good all-purpose, all-rounder.||Poultry, beef, pork, and cheese.|
|Plum||Medium — Sweet, bold, fruity flavor.||Poultry, fish and seafood, and pork.|
|Walnut||Strong — Heavy flavor, can be bitter. Good mixed with sweeter fruit woods.||Beef, pork, and game.|
Other less commonly seen woods I’ve seen people smoke with, and seen for sale as smoking wood, include:
Acacia, almond, apricot, avocado, bay, butternut, carrotwood, cottonwood, crab apple, fig, grapefruit, grapevine, guava, gum, hackberry, kiawe, lemon, lilac, madrone, manzanita, mulberry, nectarine, persimmon, pimento, sassafras, willow, and the oak reclaimed from wine and whiskey barrels.
My Thoughts and Advice
After all I’ve read, experienced, and tested, here are my thoughts on wood smoke flavors and food pairings:
Smoke from different woods certainly taste differently and can be more suited to different foods.
However, it’s my opinion that many people go obsessively overboard, exaggerating the difference that different wood smokes make. They try to get so specific and granular in their pairings that it’s almost to the point of ridiculousness.
There are very strong wood smokes that can completely overpower chicken, fish, and veg, and hence should not be used with these foods. There are wood smokes at the other end of the scale so mild that they do not stand up well to a rubbed roast of beef where a more robust smoke pairs much better.
But let me ask you something:
After you take a piece of beef, pork, or chicken, perhaps marinade, inject or brine it, then rub it in a blend of salt, pepper, herbs, and spices, then smoke it for hours, and finally apply a sauce before eating with pickles and accompaniments, can you really determine subtle differences in the flavor of the wood smoke used? In my opinion, no.
After the layers of flavor we apply to our BBQ, can you really tell the difference between meat smoked with ash, beech, or maple? Between meat smoked with apple or pear? Between meat smoked with orange or lemon wood? I certainly cannot, and nor can any of the dozens of people I have cooked for either — I have done such tests on people.
In my opinion, the most important differences you really need to know and care about are:
- Fruit woods — Give a mild, light, sweeter smoke.
- Nut woods and trees with solid seeds — Give a stronger smoky flavor.
- Mesquite — Out all alone as a VERY strong smoke flavor. Earthy, spicy, very strong. Use sparingly and typically mixed with much lighter woods.
- Oak, hickory, and pecan — Are good all-rounders to give a medium to strong smoky flavor.
- Apple and cherry — Are good all-rounders to give a mild smoky flavor.
- Cherry — Is good for giving a pleasing red hue to meats smoked with it.
The best advice I can give is to source a large amount of two types of wood, one mild and one medium to strong. Which ones depend on what’s local to where you live.
For a mild wood, try any fruit wood. My favorite being apple.
For a medium, stronger wood, get either oak, hickory, or pecan, whatever you can source cheaply and locally.
Buy one from each group, use these for some time until you get used to using them, and getting the right strength of smoky flavor you like on the different foods you cook.
Once you have nailed using these two wood types, then perhaps experiment with other woods.
You Can Mix Two or More Woods
It’s common for people to mix smoking woods for unique combinations of flavors that you cannot get from a single species of wood.
For example, strong, earthy, and spicy woods can be mixed with lighter, fruity, sweet-flavored woods to get a more balanced and complex flavor profile that is the best of both worlds.
Try mixing one of:
With one of:
The most popular combinations are to add apple to either oak, hickory, or pecan to get a good mix of complex, earthy, spicy, sweet, and fruity all in one smoke.
Another popular combination is adding cherry to either oak, hickory or pecan, to hit all flavor bases, while adding a beautiful red color to meats, coming from the cherry smoke.
Before experimenting with mixing, I recommend smoking with only single species at first to get used to what they taste like. But then, go wild. Smoke is an ingredient, so have a play with it.
Avoid Smoking With These Woods — Unhealthy or Toxic!
Many kinds of wood should never be used to smoke and cook food with. Some can make food taste horrible. Others are poisonous or contain irritants, and can make people sick.
The most commonly found trees and wood that should be avoided are:
Aspen, cypress, eastern cedar, elderberry, elm, eucalyptus, fir, hemlock, laburnum, liquidambar, locust, mangrove, oleander, osage orange, pine, poisonous walnut, redwood, spruce, sycamore, tamarack, tambootie, and yew.
Further Caveats and Common Sense
You should also avoid smoking with any of the following woods:
- Any wood that has been chemically treated with a preservative.
- Any wood that you do not know for a certainty they have not been treated with a herbicide, pesticide, or fungicide.
- Any wood that has been painted, stained, or varnished.
- Any scaffold boards or pallet wood — They are often chemically treated, but also may have been in contact with all sorts of unknown substances and chemicals.
- Any wood that has started to rot or shows mold or fungus. Burning these can create smoke with toxins.
- Any wood that has been in contact with poison ivy or anything similar which can give off (severely) irritating vapors when burned.
- Any wood with any kind of ‘off’ or weird smell.’ When you burn it, it will transfer to your food.
- Any wood of which you don’t know the species. It’s not worth the gamble!
How Much Wood to Use and When to Add it
It’s hard to give hard and fast rules because it depends on your style of smoker, size of smoker, airflow and how well-sealed or leaky your smoker is, the specific wood you use, the ambient weather conditions, and of course, how smoky you like your food.
First, you need to keep a smoking journal. Take notes on what meat you smoke, at what temp, using what smoking wood, how much wood you used, and how long you created smoke for. Was it not smoky enough? Or too smoky? If so, increase or decrease the amount of wood and smoking next time. You will soon find your sweet spots.
Second, start small and aim to under-smoke because over-smoked food is inedible. It’s bitter, acrid, and horrid. So start with a low amount of smoking wood, and increase it over subsequent cooks until you get it right.
You need to discover what’s best for you on your specific BBQ, using the wood you have available in your specific location and climate, to suit your own tastes. You do this by experimenting and taking notes.
However, here’s how to get started:
Charcoal Smokers and Grills — Kamados, Weber Smoky Mountains, Ugly Drum Smokers (UDS)
Use smoking wood chunks.
For delicate flavored items that are easy to overpower, such as chicken, turkey, or fish, start by using just a single fist-sized chunk of smoking wood placed onto a small, concentrated hot fire after letting your smoker come up to temp.
