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Best Wood Chips For Smoking Every Kind Of Meat

It’s a tall order to create a guide for picking the best flavored wood chips for smoking every kind of meat.  But that is just what I am going to do.  Your time should be spent lovingly preparing a tasty spice rub or tending to that brisket on the smoker.  Not constantly wondering what type of wood chips you should use to get those bold flavors you’re craving for dinner.

If you’re tired of trial and error experimentation, then this is the guide for you.  Whether you are feasting on chicken, beef, fish or pork, you’ll find what you need right here.  Every kind of meat and almost every type of cut you can put on a smoker has a wood chip that suits it best.  While smokey flavors are a personal preference, I’ll get you aimed in the right direction so you can build out a palette of artfully crafted wood blends to enhance every kind of meat.   

Wood chips for every kind of meat

All meat is different and each type has a wood smoke that brings out the best flavors.  For quick reference, scroll to the bottom of this section for handy chart that summarizes all the juicy details I am about to divulge. 

Best wood chips for smoking beef

A big hunk of beef is the quintessential red meat for most dinners.  As such, it is the perfect canvas for bold spices and intense smokey flavors.  That’s not to say you can’t tone it down as well.

In fact, oak wood chips are among the most popular and tasty smoke flavor to use on beef.  Its mild, earthy flavor compliments most cuts of beef and pairs well with almost any seasoning.  For a tangy, spicy smoke opt for hickory instead.  Hickory really gives those southern flavors to ribs, brisket and even steaks.  

Going for authentic BBQ pit flavored brisket?  Try mesquite wood chips.  Just be careful.  Mesquite has an intense smokey bite that can overpower even the biggest cut of beef.  Also, cherry adds a mildly sweet, fruity note to an otherwise standard beef roast.  Pecan smoke brings a touch of nuttiness that turns any cut of beef into a savory meal.   

Create more complex flavors by mixing wood chips as well.  Oak and cherry compliment each other nicely as does pecan and cherry. 

Best wood chips for smoking pork

Pork has to be my all time favorite meat to smoke.  It’s literally a blank slate that’s hard for even the most novice chef to ruin.  Therefore, pork is perfect for trying out different smoke flavors to see what you love most.  

To get the best results from smoked pork, start with maple wood chips.  Maple’s delicate smokiness hits all the sweet notes that bring out robust flavors in pork.  Dial up the intensity with a touch of hickory, pecan or oak.  Fruit woods like apple and cherry also work great with any cut of pork.

For those wanting some pointers on specific cuts of pork, here you go.  Go with apple wood for making your own smoked bacon.  Ham lovers should consider maple or pecan wood to get deep penetrating flavor all the way to the bone.  And finally, go with a hickory/oak blend with a slight touch of mesquite for pork ribs that are to die for.

Best wood chips for smoking lamb

Lamb certainly isn’t everyones favorite main dish.  Yet, for those who want the occasional rack of lamb, a smoker is the perfect tool for the job.  

Since lamb has a fairly strong flavor, you need an equally bold wood smoke.  Therefore, hickory is the best match for lamb in the smoker.  It takes a little finesse when using hickory smoke since you can easily overpower the lamb.  A runner up for lamb cuts is apple wood.  Apple is more mild and is best used when you want your seasoning to stay in the lime light.  

Mesquite is also a viable option but again, use it sparingly.  Even strong flavored meats are ruined with too much mesquite smoke.    

Best wood chips for smoking chicken

If there is meat being served for dinner, then there is a good chance it’s going to be chicken.  But instead of the same boring chicken parmesan, be adventurous and throw that chicken in the smoker.

Whether it’s chicken thighs, breasts or a whole bird, pecan wood chips give the best smoke flavor.  Its light nutty aroma and mild taste enhances the bird’s flavor without going overboard.  Fruit woods are also excellent choices and pair well with sweet and savory seasonings on any cut of chicken.  

For flavors reminiscent of authentic BBQ pits, toss in a handful of hickory or oak wood chips.  Each adds its own smoky depth to chicken.  Hickory is preferred by some for its “fresh from the fire” taste and oak gives a nice hint of smokiness without being offensive.  Just be careful.  Too much of any kind of smoke on chicken will impart bitterness to the skin.

Best wood chips for smoking turkey

Turkey seems to be a once-per-year bird that everyone forgets about except during Thanksgiving.  Although, once you feast on a smoked turkey, you’ll be searching for excuses to give thanks more than once per year.

If you can get your hands on some sugar-maple, it is by far the best wood for smoking turkey.  This hardwood smolders gently, releasing pleasantly sweet and mild smoke that leaves you craving for another helping.  Don’t have sugar-maple wood chips handy?  Don’t despair.  Pecan and fruit woods are a good backup with oak being a fantastic choice as well.

