The Best BBQ Woods for Smoking and Grilling: Fire up your summer BBQs with woods that add flavor to any meal

Smoking is a centuries-old method for preserving food and imparting interesting flavors on meat, fish, and poultry. In recent decades, though, many have relied on the ease and convenience of charcoal and gas, experimenting less with the flavors of their food. But with our current culinary revival, gourmet smoking woods are back at BBQs everywhere. Try these 9 smoking woods this summer to see which flavor combos you like best. All you need is a grill, and some wood chunks, chips, or pellets, which you may find at your local hardware store, or you can order them here.

  1. Alder: Because it imparts a light, delicate flavor, alder wood is usually best for fish. Red alder, which grows abundantly in the western United States, has traditionally been the wood of choice for smoking Pacific salmon. Alder chips will give most fish, seafood, and poultry dishes a slightly sweet flavor. Note that alder is also known as beech.
  2. Ash: This is a fast-burning hardwood, which means it gets hot and is best used for proteins that require quick cooking times. Because it has a subtle, mild flavor, it can easily be combined with other woods.
  3. Apple: The wood of an apple tree is sweet like its fruit, but it’s mild enough that it won’t overpower your meat. Apple chips are great with most fish, seafood, and poultry, but it’s most commonly used to smoke or grill ham or other pork dishes.
  4. Cherry: Usually best for beef or pork dishes because it imparts a slightly smoky flavor, but it’s subtle enough for hardier fish and poultry too. Cherry can turn your meat a deep pink or maroon.
  5. Hickory: This is one of the most popular (and strongest!) flavored woods, commonly used to smoke ribs and most red meats and game. If you’re worried about hickory overpowering your food, try mixing it with some milder wood chips for balance. Many chefs compare the flavor of hickory wood to that of bacon, and it’s commonly used in Southern cooking.
  6. Maple: Although it’s mellow and sweet like apple and alder woods, maple doesn’t work as well with fish. It’s best for pork and poultry.
  7. Mesquite: Mesquite is another strong wood, which holds up well to most red meats (though not lamb). It can get overwhelming or bitter, for some, so it’s often optimal for shorter cooking times or mixed with some milder chips.
  8. Oak: Usually a top choice for smoking beef–especially brisket–oak is also good with lamb or game, any full-flavored meat. It’s often described as “earthy” in flavor.
  9. Pecan: Pecan wood is perfect for white meat because it’s stronger than the fruit trees like cherry and apple, but not as pungent as mesquite or hickory. Since it doesn’t burn as hot as some of the other woods, pecan is good for slow-cooking cuts.

Note: Most experts agree that softer woods from pine trees (cedar, fir, cypress) don’t work for smoking because the sap can make your food taste funny, and can even make you sick. Stick with the hardwood varieties above for the tastiest (and safest!) results.


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