For smaller cuts of beef and pork, start by adding two fist-sized chunks of smoking wood, one right on top of the fire, and some just beside it to ignite and burn some time after the first chunk burns out.
For large cuts of pork and beef — such as ribs, pork butt, or brisket — start with three or four fist-sized chunks spread out to light at different times, or start with two chunks and add the third and fourth when your cooker stops smoking.
Take notes on the results, and dial things up or down from there in the future.
Set up your grill to smoke using the charcoal snake method, and follow the same guidelines for the amount of wood to use as above for charcoal smokers.
Make sure to place all smoking wood right at the start of the snake, so smoke is generated for the earliest parts of the overall cook.
There’s no advice needed for pellet smokers because the wood is both the source of heat and the source of smoke.
Simply fill up your hopper, set your temp, and cook away until your food is ready.
Electric and Gas Smokers
Use smoking wood chips.
Always fill the supplied chip tray right up, then choose your overall smoking time.
For delicately flavored items such as chicken, turkey, and fish, start by smoking for 30 minutes.
For smaller cuts of beef and pork, start by smoking for 90 minutes.
For large cuts of pork and beef (brisket, butts, and ribs), start by smoking for 3 hours.
In all cases, take notes on the results, and increase or decrease smoking time depending on if you found things too smoky or not smoky enough.
You preferably use wood chips in a foil packet or smoker box, though you can place wood chunks directly on the grate over a burner if you wish.
Wood chips in smoker boxes or foil packets take some time to combust and create smoke, so you should place them in your grill and wait for them to start smoking before you add your food.
Gas grills are very leaky, with a lot of ventilation necessary due to how they work. But this means most smoke escapes without ever circling near the meat, so you need to smoke more than you otherwise wood in better smokers.
For delicately flavored items such as chicken, turkey and fish, smoke for the entire cook.
For smaller cuts of beef and pork, also start by smoking for the entire cook.
For large cuts of pork and beef, start by smoking for 4 hours.
As always, take notes, and increase or decrease smoking time depending on how you find the results.
Should You Soak Your Smoking Wood?
In almost all cases, the answer is a simple no.
I say almost all cases because there is one exception that I will get to in a minute. But anyhow…
When you soak your smoking wood, it gets a little wet. When the wood is wet, and you place it into your fire, the first and only thing that will happen is the water gets boiled off. So you just create steam and no flavorful smoke.
Referring to our four stages of wood burning above, the wood gets stuck in stage 1 — evaporation and dehydration. No combustion occurs, and no flavorful smoke is created at this stage. All that happens is the water boils away, creating steam, until the wood is dry enough to combust and create smoke.
So soaking wood just delays smoke generation and does nothing else. So there is no need or benefit to soaking your wood. You gain nothing. Therefore, do not soak your smoking wood.
The exception: If you are smoking on a gas or charcoal grill and need to leave it unattended for some time, you can soak some of your wood to get a longer smoking time.
For example, if you create two foil packets to put onto your grill, one with dry wood and one with soaked wood, the dry wood will smoke away while the wet wood simply dries out. Then as the dry wood stops smoking, the wet wood will now be dry enough to combust and create smoke. Therefore, you get a longer smoke time overall without having to be at your grill to top up the smoking wood.
Should You Remove the Bark?
I’ve not been able to find a definitive answer to this. It pretty much comes down to personal preference.
Bark can affect the flavor because it has a different chemical make up compared to heartwood. It is also less dense, contains more air, and burns very differently.
However, as a ratio of bark to heartwood, there is always comparatively little bark, so the difference it makes will be negligible.
I have smoked with and without the bark, and I cannot tell the difference. So my preference is to remove bark that’s easy to do so, if it simply pulls away. But to just leave it on if it doesn’t easily peel away with little effort. Life is simpler that way.
One caveat is always to remove birch bark because it’s very oily and has a detrimental impact on the taste.
Best Woods for Different Meats
There are widely accepted pairings of smoking woods and meats that bring the best results, so I thought it would be good to add a brief summary of those here as a quick reference.
Best Wood for Smoking Beef (Particularly Brisket)
Beef is an intensely flavored, dark red meat that benefits from and can stand up to a good hit of medium to strong smoke. Especially brisket!
I’ve discussed this topic in-depth in my article on the best woods for smoking brisket, so you can check that article for a more complete discussion. But here are the top 7 choices at a glance:
Best Wood for Smoking Ribs
As discussed in our article to the best woods for smoking ribs, If like me, you like a strong, pronounced smoky flavor on your BBQ ribs, these woods should be your top choices:
However, if you like the smoky flavor dialed down a little, these should be your top choices:
Best Wood for Smoking Pork
Pork really is the meat that pairs well with any kind of smoke from any of the acceptable smoking woods. So it comes down to your personal taste.
Generally speaking, though, the best woods to use are sweeter ones from fruit trees, such as:
But if you like a more pronounced smoky flavor, pork also stands up well to bolder smoke from woods such as:
- Mesquite (in small doses!)
Best Wood for Smoking Chicken
Chicken is somewhat delicate and easy to overpower with some of the stronger wood smokes. So avoid intensely smoky hardwoods that you would use on beef, like mesquite, oak, or walnut.
Try these woods for a mild, complementary flavor:
Check out our article on the best woods for smoking chicken for a deeper discussion.
Best Wood for Smoking Turkey
Here are our favorite picks for a delicious smoked turkey that has just enough smokiness to please while still allowing room for sauces, spices, and natural turkey taste.
Although keeping your smoke light is the best option for turkey, some people like it heavier. Here are a couple of woods to consider if you want your fowl to have a more smokey flavor.
Check out our guide to the best woods for smoking turnkey for a more detailed discussion on the topic.
Best Wood for Smoking Fish and Seafood
For smoking fish and seafood, alder stands alone as the very best. It is mild, well-balanced, not at all overpowering, and lends a great smoky overtone while allowing delicate fish flavors to shine through.
Other mild-flavored wood smokes that suit well are:
Though if you want a real kick of smoke on your fish, still without totally overpowering it, the following bolder smoke flavors go well:
- Cedar (particularly for salmon)
- Cherry (though it will discolor skin and flesh slightly red)
- Hickory (use sparingly, though, as it’s potent!)