Best wood chips for smoking duck

Smoked duck is something to behold.  Duck is packed with more dark meat and fat than chicken or turkey, so you get juicy, fall-off-the-bone goodness with every richly flavored bite.  

Like other poultry, the best wood chips for smoking duck are mildly sweet hardwoods or fruit woods like maple, pecan, apple and cherry.  Even alder wood yields a delightfully subtle sweetness to an already rich tasting meat like duck.

Best wood chips for smoking venison

This is for all you hunters out there with a freezer full of venison.  Among the most common wild game, deer meat (venison) also tends to be the most gamey tasting to some.  A backyard smoker is just the thing to take the edge off and turn that lean meat into a scrumptious meal.  

Strong flavored meat calls for penetrating smoke like hickory.  Venison pairs remarkably well with hickory wood smoke.  It’s a strong smoke but it is lined with enough subtle hints of nutty and earthy taste to tame even the most gamey cuts of venison.  

Mesquite is another great option but I favor hickory when it comes to venison.  If you aren’t afraid of a little gamey flavor, opt instead for sweet woods like cherry or apple.  Oak is also a solid option followed by pecan, both of which take on more mellow undertones in venison.

Best wood chips for smoking elk

Elk is often thought to be the closest wild game gets to tasting like beef.  It’s debatable but elk is certainly less gamey than venison and infinitely more delicious cooked on a smoker.

You won’t find better wood chips than hickory, apple or cherry for smoking lean meat like elk.  I prefer starting off the cooking session with hickory and finishing on a sweeter note by switching to apple or cherry towards the end.  The savory blend of hickory and fruit wood smoke does wonders on boosting the flavor of any cut of elk.  

Keep in mind that wild game has little fat which actually binds smoke flavors much more readily.  In other words, you can get away with a heavier dose of smoke on elk or venison then you can on beef or pork.  You should still play it safe and go easy on the smoke to start.  You can always add more smoke but you can’t take it away.

Best wood chips for smoking jerky

There are all kinds of jerky meats but beef jerky is king.  You can add any kind of smoke to these dried strips of meat and get awesome results.  But there is one kind of wood chip that sets the bar high.

Hickory is the undeniable favorite for making smoked beef jerky.  The tangy boldness of hickory smoke balances out the salty goodness of jerky.  It’s a combination that checks all the boxes and is better left undisturbed.

For the rebels among us, maple, cherry, apple and oak can also yield fantastic results on jerky.  Especially, if it isn’t beef jerky.  Go with fruit wood for turkey jerky and maple or oak for pork.

Best wood chips for smoking sausage

Whether it’s breakfast, lunch or dinner, smoked sausage deserves a place on everyone’s menu.  And homemade sausage of any kind is other worldly good.  To make it even better though, you’ve got to hit it with the right kind of smoke.

Most experts would agree that the best wood for smoking sausage is either oak, hickory or cherry.  All of which produce an appetizing aroma to compliment heavily spiced sausage.  Picking the best is a personal choice but you can’t go wrong with any of them.

Best wood chips for smoking fish

Smoked fish is a treat that too few of us get to enjoy often enough.  However, once you learn how easy it is, you’ll be serving up smoked fillets all year long.

There are several types of wood chips that work well for smoking fish but none are better for the job than alder.  With a mild earthy tone, alder is unbeatable on salmon or any other fatty fish.  A close second would be apple wood.  Better yet, use a 50/50 mix of alder and apple for the full spectrum of earthy sweetness to enhance the flavor of any fish.

You can certainly experiment with other types of wood too.  It all depends on the flavor profile of the particular species of fish you are trying to smoke.  Hickory, oak, pecan  and cherry are foolproof choices when alder or apple is not preferred.  Maple is a good choice and a top pick for fans of smoked sturgeon.

Bonus: Best wood chips for smoking cheese

While definitely not a meat, smoked cheese is a favorite in my house.  As such, knowing what wood smoke flavors do it justice is essential knowledge for cheese lovers.

If you thought there where gobs of wood chip choices for meat, that is nothing compared to the vast numbers of cheese types.  Each cheese demands its own subtle tweak once you put the smoke to it.  

In most cases, apple wood makes the best smoke for a large variety of cheeses like gouda, cheddar and swiss.  Other fruit woods, such as cherry, compliment provolone well.  Oak and pecan are also a staple for smoking cheese.  Hickory is a long standing favorite for gouda.

