The woods that work best for grilling and smoking are hardwoods, particularly (for some unknown reason) the woods of certain fruit and nut trees. We should point out that any of these woods can be used to smoke any meat–we are just commenting on what meats these woods are commonly linked with. Some woods are available locally only where they grow, such as alder and pecan. But most woods are available by mail order or at your nearest barbecue supply store. In most cases, the hard remnants of fruits or nuts of the hardwood trees can also be used in the smoking process. Specifically, we mean peach pits and nut shells but not acorns.
- Alder imparts a light flavor that works well with fish and poultry. It is native to the northwestern United States, it is the traditional wood for smoking salmon.
- Apple has a sweet, mild flavor and is used mostly with pork and game, but can be used for ham as well.
- Cherry is also used for ham, but some cooks think that its smoke is too acrid.
- Hickory is probably the most famous smoking hardwoods, is the wood of choice in the Southern barbecue belt. It imparts a strong, hearty flavor to meats, and is used mostly to smoke pork shoulders and ribs.
- Maple is a mild and mellow smoke that imparts a sweet flavor that is traditional for smoking ham but is also good with poultry, pork, and seafood.
- Oak, the favorite wood of Europe, is strong but not overpowering. It is a very good wood for beef or lamb and is probably the most versatile of the hard woods. Do not use acorns for smoking.
- Pecan is similar to hickory and milder. It’s also a southern favorite that is becoming the smoking wood of choice in the Southwest because of the extensive pecan groves in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Because of its availability, it is the wood most commonly used in our smoker.
Remember that the above woods can be mixed in the smoking process to add another dimension to barbecue. Some cooks in the Southwest, where I live, mix a little of the stronger mesquite in with pecan or apple wood. Other woods used in the smoking process include almond, black walnut, juniper (slightly resinous), and locust. If you want to find out more, see our article here.