Sourcing Your Smoking Wood
Most of us don’t own a selection of trees we can prune and harvest smoking woods from, so we need to find a source elsewhere. Here are your options.
Local suppliers — It’s always nice to shop local! People take risks to set up small businesses, and it’s hard to compete against the big online stores. So if you have a local BBQ shop, check them out and see what they stock. You will often find them competitive price-wise, especially if there are no delivery costs involved.
Online — If you Google ‘smoking wood supplier,’ you will find a fair few online stores that supply smoking woods, Amazon being one of them. Across the numerous stores available, you will be able to find almost any type of smoking wood you care to choose. There are often minimum order quantities and shipping costs involved, but you cannot beat the convenience.
Get your own — If you have local wild woods and forests — and do make sure they aren’t privately owned — you can forage for wood and take it free. Don’t go cutting down trees, but look for branches that have snapped off in high winds.
Be careful to make sure you know what the trees are, as some should never be used and can be toxic. There’s lots of information on which woods to use, and how to identify them, in the rest of this guide.
Also, you will need to ‘season’ the wood for a good year after taking it, as you do not want to smoke with fresh, green wood.
Wood Chunk and Tree Identification Guide — Photos and Descriptions
The following section will help you to identify smoking wood chunks and the trees they come from. With multiple photos of tree varieties, their leaves, bark, seeds, and flowers, and photos of smoking wood chunks created from said trees.
So if you have a lot of trees on your property and are looking for extra income (kidding — but not too much) or if you want the satisfaction of the total grilling experience from nature to table, you’ll need to know which tree is which before firing up the chain saw or gathering fallen branches, and this section will help you.
Here are the most commonly used varieties to consider. Although some of the following also grow as shrubs, we won’t mention them here since shrubs are rarely (ever?) used for smoking food.
First, a look at some typical smoking wood chunks from Alder trees.
In the same family as birch, North American alder grows along both coasts near streams, in valleys, or along slopes. East Coast alders are mostly shrub-like while those on the West Coast grow up to 80 feet tall.
A.K.A. Black Alder.
Latin name: Alnus glutinosa.
Black alder grows 50 to 70 feet tall and up to 2 feet in diameter. Found in the Northeast wild along streams and swamps and in cultivated parks or gardens.
- Bark — smooth, dark brown; horizontal lines fissure with age.
- Leaves — double-tooth edges, roundish (circular) to egg-ish (obovate) shaped; dark green above and pale green underside with hairy veins.
- Flowers —
- Fruit — clusters on a long stalk, 1/2 to 1 inch long; ovoid or round shape.
A.K.A. California alder, Sierra alder
Latin name: Alnus rhombifolia.
Whit alder has a straight 1-2½ — foot diameter trunk. It grows 50 to 80 feet tall in California and parts of Oregon, Idaho, and Montana.
- Bark — thin and smooth, light gray in color. Over time flat, scaly ridges and fissures appear and reddish plates, still later. It sports fuzzy twigs and leafstalks.
- Leaves — dull finish, rounded tips, edges are usually fine-toothed. Dark green above and light yellow-green underneath.
- Flowers —
- Fruit — 1 1/2 to 5 inches long and droops.
A.K.A. Oregon alder.
Latin name: Alnus rubra.
Red alder trees can soar up to 80 feet tall but have a 1-2½ — foot diameter trunk. Twigs and leafstalks have little to no hair.
- Bark — smooth, pale gray becoming mottled and rough, sometimes developing warty ridges swelling into plates and ridges with age.
- Leaves — double toothed, rolled edges.
- Flowers — Male and female catkins grow between February and May.
- Fruit — Cone-shaped, scaled with flat and elliptic winged samaras.
Latin names: Alus Pumila, Malus Domestica, Malus Sylvestris, Malus Communis, and Pyrus Malus.
There are 7,500 varieties of apples grown worldwide, 2,500 in the U.S. So we’re not going to list or show even a fraction of them here. But here are a few typical looking apple trees, bearing fruit, and in blossom.
Apples, cherries, hawthorn, peaches, pears, and plums are in the same family (Rosaceae – yes, as in roses) and share a lot of common traits.
- Bark — Smooth, becoming scaly and flaky with age.
- Leaves — Toothed or lobed.
- Flowers — 5 petals, 1 to 1 1/2 inches diameter, white to pinkish white.
- Fruit — Round or pear shaped. Depending on the cultivar, the fruit can be as small as a golf ball, or as large as a grapefruit. The outer peel can have a variety of different colors and hues.
The most commonly found ash trees in the US are green ash, and white ash. Smoking wood chunks from such trees typically look like the following:
Latin name: Fraxinum Pennsylvanica.
Green ash trees reach a height of 50 to 80 feet in full maturity, with a width of 50 to 70 feet. They are overall pyramidal in shape, with a rounded crown. Branches and buds grow across from each other and are not staggered.
- Bark — Light gray to brown, with reddish inner bark. The bark of mature trees is taut and has a characteristic pattern of diamond-shaped ridges. The bark of young trees is quite smooth.
- Leaves — 6 to 10 inches long, the leaves are compound, with 5-9 leaflets. The edges of leaflets might be smooth or serrated. The underside is slightly hairy, and leaves go yellow in the fall.
- Flowers — 1/8 inch long, pale green to purplish-green, with a tiny tubular calyx and no corollas. Male flowers have two stamens and turn brown once pollen is released. Male flowers are a tightly packed cluster, while female flower clusters spread out to a loose panicle with up to 300 individual flowers.
- Seeds — When seeds are present on trees, they are dry, oar-shaped samaras. They normally appear in groups and remain on the tree until late fall or early winter.
Latin name: Fraxinus Americana.
White ash typically grows to a height between 60 and 90 feet, though some specimens have been known to reach 120 feet. It has a straight trunk with a diameter between 2 and 3 feet.
If free to grow, the crown is dense and conical, though it grows pyramidal and more narrow in densely populated areas.
- Bark — Yellow-brown, to medium or dark gray, far lighter and ‘whiter’ than other species of ash. It has scaly ridges and deep furrows that form a diamond pattern between pointed ridges.
- Leaves — Are ovate or elliptical, 8 to 12 inches long, stalked, opposite each other, and have between 5 and 9 dark green paired leaflets except for the last one, which is singular. The underside is whitish, and leaves go purplish and yellow in the fall. Leaflets can be smooth or finely toothed.
