Best wood for smoking eel | How to get the best out of this tasty fish

by Joost Nusselder | Last Updated:  November 28, 2021

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If you’re a regular smoker, you know that different woods are used to smoke various types of food.

Just because beef pairs well with hickory doesn’t mean that it will taste good when you use it for eel.

That’s because each wood has a different flavor profile – some are mild and some are just way too intense for lighter meats like fish and seafood.

Best wood for smoking eel | How to get the best out of this tasty fish

The best woods to use for smoking eel are mild, sweet, and robust, such as pecan, maple, alder, apple, and even oak or silver birch. When smoking eel, use wood chips to infuse the meat with the right amount of smoke. I promise if you use the woods on this list you’ll be impressed by the great taste of this oily fish.

Eel is just like other fish and it’s tasty once smoked but you want to use mild hardwoods and fruitwoods so the fish’s flavor can be the star of the dish.

The smoke flavor should be light and sweet to complement it.

Which woods are best for smoking eel?

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When smoking fish and seafood, the top wood choices of pitmasters are mild, fruity woods with a hint of sweetness.

Smoked eel is best cooked on high heat at the beginning, then at low temperatures once it hardens. This means you’ll need to use a generous quantity of wood chips.

I recommend wood chips over chunks in this case because they don’t smoke as much.

Eel has a distinct flavor and you don’t want to overpower this taste with a strong wood like mesquite only, for example.

You can use the mesquite and hickory for a classic smokey aroma but combine them with a bit of fruitwood for that pleasant sweetness.

So, you’re probably wondering, why do these flavors work well?

Well, these woods are special because they complement the oily eel pieces and don’t give a bad aftertaste. Instead, when you taste the fish, you’ll feel delicate fruity aromas.

For more golden wood vs food combinations check out my complete & ultimate smoking wood chart

Therefore, here’s a list of suitable woods for smoking eel:

Alder

This is one of the best woods for smoking all kinds of seafood and it tastes amazing when you use it for smoked eel. That’s because it has a flavor profile that is very similar to fruit woods but it gives a very delicate and light sweetness.

Apple

This fruity wood gives the meat a mild flavor that’s slightly sweet and since it’s not overpowering, it allows the fishy eel flavor to come through.

Apricot

The flavor of apricot smoke wood is even sweeter than apple and pear and gives the eel a very pleasant, light sweetness.

Cherry

This wood is extremely versatile and works for all meats so it’s a good pairing for eel too. It has a stronger fruit flavor and gives a reddish color to the meat. It’s sweet and tasty as long as you don’t use too much of it.

Maple

It has a mild and subtle smoke flavor which works well with eel. It’s similar to the fruitwoods and also sweet.

Mesquite

Although it’s considered a strong hardwood, when it’s used with eel, mesquite offers a delicate and light smoke. It’s also got an earthy flavor to it and it tastes best when blended with a mild wood like alder or apple.

Oak

This wood gives eel and earthy taste that is stronger than fruit woods but still rather mild compared to others like hickory and mesquite. With oak, you can expect that traditional smokey flavor in your meat.

Pear

This type of wood is like the other fruit woods and gives seafood a nice sweet flavor but it’s still delicate and mild.

Pecan

This is a delicate wood but it does give a slightly pungent flavor if you use too much. The nutty, earthy flavor also pairs well with light fruit woods for smoked eel.

Plum

This fruity wood gives the eel a very nice smokey color without making it look burnt. It has a sweet, mild taste just like apple and apricot.

Silver birch

Birchwood smoke is a bit similar to maple, and it’s not too overpowering for eel. It will impart the meat with a sweet smokiness.

Whiskey barrel chips

if you want to try a very unique smoke flavor profile, I recommend wood chips made of old whiskey barrels. This wood gives the eel an aromatic yet delicate whiskey smokey flavor. The flavor is a bit strong and slightly sour.

Some people prefer to use very classic smokey flavors like that of oak chips. It has a strong, distinguishable taste but even though it’s an intense hardwood, it won’t actually overpower the eel meat.

All of the woods I listed above work well for smoking eel but the secret is to create a light smoke and not to use too many wood chips at once. I explain more about how to use woodchips for smoking here.

Manuka wood and sawdust

Did you know that in New Zealand when they smoke eel using traditional Maori methods they use manuka wood? A long time ago manuka was the most popular smoking wood there so it’s an integral part of the smoked eel recipes.

This is truly a special wood with a deep, robust flavor. It produces heavy smoke that is sweet. The broad flavor works best with seafood, including eel.

Then, they also add a bit of manuka sawdust near the end of the smoking time.

This manuka sawdust will add a brownish color to the eel. It makes the meat have a browned sheen and texture.

Manuka is considered to be a gourmet and premium smoke wood for eel but it’s expensive and hard to find in the USA and Europe. That’s the reason why I didn’t add it to the official list.

But, if you ever get the chance to get your hands on a bag of manuka wood, don’t skip it because the eel will taste out of this world.

Manuka also works well combined with strong mahogany wood for smoking

How long do you need to smoke eel?

Smoking eel the best wood and how to's

Eels have a short to medium smoke time of about 2 to 4 hours at 140° F (60° C) or higher. 

Eel is hot smoked at the beginning at high temperatures in order to prevent the stomach cavity from closing. Then, after about an hour, when the fish hardens, you can lower the temperature.

Depending on the recipe, you can either use the cold smoking method or the hot smoking method.

For the cold smoking recipe though, you need to smoke the eel for about 24 hours, so you’ll need lots of flavored wood chips or chunks.

Both methods lead to tasty eel pieces and filet you can enjoy on toast, as a good mackerel alternative, or as the main dish alongside salad and potatoes.

Which woods to avoid when smoking eel?

You should never use softwoods for smoking. Conifers are not safe and suitable for smoking food. 

These tree species have a high level of sap and terpenes. This gives the smoke a very odd and unpleasant taste that you don’t want to eat for sure.

But, more importantly, the sap and resin are toxic when burned and if you use these woods for smoking they will make you ill.

These are woods you should never use to smoke eel or any food:

Just a side note, cedar planks are used to smoke salmon but not burned for smoke wood. Also, the cedar wood should be soaked in water for at least an hour beforehand so it doesn’t smoke too much.

Another tip is to avoid any citrus woods at all costs when smoking eel because it gives a very unpleasant and bitter flavor that destroys the yummy flavor of the eel.

The eel meat is similar to crayfish and oily but lemon or other citrus wood will ruin your smoked eel!

Takeaway

Smoked fish, particularly smoked eel is a tasty delicacy. But, if you use the wrong wood, it gives it a bad, bitter taste.

For that reason, it’s best to use fruitwood, alder wood, or other mild hardwoods when. hot smoking this type of fish. You can never go wrong with delicious apple, plum, and cherry wood, or a sweeter wood, like apricot.

If you want something stronger, don’t shy away from a bit of mesquite or hickory. And of course, if you can find it, try manuka.

Now it’s up to you to buy or catch eel and then cut the belly. After that, you can smoke for about 2 or 3 hours and serve amazing smoked eel fillets.

Read next: the best wood for smoking lake trout (6 top options & 2 to really avoid)

Joost Nusselder, the founder of Lakeside Smokers is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with BBQ Smoking (& Japanese food!) at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.