Guidelines To Pairing The Best Flavored Woods To Your Favorite Smoked Foods

Foods & DrinksCooking Tips & Recipes

  • Author Robert Manack
  • Published June 11, 2010
  • Word count 1,055

Are you confused by which smoking woods best compliment different types of smoked foods? You are not alone. Mankind has been cooking over burning woods for thousands of years. Through much trial and error it is obvious that certain types of woods best flavor specific foods, better than others. There are many varieties of wood that are used in the process of both hot smoking and cold smoking foods. The combinations of woods to foods are positively endless. Most people equate the process of smoking with meat, poultry and seafood. There are a great many other choices for smoking however. Cheeses, nuts, vegetables and even fruits are also excellent choices. That being said, there is little wonder that this can be a bit baffling. Exactly which wood flavors compliment what food types will be clarified in this article.

I have been smoking many varieties of food for over 40 years. I believe that the flavor introduced into the foods through the smoking process makes the food some of the finest culinary tastes in the world. The key here is that the wood should compliment the flavor of the foods not overpower it. When I began smoking many years ago it was very confusing to me as to which species of wood I should use with which food. Although many people have personal taste preferences, there are certainly general rules to follow. With a vast array of choices, I will do my best to try to simplify this for you.

First and foremost, there are many woods that absolutely should NOT be used for food smoking. Some of these woods are actually toxic to human beings while others just impart a horrible flavor. The general rule of thumb is to avoid the evergreen family. Some of the woods to avoid include, cedar, cypress, elm, pine, fir, redwood, spruce and sycamore. Now that we know what NOT to smoke with, let's get onto the good and flavorful woods that you should use.

There are many woods that you can smoke with. I am going to elaborate on the top choices, finest tasting, and most popular smoking woods. Fruitwood trees are amongst the most popular with the seasoned food smokers and are well known for their sweet delicate flavors. This list is organized from the mildest smoking woods to the most robust.

  1. APPLE - Mild flavor, light sweet taste, and imparts a fruity smoked flavor.

Best foods - Beef, Poultry (especially game birds), Pork (in particular hams), Cheddar Cheese and Oysters

Foods can be smoked for longer periods of time due to the mildness of this wood. Excellent for cold smoking.

  1. CHERRY - Delicate flavor, sweet taste, and also imparts a fruity smoked flavor.

Best Foods - Poultry (especially game birds), Pork, Scallops, Eggplant, Bananas, and Cheeses

Foods can be smoked for extended periods of time due to the mildness of this wood. Excellent for cold smoking.

  1. ALDER - Mild delicate flavor, with an impressive and unique taste.

Best Foods: The traditional choice for Salmon. Swordfish, Sturgeon, Halibut, Steelhead, Prawns, Shrimp,

Rattlesnake, Chicken and Corn on the Cob.

Normal standard smoking times are the rule. Another good choice for cold smoking.

  1. MAPLE - Somewhat sweet and imparts a mild smoky flavor. Try mixing maple with some corncobs for bacon.

Best Foods: Poultry, Hams, Lamb, Vegetables (especially acorn squash), Tuna and Salmon.

Normal standard smoking times apply. Great for cold smoking.

  1. PECAN - Delicate but rich, similar to hickory. Burns cool and is ideal for low heat smoking.

Best Foods: Pork, Chicken, Turkey, Lamb, Wild Game, Fish, Cheeses and Portabella Mushrooms.

Normal standard smoking times apply. Popular choice for cold smoking.

  1. OAK - Somewhat strong but pleasant flavor without being over powering. The most versatile of the hardwoods.

Best Foods: Salmon, Beef (particularly brisket), Buffalo, Elk, Poultry and Lamb.

Slightly shorter smoking times due to the slight intensity of the wood. Good for cold smoking.

  1. HICKORY - Strong, pungent, bacon like, smoky flavor.

Best Foods: Beef, Pork (spare ribs, sausage), Chicken, Lamb, Fish, Venison, Moose, Cheeses and Almonds.

Shorter smoking times result in rich flavors, longer smoking times may overpower. Good for cold smoking.

  1. MESQUITE - Strongest, but sweeter and more delicate than hickory. Tends to burn hot - use carefully.

Best Foods: Most Meats (especially beef), Wild Game, Chicken, Peanuts, and Vegetables

Not for long smoking. Popular in restaurants where foods are cooked for short periods of time

Is your mouth watering yet? On an interesting note, I have also smoked with wine and whiskey barrel woods. If the woods are available to you this is a fun, unique and very flavorful way to smoke. The wine barrel wood infuses a subtle, sweet and fruity taste, whereas the whiskey barrel wood has a more pronounced and woodsy taste.

Many of us own today’s modern smokers designed to simplify the smoking for us. I personally own a Bradley Digital Electric smoker and it is just fantastic and offers very low maintenance smoking. The Bradley smoker uses all of the above wood flavors in custom wood bisquettes which are auto dispensed into the smoker. For those of you who do not own a smoker but love charcoal and gas grilling, fear not. Simply take your wood chips and soak them in water for about 20 minutes then add them to the top of the coals, immediately before adding the food. For extended grilling times try adding additional chips every 5 - 10 minutes to keep the smoke flavor on going. The more chips you add the more intense the flavor becomes. You will enjoy.

It has taken me many years of experimentation and note taking to make sense of the above list as the possibilities are truly never ending. I have learned that some foods cooked with improper woods produce poor results. If one would follow the above list as a true and honest guideline, you cannot go wrong. To further elaborate on the smoking possibilities, I sometimes blend two or more wood flavors together to come up with really unique and interesting flavor combinations. There are many people who have never smoked foods and they have truly deprived themselves of one of the finer things in life. I feel that everyone owes it to themselves to experience the art of smoking and put an end to food boredom once and for all.

Looking for a quality food smoker or flavored wood chips? Optics and Outdoor Gear carries a fine line of smokers, accessories, and outdoor related items. We enjoy sharing our knowledge with articles like this, with our fellow outdoorsmen.

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