- Flowers — Appear in small clusters, each just 1/8th inch long, with a tubular calyx, but without petals. Male flowers are yellow-green to purple, with two stamens and long anthers, female flowers a single pistil. Blooms start in tight clusters and expand in maturity, with the female flowers expanding to become widely spread.
- Seeds — Are a flat samara between 1 and 2 inches long, with a single wing and a rounded seed cavity at the base.
The two most common varieties are the American beech, and European beech. Wood chunks from beech look like the following:
Latin name: Fagus grandifolia.
May grow in its own thicket via root suckering in loamy/clay soil of Eastern forests, moist slopes, ravines, and hammocks.
Grows up to 100 feet tall with a rounded crown, where younger beech trees often surround old trees.
- Bark — Smooth and thin, light gray in color.
- Leaves — 2 1/2 to 5 1/2 inches long. Dark green ovate or elliptic shape with a pointy tip. 11 to 14 pairs of side veins run parallel to each other to the leaf’s edge, creating serrated teeth. The leafstalk and underside of the leaf are hairy. Leaves turn yellow to brown in the fall.
- Flowers — 1/4 inch male flowers are hairy and red green; 3/4 to 1 inch females grow on stalks in clusters in early Spring.
- Nut — 1/2 to 3/4 inch dark orange/green to brown ovoid splits found in pairs inside a woody husk covered in spines, that splits into four when ripe to reveal a 1 to 3 inch nut.
A.K.A. Common beech.
Latin name: Fagus sylvatica.
Introduced to America for use in parks and cultured landscapes. Short, stocky trunk develops knots and burls over time. It reaches 50 to 70 feet and has a 2 to 4 feet diameter.
- Bark — glossy silver to dark gray/blue. Twigs are light brown.
- Leaves — 3 to 6 inches long, oblong to elliptical, with serrated edges. Light green, turning golden yellow, red-brown, or orange-brown in Autumn through Winter. The short leafstalk and underside of the leaf have silky long hair.
- Flowers —
- Nut — A 1 inch ovoid soft-bristled husk encloses 2 or 3 edible dark brown nuts approx. 5/8 inch long in Autumn.
Perhaps the most recognizable wood chunks due to the white and silver color of the bark.
The four most common species are: Paper birch / silver birch (Betula papyrifera), River birch / black birch (Betula nigra), Yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis), and Sweet birch (Betula lenta).
In the Betuloideae family with alder, 31 of 35 species are native to North America. It grows across the U.S. from Maine to Minnesota to Texas along rivers, creeks, and marshy ground. Red or River varieties grow 100 feet tall in the wild.
- Bark — Depending on the variety, bark color ranges from whites to browns to blue-gray; the texture can be smooth with lenticels (pores an inch or so long-running horizontal to the ground), thin, or thick; it can peel in sheets or create small or large plates; and have vertical ridges and fissures. Twig tips have buds.
- Leaves — Depending on the variety, can have double-toothed edges and may or may not be lobed.
- Flowers — Male and female flowers are found on the same tree, both of the form of catkins with no petals. Male catkins are yellow-brown, long, and hang in groups of two to four. While female catkins are bright green, shorter, and grow upwards until fertilized when they then hang and turn brown.
- Fruit — The female catkins thicken and turn crimson brown before shedding in autumn masses of seeds that are tiny nutlets just 2 to 3 mm across, each with two tiny wings.
Cedar is in the Cypress family and mainly grows in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, and north into Canada.
Though there are many different varieties of cedar, some are unsafe, and others have little to no flavor or high levels of resin that add an unpleasant flavor to food.
It’s widely accepted that we only cook with a single variety of cedar: The Western Red Cedar.
Other Cedar varieties that you can cook with — though it’s not recommended — are:
- Alaskan Yellow Cedar
- Atlantic Cedar
- Incense Cedar
- Northern White Cedar
- Port Orford Cedar
- White Cedar
And cedar trees that are poisonous and unsafe to cook with are:
- Eastern Red Cedar
- Western Juniper
So with all this in mind, I will only discuss the Western Red Cedar:
Western Red Cedar
A.K.A. North Western cedar, Canoe-decar, Giant Arborvitae
Latin Name: Thuja plicata
Western red cedar soars up to 180 feet and can have a 50 feet circumference. Grows mostly in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana.
- Bark — Cinnamon- to purple-brown, fibrous, shreds as the tree matures.
- Leaves — Thick, blunt, scale-like fan has a glossy bright green top and a pale green with white stripes underside; has the scent of pineapple when crushed.
- Flowers — Male and female flowers appear on the same tree. Male flowers are very small, while female flowers appear as reddish-purple cones at the tips of branches.
- Cones — Are ½ inch long on short curved stalks, brown, woody, and oval-shaped with scales.
Cherry is in the Rosaceae family with apples, and has quite a distinctive bark, as you can see in the following pictures:
The most common varieties found are the black cherry, and pin cherry trees.
A.K.A. Wild cherry, ram cherry.
Latin name: Prunus serotina.
Grows up to 100 feet with a 4 feet diameter. Grows on East Coast into the Plains states; also in New Mexico and Arizona.
- Bark — smooth and shiny but darkens and breaks into cubed pattern with age.
- Leaves — 2 to 5 inch narrow or elliptic shape with a pointed tip and base, has fine-tooth edge.
- Flowers — 1/2 inch white with 5 rounded petals, grows in clusters in late Spring.
- Fruit — 1/2 inch round drupe grows in clusters up to red, dark purple, or near black in color.
A.K.A. Fire cherry, bird cherry, wild red cherry.
Latin name: Prunus pensylvanica.
Grows in the East, around the Great Lakes and into Canada. Reaches a height of up to 50 feet with a 4 to 20 inches in diameter.
- Bark — Pin cherry bark is reddish-brown to gray and quite shiny. It has large horizontal pores known as lenticels. The bark often peels off in horizontal strips.
- Leaves — 2 to 4 1/2 inch lance-shaped; the tip may curve to one side. Yellow-green turns to orange or red in Autumn.
- Flowers — 1/2 inch wide, cream-colored, 5-petaled; grows in clusters in Spring.
