Whether you’re looking to cook smoked salmon, mackerel, or trout, it’s important to know which woods to use for smoking. Not all smoke wood is suitable for fish because the flavor of some hardwoods is too intense.
The best wood for smoking fish is alder wood because its flavor pairs well with all types of fish. Alder has a delicate, slightly sweet flavor, and it doesn’t overwhelm the strong flavor of the fish. Cedar planks are best for salmon, and some fish, like bluefish with a strong fishy taste, require a strong wood smoke like mesquite to achieve a balanced flavor.
There are many kinds of wood you can use when smoking fish and in this post, I’m sharing the top picks.
In this post we'll cover:
- 1 Which woods are best for smoking fish?
- 2 Best wood chips for smoking fish
- 3 How long do you smoke fish?
- 4 Which woods to avoid when smoking fish
- 5 Takeaway
Which woods are best for smoking fish?
Fish is an interesting type of meat for smoking and definitely a favorite with many.
But since there are so many fish species, it’s hard to pinpoint just one best wood for smoking fish.
However, the general consensus among pitmasters is that alder is the best all-around wood because it has a mild, sweet flavor that penetrates into the fish.
But, some fish with a very strong fishy flavor require stronger hardwoods with an earthy flavor like mesquite or hickory.
You can, however, use a wide variety of woods to smoke fish. Woods with fruity undertones and sweet flavors are a great complement to the fish.
Salmon is a unique fish because it’s very fatty, so it tastes best when smoked on cedar planks.
You generally can’t use cedar and other resinous trees to smoke food as it can be toxic. Cedarwood chips and planks are the exceptions for salmon.
When smoking fish, it’s best to use soaked wood chips. Keep reading to find out which ones you should be using.
For a full guide on which wood to use for smoking any type of meat check out my ultimate smoking wood chart
Best wood chips for smoking fish
There’s no doubt that the best wood for smoking fish will have a mild smoky flavor that doesn’t overpower the fish’s natural taste.
Of course, there are some exceptions, but generally, mild to medium flavored hardwoods and fruitwoods are the best.
It’s possible to combine woods to create unique smoke wood blends for your smoked fish recipes.
For example, hickory is often mixed with cherry wood, applewood, or maple and this combo works for most types of fish.
But, it’s fine if you stick to just one type of wood, too, as it can provide enough smoke flavor.
Here’s the list of the best wood for smoking fish:
Alder wood is ranked as one of the best woods for smoked fish recipes because it has a neutral and well-balanced smoke.
The smoke profile is very mild, delicate with a hint of sweetness. When smoking trout, mackerel, and salmon, it’s definitely one of the best.
Did you know that alder’s smoke flavor profile is the most neutral compared to other hardwoods? This means that the subtle flavors don’t overpower the natural fishy taste yet offer that smoky, earthy, and slightly sweet aroma you’re after.
A good fruitwood to mix with alder is applewood chips which make the smoke even sweeter, and the hint of fruitiness makes the fish meat taste amazing.
You can try the Smokehouse Products Alder Flavored Chunks for that delicious mild sweet taste.
Cedar for salmon
For fatty fish like salmon, you can use cedarwood planks in the smoker or even some cedar wood chips, if you can find them.
But, cedar wood planks like these from GrillingPlanks are not the same thing as cedar wood chips.
Here’s the thing: you place the soaked cedar wood planks on the smoker’s grill grate and then the salmon fillets on the plank. The salmon absorbs the cedar wood flavors without being toxic.
Cedarwood chips though burn and smoke and this smoke can be highly irritating so I recommend not using them to smoke any meat.
However, when you’re smoking salmon whole or fillets, using cedar planks is the key to the perfect smoked salmon that will impress people.
Although it’s tricky to get your hands on orange wood, it is probably the best wood for smoking salmon, besides cedar planks.
This wood creates a citrus-flavored sweet smoke profile that pairs with smoked fish perfectly. It’s a good option for cold-smoking salmon but also you can use it to smoke fish of all types.
