There used to be a time when all barbeque was cooked using wood logs as the only source of both heat and smoke. Times have changed, however, and now we tend to over complicate the way that we smoke our meats.
Go ahead—take a walk through your average barbeque store and you’ll see choice after choice. There are things to choose from such as wood chips, pellets, chunks, whole logs, and discs, and that is not even taking into account the dozens of wood varieties that are available.
Surely there has to be a simpler answer for how to season wood for smoking purposes, right? Thankfully, there are far simpler ways to achieve this without having to feel overwhelmed by options that you didn’t even want in the first place.
Smoking with Wood
It should be stated that you don’t have to use wood to smoke your food, but it is safe to say that wood is the most commonly used material for doing so. There are two ways that you can use the wood when you barbeque:
- As the main source of fuel: This is how it used to be done because when wood combusts, it creates heat while also producing the smoke that gives the meat that smokey flavor. You can build a fire using logs in something like an offset smoker or using pellet smokers as well.
- As the source of smoke: You can use an alternate fuel source for heat (think charcoal or gas) and place wood chips or chunks of wood on the lit coals to provide that smokey flavor that you are after.
How to Add Wood to Your Smoker or “Season” Your Wood
A good rule of thumb is that a small, hot fire that burns at a steady rate will produce the best smoke for cooking. You definitely want to avoid building a huge fire in your smoker; lighting all of your fuel in one shot will likely yield less than stellar results.
How much wood you need to add to the fire and when will depend on the type of smoker you are using and whether or not the wood is your primary source of heat. There are many smokers where the wood is not the source of heat and a few chunks of wood will be enough to create the right amount of smoke for your meat.
Generally speaking, you will also likely want to hold off on adding your wood chips or chunks until after the grill is nice and hot and all of your heat measurement tools have been set up.
To get good smoke right away, you will want to ensure that the wood is in contact with the heat source.
Match the Wood Flavor to What You Are Cooking
When you learn how to season wood for smoking, it is important that you have an understanding of what kind of flavor profile of smoke goes best with the meat you are smoking. This can get a little complicated, so we won’t go over the top when discussing flavor profiles of various woods, as that can get pretty obsessive.
Without getting too far down the rabbit hole, it actually depends more on where the tree grew as far as the impact on the flavor profile. It is important to keep in mind that the wood variety has less of an impact than how you burn it.
Certainly, each variety of wood will produce a different color and flavor of smoke, but how you burn it is what matters.
The techniques for how to effectively burn these woods is what will pay off, more than trying to tirelessly match specific woods with a certain kind of meat. When you get to be a smoking pro, then try out those pairings.
What Are the Best Types of Wood for Smoking?
Your average pitmaster will likely use electric, gas, or charcoal as their primary heating source while adding a few wood chips or chunks for flavor.
There are definitely a few points that you need to take into consideration, and they are as follows:
- Any wood bought at a store is more than likely kiln dried. This means that it will burn fast and hot. This can make it more difficult to control the heat as well as the length of your particular cooking time.
- Typically, if the wood has been left out to dry for six months or so, it is perfect for using on the barbeque. This is due to the fact that there is still enough moisture left in the wood to create smoke but not enough that the wood will be too sappy.
- Having wood with some moisture left in it has another advantage: it will burn at a lower heat for a longer time. This makes it easier to achieve the “low and slow” method which is so popular these days.
While it is somewhat of a myth that different types of wood will produce distinctly different flavors, there are still a few rules of thumb that you will want to take into consideration regarding some of the different types of woods that are available.
Consider these guidelines:
- Fruit woods: These are mild in flavor and can be used green.
- Oak: This wood burns slowly and evenly, has a mild flavor, and is one of the most commonly used woods for smoking.
- Mesquite: This is a strong flavor of wood. It burns fast and hot and tends to produce a lot of smoke. This is the kind of wood you want to use for grilling or to burn down as coals.
- Pecan: This wood is typically better for shorter smokes due to its strong, smokey, sweet flavor. If you use it for longer cooking sessions, beware that the flavor can become overpowering.
- Hickory: This wood has a slightly stronger flavor than oak and is one of the most commonly used woods for smoking.
There is no definitive ranking as to which type is best—it all comes down to personal preference and experience. These types, however, represent your best bet for imparting a flavorful smoke to your meat if you are just starting out in your smoking experience.
Wood to Avoid
There are a number of different types of wood that you will want to avoid, and there are a few general rules of thumb when using wood for smoking.
The first (and what should be most obvious) is to never, ever use wood that has been stained, painted, or treated in any way. This is because there are chemicals coating the wood that could be dangerous for your health if burned and inhaled.
Going off of that tip is that you shouldn’t ever use scraps or bits of wood from an unknown source. This is because they could have been coated at some point and can leave you exposed to chemicals that you aren’t even aware of.
Also, avoid wood with mold or fungus, as those can have dangerous repercussions for your breathing.
There are many different types of woods that you can use to properly smoke your meat and some types to definitely avoid. The rest is trial and error and a matter of experience.
Ben has a bachelor’s degree in construction engineering. When not constructing or remodeling X-Ray Rooms, Cardiovascular Labs, and Pharmacies, you can find him at home with wife and two daughters. Outside of family, He loves grilling and barbequing on his Big Green Egg and Blackstone Griddle, as well as working on projects around the house.
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