- Fruit — Up to 3/4 inch bright red round fruit grows from stalks in late Summer.
Chestnut (Sweet Chestnut)
Latin name: Castanea Sativa.
There a few varieties of chestnut, but sweet chestnut is the one we want to smoke with.
And make sure to avoid horse chestnut at all costs, because all parts of the tree contain toxins. Luckily, horse chestnut looks very different to sweet chestnut, but because we don’t smoke with it, I won’t cover it here. Check out this link for identification of horse chestnut trees.
Here are the details of the sweet chestnut tree.
Sweet chestnut belongs in the same family as beech and oak trees. They can grow up to 115 feet high and 7 feet in diameter. The trunk is straight, with branches starting at relatively low heights.
- Bark — Is smooth and silvery-purple in juvenile trees, gray-purple, but mature trees turn brown, fibrous, and develop a net-shaped retiform pattern with fissures, ridges, and splits that spiral around and up the trunk.
- Leaves — Are shiny, glossy, simple oblongs arranged alternately along each branch. They are 15 to 25 cm long and 5 to 10 cm wide, with a pointed tip and up to 20 pairs of visible parallel veins terminating in serrated toothed edges of the leaf.
- Flowers — There are male and female flowers on the same tree. Male flowers are a long, yellow, vertical catkin, of which female flowers grow at the base in the form of small, green rosettes.
- Nuts — Chestnuts are shiny, red-brown nuts encased in a leathery green, very prickly, and spiky casing.
Here is what your typical hickory wood chunks look like:
Hickory is in the same family as the walnut. It grows along the East Coast then south-westward to Texas. Depending on the species, flower buds can have overlapping, flaky, scaly or rusty scales or be shaped like a clamshell (Water and Bitternut species).
A.K.A. Carolina or Southern Shagbark.
Latin name: Carya ovata
Shagbark hickory grows across the Carolinas, Tennessee, Georgia, and Mississippi. They grow straight, can reach 100 feet and have a 2 1/2 feet diameter. The crown is widest at its top.
- Bark — Shaggy; smoky-gray color. Mature trees feature thick 1 to 3 feet strips which curl out from the trunk like a mustache. Reddish brown twigs.
- Leaves — Large, compound deciduous leaves – 3 or more little leaves (called leaflets) sprouting on one stem, yellow-green above, pale green underneath; they turn golden/rusty-spotted brown in Autumn and give off an aromatic scent when crushed.
- Flowers — There are separate male and female flowers on the same branch. Male flowers are 3 to 5-inch yellow-green catkins, 3 per stalk. Female flowers are tiny, 1/8 inch long oval-shaped clusters of 2 to 4 at the tip of each branch.
- Nut — 1–2 1/2 inches wide, round nut is covered by a thick yellow-green 4-part husk which opens top to bottom. Inside is a 4-part light tan nut containing an edible seed in late summer to Autumn.
A.K.A. Big shellbark, or Kingnut.
Latin name: Carya laciniosa.
Shellbark hickory grows along bottom lands, floodplains, and swamps in parts of Missouri, Iowa, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, and Arkansas. It has a tall, straight trunk and is crowned with a cylindrical mass of short branches and orange branchlets with droopy tips.
- Bark — Smooth, light gray. Young tree has shallow, interlacing ridges; the mature tree has narrow, flat plates whose edges bend outward from the trunk. Stout, hair, yellow-brown to orange twigs.
- Leaves — 12 to 22 inches long, having 5 to 11, 5 to 8 inches long leaflets 2 to 5 inches wide. They can have an ovate, broadly elliptic, or obovate shape, with a pointed tip and toothed margins. Shiny dark green topside, pale underneath with soft hairs. They turn yellow in Autumn and have an aromatic scent when crushed.
- Flowers — There are distinct male and female blooms on the same branch. 4 to 8-inch yellow-green catkins, 3 per stem, are the male flowers. Female flowers are small oval-shaped clusters of 2 to 4 at the end of each branch.
- Nut — Same as the Shagbark but its color may range from tan to a light red-brown.
A.K.A. White hickory.
Latin name: Carya tomentosa.
Mockernut hickory grows 50 to 80 feet straight up and has a trunk no more than 2 feet in diameter. It grows in the uplands of states from the Mid-Atlantic down to northern Florida and westward as far as Eastern Texas.
- Bark — smooth, shallow interlacing ridges which become more pronounced as the tree matures. Twigs have a thick, velvety coat.
- Leaves — 8 to 20 inches long with 7 to 9, 4 to 8 inches long leaflets grow 2 to 5 inches wide in an ovate, elliptic, or obovate shape with pointy tips and toothed edges. Shiny dark yellow-green topside, pale green below with a velvety coat. They turn yellow in Autumn and have an aroma described as resin, lemon, paint or mown grass when crushed.
- Flowers — On the same tree, both male and female flowers are produced. Drooping catkins about 4 to 5 inches in length are the male flowers, seen in groups of 3. Three catkins are suspended on a single stem. Short spikes of female flowers are found at the end of new season branches, in clusters of 2 to 10 flowers, each 3 mm long.
- Fruit — thick reddish-brown oblong-shaped husk grows up to 2 inches long. Its texture ranges from soft/hairy to nearly smooth. Also 4-part, this husk splits open from top to middle. The nut is enclosed in a reddish brown thick and hard shell. An edible seed can be harvested in Autumn.
Maple wood chunks, bark and grain looks as follows:
There are 13 species of maple native to North America, including some of the largest in the world. Generally identified by its simple opposite, multi-lobed (palmately) leaf with 3 to 5 veins running up through the leaf from the stalk.
A.K.A. Ashleaf Maple, Manitoba maple.
Latin name: Acer negundo.
This short-lived maple variety grows in flood plains, streams, wasteland, and suburban streets along the East Coast as far South as Texas, then north up through the Plains states and on into Canada. It is also found in the Southwest and California.
It has a short trunk that tends to bend towards the ground as the tree ages. It is the only maple to have more than 3 leaflets.
- Bark — Slightly ridged texture develops heavy furrows over time. Twigs can be blue, green, or purple.
- Leaf — Pinnate compound generally has three 3 to 4 inch leaflets in Spring, 5 in summer. Light green above, gray-green with hairy veins underneath turn yellow or red in Autumn.