Regardless of the kind of wood smoke you use, remember that cheese is far more delicate than meat so it is prone to over smoking.  In most cases you’ll be cold smoking cheese.

Best Wood Smoke For Meats

Type of MeatBest Wood SmokeAlternatives
Beef Oak, HickoryMesquite, Pecan, Cherry
PorkMapleHickory, Pecan, Oak, Fruit woods
LambHickoryApple, Mesquite
ChickenPecan, AppleCherry, Hickory, Oak
TurkeySugar MaplePecan, Fruit woods, Oak
DuckMaple, PecanFruit woods, Alder
VenisonHickory, MesquiteOak, Pecan, Fruit woods
ElkHickoryApple, Cherry
Jerky HickoryOak, Maple, Cherry, Apple
SausageOak, HickoryCherry
FishAlderCherry, Oak, Pecan, Hickory
CheeseApple, CherryOak, Pecan, Hickory

If you could only choose one

Not every one has the luxury of stashing away a dozen different types of wood chips for every situation.  Instead, having one or two favorite wood smoke flavors to fall back on is a far more practical proposition.

So, if you could only choose one kind of wood flavor for smoking any meat you’re likely to slap on the grill, what would it be?

Hands down, oak or hickory wood are the most versatile smoke flavors you’ll find.  They work great with virtually everything you can stick in a smoker including beef, pork, poultry, fish and even vegetables.

If you can’t seem to settle for only one wood smoke flavor then add a fruit wood like cherry and a popular classic like pecan to your stash and you are all set for any cooking situation that comes your way.  

Here are our favorite wood chips that will never fail to please.

Another way to get around the dilemma of only choosing one type of wood chips is to pick a wood chip blend instead.  These blends add a well layered mix of smells and tastes to any meat.  Best of all, you don’t need to stress over picking the right wood chips.  It’s a simple way to boost the flavor of any meat.  

What woods are bad to smoke with

There is a whole list of wood types that create delicious flavors in the smoker.  Yet there are some woods that should never be used.

Some of the worst kinds of wood for smoking any type of food include cedar, pine, spruce, redwood, fir, elm, eucalyptus, cypress, walnut, oleander, sycamore, yew and mangrove.  Avoid these at all costs.  They contain high levels of tannins, resins or toxins that produce bad tasting, and sometimes dangerous, smoke if used to smoke food.

In addition, never use lumber of any kind since it has probably been treated with chemicals.  Green wood that is not properly seasoned should also be avoided.  Smoke from unseasoned wood tastes different and often more bitter due in part to high sap levels.

What woods give the most smoke flavor

Mesquite and hickory produce the most intense smoke flavor possible.  Both add a sharp smokey taste that can turn almost bitter if overdone.  These woods are best used for large cuts of meat like pork shoulder and brisket.    

Is it better to soak wood chips before smoking

Soaking wood chips might seem like a good idea but it often causes more of a problem.  The reasoning behind soaking is to slow the burning process so smoke is produced for a longer period of time.  But that’s just not how it works.  

If you are using a smoker for low and slow cooks, do not soak your wood chips in water.  This ends up adding 30 minutes to one hour to the cooking time and just delays the development of smoke.  The result is less smoke flavor when you need it and drier meat.  

However, soaking wood chips does have a place when the intent is to delay the smoking process.  Soak wood chips or chunks when you need shorter cooks on a hot grill.  Pre-soaking keeps the chips from flaming instantly and loosing all that smoke flavor before it hits the meat.  

Chips or Chunks: which should you use

We’ve been talking about wood chips throughout this article but all the same concepts apply to wood chunks as well.  

Wood chunks are simply large pieces of dried wood versus the smaller shavings of wood chips.  Same wood, different sizes.  Which you use depends mostly on the type of smoker you have.

Most electric and gas smokers use wood chips placed in a pan just above a heating element.  Wood chunks, on the other hand, are more suitable for charcoal or wood fired smokers.  

So which is better for producing the best smoke flavor in meats?  

Experienced backyard pit masters generally agree that wood chunks are the way to go when precise flavor control is needed.  Wood chips in conventional smokers tend to burn up fast and release their smoke quickly.  Whereas larger, denser wood chunks smolder longer.  This produces a much more even smoke throughout the cooking process.

Despite the apparent advantages of wood chunks, always use the type of smoking wood recommended by your particular smoker’s manufacturer.  

Final thoughts

We all strive to improve the flavor of our delicious smoked meats.  However, smokey goodness is in the taste of the beholder.  Don’t get stuck on the idea that only one type of wood is good for a specific cut of meat.  Be adventurous and bold.  Experimenting with flavors and refining your smoking style is half the fun and makes any meal more savory.