When using orange wood for hot-smoking salmon, you will get a stronger citrus taste with a hint of tartness.
Overall, the smoke from orange wood is considered milder wood with a delicate taste. The sweetness is not overpowering and you can use it to smoke both fatty and lean fish alike.
DiamondKingSmoker offers orange wood chunks here for your fish smoking projects.
The maple wood is often used to smoke fish like trout and salmon, which have a high-fat content.
It’s also excellent if you’re looking to smoke sturgeon which is a boneless, firm, and lean fish.
Maple offers a mild but sweet smokey flavor that doesn’t overpower the fishy taste.
Maple can be combined with hickory if you want a bit of a balcony and earthy kick or applewood if you want to sweeten the smoke flavor.
Cameron’s kiln-dried maple wood chips are a great option for your smoker, especially if you’re going to smoke fresh salmon.
Hickory is most often used when cold-smoking fish. It has a strong bacon-like flavor. It is earthy, rich, and very intense.
It can work well for fish like bluefish which has a powerful fishy taste and smell.
Usually, hickory is used as a blending smoke wood because its richness and earthiness can be too overpowering for a fish like salmon.
Hickory wood chips are only suitable for fish with a powerful flavor, so you can use them to make fish jerky.
It’s best to use them as part of wood blends.
Apple is a very popular smoking wood for all types of fish, especially salmon.
This fruitwood is very mild and gives the fish a sweet smoke flavor. Although it’s a fruity smoke profile it doesn’t impart any tartness or bitterness so it’s perfect for smoked fish.
This wood smoke is not overpowering for the delicate fish meat.
Applewood chips are great for blending with stronger woods like hickory, oak, or mesquite to tone down the intensity.
I recommend the Weber wood chunks made from applewood. Weber wood chunks are some of the best on the market.
This is another mild fruitwood and it is the perfect wood for smoking white fish.
Because white fish like halibut and cod has a mild, often bland taste, it’s best to smoke this fish with a mild wood, like peach.
If you like a gentle smoke that imparts just the right amount of smokey sweetness you’ll enjoy using peach.
It’s one of the traditional woods for smoking white fish and a great way to achieve delicate flavors even those who don’t really like fish too much will enjoy.
You can blend this light peach wood with bold, rich flavored wood like mesquite or hickory if you’re going to smoke fish like tuna.
I recommend the Western Premium BBQ peach wood chips if you want to taste the natural flavors of the fish but still like a mild flavor from the smoke.
Pecan wood smoke is quite strong with a flavor profile that’s similar to that of hickory. It’s not as bacony, but rather it has a nutty flavor combined with a hint of sweet fruitiness.
You can use pecan to smoke any kind of fish but it tastes best blended with popular fruitwoods such as apple cherry, or peach wood.
The thing to note about pecan wood chips is that they burn slow and if you add too many they can impart a slightly pungent aroma.
That’s why I like to use it as a blending wood rather than on its own when making smoked fish.
I like to work with Camerons Gourmet Pecan Smoking Wood Chunks when making my wood smoking mixes.
Oak & Jack Daniels Wood chips
Oak is a hardwood with a strong smoke flavor profile. It is most suitable for fish with a high-fat content such as salmon, black cod, or tuna.
Even though it has an intense taste, the oak smoke is not overpowering and lets the fish flavors come through.
If you want a richer, more sophisticated flavor you can try the Jack Daniels Wood Chips which are made from aged oakwood whiskey barrels.
Also called “bourbon wood chips,” these will add an additional whiskey flavor to the fish meat alongside the mild smokiness.
In general, mesquite is too strong to smoke fish. The wood smoke flavor profile is very intense, potent, and rich.
The wood burns fast, so it’s best to soak it if you plan to smoke fish with it. You will also have to keep your eye on the smoker at all times because the smoke can become too strong and overwhelm the fish flavors.