- Flowers — Tiny pink hairy males and yellow-green females usually grow on separate trees in early Spring.
- Fruit — 1 to 2 inch paired samosas in 6 to 8 chains from late summer/Autumn into Winter.
Latin name: Acer platanoides.
Norway maple reaches up to 70 feet and a 2 1/2 inch diameter. Its darker bark and large, curled mustache samaras distinguish it from the Sugar Maple. It grows in moist woods, streams, and (sub)urban areas.
- Bark – dark gray with narrow fissures.
- Leaves — Pink-yellow leafstalk has a milky sap. Supports a 5 to 8 inches long leaf with 5 to 7 multi-point lobes. Dull green top with a pale green underside that has hairy veins. Turns yellow green to bright yellow in Autumn.
- Flowers — Can have male and female flowers on the same tree, or more usually be dedicated to a single gender per tree. Both male and female flowers are greenish-yellow, 1/3 inch wide, in clusters 2 to 3 inches across of 10 to 30 flowers. Each flower sits atop an individual, long and smooth stalk.
- Seeds — 1 1/2 to 2 inch long samaras joined in pairs, with broad wings and a single seed pod at the base. They start green, then turn brown later in the season before they drop from the tree.
A.K.A. Swamp Maple, scarlet maple, soft maple.
Latin name: Acer rubrum.
Red maple grows along the Eastern portion of North America in wetlands, moist forest, and dry ridges. Trunks are tall and straight, reaching 80 feet high and 2 1/2 feet in diameter. Everything – bark, leaf, leafstalk, fruit, flowers, and twigs — is red.
- Bark — Gray with a smooth texture that becomes ridged over time. Twigs are shiny.
- Leaves — Grows 2 1/2 inches to 5 inches and, unlike other maples, are longer than they are wide. They have 3-5 lobes with a pointed tip and toothed edge. Young leaves are dull green above, the hairy underside is whitish. They turn scarlet, red, or yellow in Autumn.
- Flowers — Each tree can hold either male, female, or occasionally a mix of both flowers. The flowers are red, and each flower is 1/4 inch wide with five sepals making the calyx. Male flowers have no stalk and long stamens sticking out from the petals. Female flowers are on a 2-inch stalk and have a stigma extending out past the petals. The flowers come in clusters at the end of last season’s twigs.
- Fruit — Are red winged samaras with a single seed pod at the base, and a broad wing approximately an inch long. They come in pairs, hanging from long stalks.
A.K.A. White maple, or river maple.
Latin name: Acer saccharinum.
Silver maple also grows on the eastern side of the continent along flood plains, swamps, rivers and other bodies of water. They have a short trunk that branches into for a height up to 80 feet and a 3 feet diameter.
- Bark — Pale silver-gray becomes shaggy with age.
- Leaves — 5 to 7 inches long and wide, 5-lobed, with coarse toothed edges. A dull, pale green above and silver-white below. Veins can be hairless or not.
- Flowers — reddish when young becomes green-yellow in late Winter to early Spring before the leaves emerge.
- Fruit — 1 1/2 to 3 inches paired samaras; the largest of the maples
Southern Sugar Maple
A.K.A. Florida Sugar Maple, Hammock Maple.
Latin name: Acer floridanum.
Southern sugar maple grows along coastal plain valleys in Maryland, Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas. Reaches 20 to 60 feet high, and a 2 feet diameter.
- Bark —Pale gray and smooth that darkens and develops furrows over time.
- Leaves — 1 1/2 to 3 inch, 3-lobed, round, occasionally with pointed tips, wavy edges. Hairy underside is a dull green/white. Green turns to scarlet or yellow in Autumn.
- Flowers — A tree can have only male, female, or a mix of both flowers. The flowers are greenish-yellow, small, and form clusters that hang from a 1 to 2-inch stalk.
- Fruit — 1/2 to 3/4 inch paired samaras.
A.K.A. Hard Maple, Rock Maple.
Latin name: Acer saccharum.
Sugar maple is the main source of maple syrup. It grows in the northeast then westward into the central states. The tall, straight trunk reaches up to 100 feet and has a 2 feet diameter. It’s mostly found in moist forests.
- Bark — gray and smooth surface turns into narrow concave plates
- Leaves — 5 to 6 inch, 5-lobed, tri-tip makes it looks like it’s flying. Dull green topside with a pale green or whitish underside with hairy veins. Green turns to brilliant reds, yellows, and oranges in Autumn.
- Flowers — yellow-green blossoms in early Spring
- Fruit — 1 to 1 1/2 inch samaras appear later summer into Autumn
A.K.A. Planetree Maple.
Latin name: Acer pseudoplatanus.
Sycamore maple is a European/Asian import which grows 50 to 80 feet and has a 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 foot diameter. Found in urban settings, in some woodlands it is considered an invasive species.
- Bark — Dark gray smooth that develops pink-yellow cracked squares with curling edges.
- Leaves — 3 to 7 inches long and wide; 5-lobed, coarse toothed edges. Very dark green top has recessed veins; hairy veins underneath. Turns to brown in Autumn.
- Flowers — Are small, greenish-yellow, and hang in clusters of flowers called ‘panicles’ approximately 5 inches long.
- Fruit — 1/4 to 2 inch samaras grow in summer and Autumn.
Growing in the Southwest United States and Northern Mexico, mesquite is in the pea family (Fabaceae). It produces pods containing beans more protein-rich than soybeans, according to the Arizona Daily Independent newspaper. There are three species:
Latin name: Prosopis glandulosa.
Honey mesquite grows up to 30 feet tall and a foot in diameter in grasslands and deserts. It sprouts tire-busting thorns. The trunk splits out into multiple stems at ground height. Branches are crooked and sticky. Tiny flowers ranging in color from creamy white or pale yellow grow in clusters up to 5 inches long in the Spring and summer.
- Bark — Greenish brown to gray turning dark brown to gray; scaly, with shallow fissures.
- Leaves — Dark green compound leaves grow 5 to 10 inches long.
- Flowers — Pale greenish pink blossoms from March to September.
- Fruit — Straw yellow cylindrical legume may have a pink blush early on.
Latin name: Prosopis pubescens.
Screwbean mesquite has a trunk splitting out into multiple stems which stand tall and straight, reaching up to 40 feet in height and 12 feet in diameter. It takes its name from the shape of the seed pods.
