Best Wood for Smoking Meat: Chicken, Beef, Fish & More

wood chips, pellets, and smoker box

If you’re a diehard bbq or smoked brisket lover, smoking your own food at home can open up all sorts of doors to customization, and make for a really fun way to host.  I hear you, it sounds a bit daunting especially if you’ve never smoked meat before, but this guide will help you learn which types of wood to buy and the best species of wood to smoke for the best flavor in your next recipes. 

Types of wood for smoking

ribs with smoke wafting out

Before we head into the different species of wood, you first want to consult with your smoker and its manual to figure out what size or form of wood it takes. This is important because you can’t just put any type of wood chunks in your smoker and expect it to work even if it’s the right species. 

You can find various types of wood for smoking at hardware stores locally and online. Some of the most popular are:

wood chunks for smoking
  • Wood chunks – small blocks of wood that are cut to about 4 inches (or bigger). These are typically made for small smokers, and their small size helps them create smoke quicker than traditional logs that are larger. They are easy to buy and also come in an array of wood species.
cherry wood chips
  • Wood chips – tiny chips of wood that can be anywhere between ¼ to 1 inch in size. The small size of these flavored wood chips helps them produce smoke quickly for electric and gas smokers, but they also can be used in charcoal grills too.
hardwood pellets for smoker
  • Pellets – compressed pieces of sawdust that look very similar to chicken feed. They produce smoke fairly quickly and come in a variety of species of wood. Traeger smokers are meant to be smoked with wood pellets only. 

Species of wood

Smoked barbecue tastes so good because it’s infused with the smoky aromas of the wood and amplifies the natural flavors of the meat (or dishes) you’re grilling. But it’s important to choose the right species of wood to pair with the type of meat you’ll be cooking. 

  • Alder – A milder variety of wood and produces a sweeter flavor of smoke. Alder wood chips are great to use to smoke salmon or poultry because it pairs well with these lighter flavored meats without overpowering them.  
  • Applewood – Fruit woods like applewood are slightly stronger than alder wood, but still considered mild in flavor and works well with meat like pork. You may not want to smoke poultry with applewood because it may overpower the meat. 
  • Hickory – This is a popular variety of wood for smoking red meat like pork and beef. Due to its strong, earthy, and intense flavor, it’s also great for smoking cured meats like bacon. This type of wood also provides a darker coloring around the meat. 
  • Maple – This type of wood also produces a sweet and subtle flavor that is good for vegetables and poultry (like smoked chicken thighs). It gives a hint of smokiness without overwhelming the food. 
  • Mesquite – One of the most popular varieties of wood to smoke is mesquite, especially for red meat like beef brisket because of its strong and concentrated flavor. Since this variety of wood burns quickly, it’s not ideal for longer cooking sessions. Longer sessions with mesquite can cause bitterness.
  • Pecan – This type of wood has a strong nutty smell, but has a mild flavor. It’s great to smoke chicken or other types of poultry (like smoked turkey breast). 
  • Oak – Hardwoods like oak are popular in central Texas bbq communities and offer a clean burn with a sweet burn that pairs well with beef and pork. 

Best wood for smoking chicken or poultry

Traeger hardwood pellets

For a flavorful chicken, you want to stick with milder wood varieties like maple, alder, applewood, or pecan wood. These will still produce a smoky flavor on the meat, but they won’t overpower the sometimes delicate flavor of the chicken. 

Best wood for smoking beef

Some of the most popular types of wood to smoke beef with are hickory, oak, and mesquite wood because of their stronger flavor profiles. For red meat like steak, smoked beef rib, prime rib, or brisket, you can use oak because it has a long burn time that gives an even and smoky (and sometimes sweet) flavor to red meat. 

You can also use mesquite and hickory for beef brisket, but be watchful during smoking because they produce lots of smoke with intense, earthy flavors, and using too much can give you a bitter brisket. 

Best wood for smoking pork

bag of apple wood chunks

One of the best wood varieties for smoking pork, specifically for pork butt, is a variety of fruitwood like applewood due to its milder and subtle smoky flavor. If you want a stronger flavor, you can also use more intense options like hickory or oak like we did for our 3-2-1 ribs recipe. Some people also like the option of mixing different varieties like applewood and hickory for a more complex flavor. 

3-2-1 baby back ribs and sides
3-2-1 ribs smoked with hickory

What wood to use for smoking turkey

smoked turkey legs on baking sheet

One of the most popular wood varieties to use when smoking turkey is maple wood because it’s got a sweet and subtle flavor of smokiness. Due to the leanness of the turkey itself, it needs a low and slow cooking period to prevent it from drying out. Maple wood can be used for a continuous smoking period without overpowering the natural taste of the turkey. 

Other popular varieties are also applewood because it also has a light and subtle smoky flavor, which goes well with other poultry options like chicken.

See my recipes for smoked turkey breast, smoked turkey legs

Where to buy wood chips for smokers

Depending on what type of wood you need to purchase for your smokers, you can find smoking wood available at your local hardware or home improvements store like ACE Hardware, Home Depot, and Lowes. You can also purchase wood directly from online stores like Amazon or directly from a manufacturer like Traeger. I’ve found that the prices for Traeger pellets are about the same online and in-store at ACE Hardware. 

What wood should NOT be smoked?

Many pitmasters and smokers only use hardwood when smoking meat and vegetables because they typically have a cleaner, hotter, and longer burn. Try not to use softwoods like pine, cedar, cypress, or spruce because they will contain sap and resin, which will give you a bitter-smoking flavor. 

Can you use any wood for smoking?

No, you cannot use just any type of wood for smoking. We recommend only using hardwood varieties that are in the preferred form for your smoker. Stay away from softwood like pine cedar, and other forms of wood that produce cones; These are full of resin and sap and will make your food taste bitter. You should also choose the variety of wood that is best suited for the meat or vegetables you are smoking because this affects the flavors of the food after you grill them. 

What wood do pitmasters like to use?

Some of the most popular varieties of wood to use by pitmasters depend on the type of meat they are smoking, but across the board, some familiar and popular varieties are mesquite, hickory, and oak.

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