That’s why mesquite is only suitable for smoking fatty and oily fish which can take on an intense taste. It’s not the best wood if you want to smoke delicate-flavored fish like sea bass.
I recommend blending mesquite with milder woods like oak, apple, peach, and even alder.
Instead of fish, why not use mesquite to smoke the best baked beans you’ve even tasted?
Cherry wood is a great flavored wood for smoking seafood of all kinds. It created a more intense smoke than apple, the other popular fruitwood.
Cherry has a distinctive taste which is best described as slightly tart combined with a sweet yet mild smoke flavor.
Compared to the other fruit woods, cherry wood is one of those stronger flavored woods that gives off great taste if you combine it with a neutral-flavored wood like oak or a stronger flavor like whiskey barrel wood chips.
Overall, cherry wood chips like these from Oklahoma Joe’s are suitable for smoking any type of fish, even salmon, especially if you like that combination of fruity flavor with a hint of tartness.
If you’re not looking for a natural flavor in your smoked fish, I recommend making a fish jerky with a unique, intense smoked flavor.
Pimento wood chips are the best if you want traditional jerk flavors. The pimento wood actually comes from the allspice tree and it gives off a spicy, nutty, earthy, and peppery smoke flavor.
Although pimento is in the fruitwoods category, it’s got a pungent tanginess to it. It’s still one of the mild smoking woods though so it’s suitable for fish.
Most often, pimento wood is used for smoking poultry in a jerk style but you can use it for shrimp and fatty fish.
You can order Bradley Smoker Caribbean Blend Bisquettes made with pimento wood.
Beechwood is often overlooked but it’s actually a great option if you want the best smoked salmon.
Usually, beechwood is used as the alternative for oak wood when smoking fish.
This wood has a delicate and light flavor. It is a mild hardwood with an earthy and nutty aroma.
I would best describe beechwood chips as subtle because if you’re using them for smoked salmon or other fatty fish, you won’t really taste intense smoke flavors.
Instead, it gives a fresh flavor that is easy on the palate, perfect for smoking foods like oysters.
The thing is that when you want to smoke salmon and other fish, you need wood chips that adequately penetrate the flesh but don’t overpower its distinctive flavors – beech is great for this.
How long do you smoke fish?
There’s no right answer here but for most types of fish, you can smoke fish for between 1.5-7 hours. Of course, it depends on how large and how fatty your fish is.
The average smoking time is about 3 hours at a temperature of 175 F – 200 F.
You have to preheat the smoker first and then add your wood chips and let them start to smoke. Then, add your fish whole or fillets.
For example, you can quickly smoke salmon in about an hour but a larger trout can take as long as 3 or 4 hours to smoke.
I want to distinguish between hot smoke and cold smoke.
I’m going to use salmon as an example:
- Cold smoking salmon means that you smoke it at a temperature of about 90 F
- Hot smoking means you cook it at temperatures of 120 – 225 F
Which woods to avoid when smoking fish
When smoking fish, you always want to avoid any softwoods which have a high sap and resin content because there are considered toxic to your health.
Using wood like pine, fir, spruce, redwood or cypress can make you ill. But, they also impart the fish meat with an awful aroma. The fish will taste bitter and practically inedible.
Cedar is only used as a plank for smoking salmon but never burn the planks for smoke wood or it will ruin your smoked fish.
Another wood to avoid for fish is greenwood. This will make the fish sour and funky. Learn more about using greenwood for smoking here.
When you’re looking for the best wood for smoking fish, you can count on hardwoods like alder, oak, and fruitwoods.
There’s really nothing like the taste of a moist fish with a smokey flavor.
If you want to stay on the safe side, I recommend alder wood chips or stronger woods like hickory for fatty fish.
As you already know, smoking salmon with cedar planks or using woods like alder, oak, and beech is going to ensure your fish tastes amazing!
Just keep in mind the basic rule: the fattier the fish, the more smoke flavor it absorbs.
Rather grill your fish? Here’s how to get your fish grilled perfectly on a charcoal BBQ