- Bark — Greenish brown to gray turning dark brown to gray; scaly, with shallow fissures.
- Leaves — Grow up to 3 1/2 inches with 5 to 8 leaflets measuring 1/4 inch to 1/2 inch long; grayish green with tiny hairs.
- Flower — Pale green-cream spikes 1 to 3 inches.
- Fruit — Looks like a tightly wound bed spring, yellow green to tan; grows in clusters.
Latin name: Prosopis velutina.
Velvet mesquite grows in Southwest Arizona along washes and foothills, says Horticulture Unlimited. It can grow up to 25 feet and have a wide canopy. Multiple stems sprout wicked looking thorns as long as 3 inches in length. In late Spring, pale yellow flowers in dense, pendulous spikes bloom. In summer 3 to 9 inch seed pods grow.
- Bark — Near-black, shaggy.
- Leaves — Deciduous, gray-green, bipinnate.
- Flowers — Are clusters of tiny greenish-yellow to pale yellow flowers with 5 petals. They form dense clusters of hanging spikes up to 4 inches long.
- Fruit — 3 to 8 inches long, narrow tan legume with reddish or black mottling pinches in between the pods.
Typical oak smoking wood chunks look like this:
There are about 90 species of oak growing in the U.S. They are in the same family as the beech. In general, there are three main species found, based on variations in wood structure, leaf and acorn traits, flowers, and acorn time to maturity.
Latin name: Quercus Rubra.
Red oak is named for its heartwood and interior bark, a reddish or orange color. They typically grow to between 50 and 75 feet tall, though can hit 100 feet, and have a crown 45 to 75 feet across. Their acorns can take up to 2-years to mature. The wood is highly porous.
- Bark — Smooth to deep furrows; dark gray to blackish
- Leaves — Lobed or unlobed, the tip, lobes, and teeth have a bristle. The variety dictates if the bristle stands out.
- Flowers — Red oaks are monoecious, producing both male and female blooms on the same tree. The male red oak blooms are 4 inches long, yellowish-green hanging catkins, growing in groups of three. Each individual flower is approximately 1/8 inch wide. Female flowers are reddish-green and appear in clusters of two to five on the tips of the stems, also about 1/8 inch across.
- Acorn — Smooth cup, thin scales, hairy or velvety inner wall. Has a bitter taste.
Latin name: Quercus alba.
White oak is named for the interior bark, tan or cream color. They usually reach a height of 50 to 75 feet, but can reach 100 feet, and have a crown between 45 and 75 feet across. The (cut) wood is highly water resistant.
- Bark — Smooth, flaky, scaly; pale gray, sometimes whitish
- Leaves — Lobed or unlobed, prickly teeth along edges
- Flowers — White oak is monoecious, producing separate male and female flowers, but on the same tree. Male flowers are yellowish-green catkins up to 4 inches long, with each individual flower just 1/8 inch wide. Female flowers are small reddish-green spikes found at the end of this year’s new growth twigs.
- Acorn — Usually mature in one season; the cup appears rough and has thick scales at its base, inner walls are hairless more often than not. Tastes sweet.
Latin name: Quercus Alnifolia.
Golden oak is named for the hair on the acorn cups of some species. They typically reach a height of 50 feet, with a canopy spread up to 30 feet.
- Bark — Smooth, scaly, flaky; dark or pale gray.
- Leaves — Unlobed, prickly teeth along edges, no awns; pale underside, dark topside.
- Flowers — White oak is monoecious, meaning it produces both male and female blooms on the same tree. Male flowers are yellowish-green catkins that grow up to 3.5 inches long and are just 1/8 inch broad. Female flowers are little reddish-green spikes that appear at the end of branches.
- Acorn — 1st & 2nd year; scales partly hidden beneath wooly hairs which sometimes appear golden in color.
Olive wood chunks have a quite distinctive bark and heartwood, as can be seen below:
Oleaceae family includes the ash tree was well as jasmine and lilac bushes. Seventeen of this family are native to the North American continent.
Latin name: Olea Europaea.
Common olive was introduced in California from the Mediterranean. It grows up to 40 feet and has a 3 feet trunk diameter.
- Bark — The bark of young olive trees is smooth and light gray in color, but as the tree becomes older, it becomes fissured, rough, and full of bumps and holes.
- Leaves — Simple gray-green top and a silvery underside sporting glossy scales. Lance-shaped or narrow elliptic, 1 1/2 to 3 inches in length on a short stalk.
- Flowers — 1/4 inch long, 4-petaled creamy white; grows in the Spring.
- Fruit — greenish globes ripening to black in the Autumn.
Latin name: Citrus Sinensis.
Orange wood chunks, bark, and wood grain look like as follows:
Though there are many varieties of orange trees, the sweet orange tree, Citrus Sinensis, is the most widely grown worldwide and in the US, and the one we will concentrate on.
Typically reaching a height of 25 feet, they have been known to grow up to 50 feet. The crown is rounded with thin branches and holds leaves all year round.
- Leaves — Are elongated oval-shaped, pointed on both ends, and can have a very faint serration or toothed edge, though many leaves are smooth. They are 3 to 6 inches long and 1 to 4 inches wide.
- Flowers — Can appear singly or in small clusters of up to six flowers. Each flower has 5 petals and are approximately 2 inches wide. Each flower has between 20 and 25 stamens.
- Fruit — A 3 to 4 inches wide, spherical, orange-colored fruit, with an oily outer rind, white pithy inner rind, and orange fleshy fruit that can be separated into 10 to 14 segments.
Latin name: Prunus Persica.
Here are what typical peach tree smoking wood chunks look like:
Though not quite as many varieties exist as apple trees, there are thousands of different varieties of peach trees, that can vary in size, color, and more. The best we can do is describe your typical peach tree.
Peach trees grow between 10 and 30 feet high, with a trunk just 5 to 8 inches wide, with a wide crown with flat to upward pointing branches.
- Bark — Is purplish-gray and smooth in juvenile trees, but as it ages turns gray, with horizontal lenticels, and becomes more scaly and rough.
- Leaves — Are 2 to 5 inches long and 1/2 to 2 inches wide, oval-shaped, with finely serrated edges. They are a deep green on top and very glossy, light green, and smooth to slightly hairy underneath, depending on the variety. They grow alternately along the branch, and more than one leaf can grow from the same bud.
- Flowers — Are 1 to 1 ½ inch across and occur individually, or sometimes in pairs, spread along young branches, and have almost no stalk or peduncle. Typically pink but can be white, each flower has five petals, five sepals, and spirals of stamens around a short tube known as the hypanthium in the center of the flower.
- Fruit — Are oval and green when young, ripening in maturity to yellow-orange-red-deep red spherical fruits. Each mature fruit is 2 ½ to 3.5 inches wide. The fruit is densely hairy when juvenile or mature. The flesh of the fruits is sweet and typically yellow-colored.
A.K.A. Domestic pear, common pear, European pear
Latin name: Pyrus communis.
First, here are your typical pear smoking wood chunks:
There are as many as 50 different varieties of pear trees, the most highly cultivated and most often seen being the common pear, and that is what we’ll concentrate on here.
Also in the rose family, common pear trees grow to between 40 and 65 feet high, with a domed canopy reaching between 12 and 25 feet wide. They have a trunk up to 12 inches in diameter, and branches can have spiny twigs.
- Bark — Starts out smooth but develops shallow ridges as the tree ages, becoming gray-brown with a rough feeling, scaly square-shaped pattern in maturity.
- Leaves — Are broad and flat, leathery, tiny toothed, dark green, and ovate shaped, with long stalks. They grow one per stem and alternate along each side of branches. They are between 3 and 12 cm, highly shiny on top, smooth and hairless underneath.
- Flowers — Are completely white except for red-colored stamens, up to 1 1/2 inches across, have five petals, and are between 4 and 6 inches long.
- Fruit — Is pear-shaped (of course), or more accurately elongated ovoid with a broader tip and narrow part at the base (obovoid.) You find them growing on the tree singly and can be anything between 1-inch and 4 inches across at the widest end.
Latin name: Carya Illinoinensis.
Your typical pecan wood chunks look as follows:
Pecans come in over 1000 distinct types, each with somewhat different flavor, texture, size, color, shape, and other features. We’re concentrating on the common, ‘hardy pecan.’
In the walnut family (Juglandaceae), this tree has a tall, straight trunk and grows up to 100 feet and a 4 feet trunk circumference. It can be found in parts of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, and Illinois.
- Bark — Ridges or with scales which either lie flat to the trunk or peel away from it
- Leaves — 12 to 20 inches lance-shaped leaflets have a slight curve and pointed tip. Dark yellow-green on top, paler below, turns yellow in Autumn.
- Flowers — Pecan trees can grow both male and female flowers on the same tree, but will do so at different times. Male flowers are green 6-inch strings of tightly clustered flowers known as catkins, while the female flowers are small, green, cup-shaped spikes.
- Fruit — 1 to 2 1/.2 inch long, oblong dark brown husk-covered nut grows in a cluster of 3 to 11. The shell is a pale reddish brown
Latin name: Prunus Americana.
Here is what typical plum tree smoking wood chunks look like:
There are over 20 species of plum, but the most common and the one we will concentrate on, is American plum.
American plum is a shrub to small tree that grows in the range of 10 to 35 feet high, often in groups or large clumps of individual specimens. It has a crooked, short trunk and a broad, open crown, and the twigs are spiny.
- Bark — Is dark gray, smooth, and thin. In adult trees it develops into peels and strips of bark that curl and hang off the trunk.
- Leaves — Are 2 to 4 inches long, 1 to 2 inches wide, oval-shaped, have sharp double-serrated edges, and hand from a short hairy stalk. They are arranged on alternate sides along each branch. The top side of the leaves are dark green, with the underside being smooth, hairless, and pale green.
- Flowers — Form at the branches’ tips before any leaves grow in the spring. They grow in clusters of 1 to 5 flowers, from a single bud at the tip of each branch and twig. Each flower is round to oval-shaped, 3/4 to 1 inch wide, with 5 white petals and a yellow-tipped stamen in the middle. Sepals are green or red, a third the length of the petals.
- Fruit — Are round, up to an inch across, with purplish-red skin, a sweet yellow flesh, and a single large ‘stone’ in the center.
Latin name: Luglans.
Walnuts smoking wood chunks, it’s bark and the wood grain, looks as follows:
Walnuts are in the same family (Juglandaceae) as hickory and pecan. Six of 21 species of walnut that exist are native to North America, we’ll concentrate on only the most common.
Walnut is a deciduous broadleaf tree that may reach a height of 120 feet. They have a short trunk and a large wide crown, however if they grow in a crowded environment, the crown might be thinner.
- Bark — Smooth and gray when juvenile, becomes deeply furrowed, scaly, and dark with age, eventually cracking into plates on the oldest trees.
- Leaves — Large, compound; black walnut goes without a leaflet at the top of the stem. Leaflets are at their largest in the leaf’s middle. They may have a spicy scent. Green color turns to yellows in Autumn.
- Flowers — Males are thin catkins, females usually appear as a trio of round buds sprouting pale petals and can grow on the same branch as the males.
- Nut — 3/4 to 1 inch rounded nut in a green rind which blackens with age, halves when germinating
Resources for Identifying Trees
If the above descriptions and pictures aren’t enough, get a good reference like these three taken off the shelf of the local library:
- National Wildlife Federation® Field Guide to Trees of North America
- Trees (Smithsonian Nature Guide) by Tony Russell
- The Sibley Guide to Trees by David Allen Sibley
The e-book version of the Trees of Eastern North America (Princeton Field Guides) also came in handy.
Alternatively, many great websites have detailed descriptions of trees, many handy photos, and good search features. Find them by Google searching for ‘ identification. Here are a couple of good sites to get you started, though:
If you think the time investment of retrieving and drying green wood is too much, there are easier paths, from lumber yards to your local store.
The main thing is to get smoking. Get creative and try combining the stronger woods with the milder ones for unique flavor profiles.
The art of using wood to create just-right smoke can be mastered with patience and time. There are so many varieties and species of trees, it could take years to try every wood from every region and soil type.
Does a Massachusetts hickory taste different from an Arkansas hickory? What’s your experience with regional woods? If you have a favorite wood combination, please share. And enjoy the aroma and taste of food smoked from good wood.