Best wood for smoking halibut | Properly prepare this healthy fish

by Joost Nusselder | Last Updated:  January 22, 2022

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If you like smoked fish, halibut is one of the tastiest white fish to make, especially in the form of smoked fillets.

Halibut is a beautiful flaky, delicate, white fish which when smoked is delicious.

It is also extremely easy to make and smoke whether you use a pellet grill as a Traeger or an electric smoker or simply a conventional propane grill.

However, you need to use the proper smoking wood to obtain a delicate and flavorful smoke profile that complements the halibut.

Best wood for smoking halibut | Properly prepare this healthy fish

The best wood for smoking halibut is alder, fruit woods like apple, or a nutty pecan because these woods are mild and don’t overpower the delicate white meat of the fish.

If you like the sweet mild taste of halibut, keep reading to find out which woods are best to put into the smoker box.

Is halibut a good fish to smoke?

If you like the taste of fish, halibut is an excellent lean fish to smoke. This is a white fish with a firm flesh so it’s suitable for smoking and it won’t come apart in your smoker.

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Halibut is a coldwater fish found mostly in the northern waters of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Mature halibut is a flatwater fish with both eyes on their right side.

The dark coat is somewhat tough; the flesh is white with a mildly sweet flavor.

The fish are able to reach 600 pounds in size and can live for 40 years.

When seeking fresh halibut to smoke, choose the freshest fillets. Select the best fresh fillets or the freshest fish should feel stiff and there should be no discoloration or seafood flavor.

Of course, frozen halibut is easy to find year round, but I find wild-caught fresh fish makes for a lot better flavor.

Halibut has a short cooking time in the smoker and if you use alder wood chips, the flavor will be lightly smokey and perfect to enjoy with some lemon rice, salad and melted butter, or horseradish sauce and some fresh parsley.

It has lean meat and it’s quite healthy and tasty so fish lovers must try smoking either the whole fish or fillets.

Most pitmasters recommend smoking halibut fillets because this is the best cut for the smoking process. But, you need to use a good brine first.

A dry brine is suitable but it’s even better if you marinate the fish first with a wet brine before you put it in the smoker.

Best woods for smoking halibut

When you read a smoked halibut recipe online, you will see a lot of opinions about what wood to use for smoking fish.

But, the general consensus is that alder, pecan, and fruit woods are most suitable.

Whether you use wood chips or wood chunks, it’s important to choose mild and light smoke woods for halibut because white fish is easily overpowered by heavy smoke.

After all, you want to taste the subtle aromas of your halibut fillets, not a bitter smokiness.

You want to be able to taste the slightly sweet smoke profile of mild woods.

Alder

  • mild flavor
  • earthy, balanced, subtle smokiness

The top wood for smoking halibut is alder. This wood offers a mild smoke flavor and it imparts a pleasant and subtle earthy smokey aroma with a hint of sweetness.

It’s nowhere near as sweet as a fruitwood and more on the earthy side.

Using alder wood chips to smoke your halibut fillets will give the delicate white meat a subtle smoke flavor without overpowering the natural taste of the fish.

When it comes to woods for smoking fish, the alder is always a top choice for pitmasters because it has neutral characteristics. In fact, it burns the most “neutral smoke” out of all the smoke woods.

This wood is balanced so you can use it for all smoked fish if you don’t like the sweeter fruity woods.

But, you can also blend alder with a strong wood like hickory which gives a bacony earthy smoke. It will tone down the smoke intensity to make it more suitable for fish.

Cameron’s kiln-dried alder wood chips are very popular because they burn clean smoke.

Pecan

  • mild to medium flavor
  • rich, nutty, earthy, and slightly sweet

If you like something a bit more flavorful than alder, pecan is a great smoke wood you can use. Since it’s part of the hickory family, pecan is also one of the top woods for smoking food.

Pecan burns slowly, infusing the fish with a tasty nutty smoke with hints of earthiness and sweetness. This wood has a rich flavor compared to alder and the delicate fruitwoods.

Halibut has a very mild fishy flavor and it’s more on the sweet side. So, something with a rich smoke profile like pecan can really add that much sought-after flavor.

This wood is best for people who like stronger wood smoke flavors but don’t want the classy bacony flavor on hickory on their fish.

If you keep the skin intact on the smoked halibut, the wood flavor will be even stronger. Still, the fish fillets won’t be overpowered by pecan so it’s an excellent choice.

You can also mix pecan with fruity wood such as apple, cherry, or peach for a nutty and sweet combination.

The Weber pecan wood chips can be soaked and then added to your smoker box.

Apple

  • mild flavor
  • sweet and fruity

It’s hard to beat apple – it’s the top fruit wood for a good reason. This wood is mild but has a very tasty sweet and fruity smoke flavor that doesn’t overpower halibut.

Applewood chips are mild enough for smoked halibut and they are very easy to use soaked or unsoaked.

Just make sure the applewood you use has been seasoned well, as green apple wood is not a great smoking wood.

When used to smoke halibut fillets, the brown sugar, garlic, and black pepper brine really pair well with fruity smoke and lemon slices.

The fish will turn out very lightly smoky with the perfect amount of sweetness and a hint of brownish smoke color.

For a fruitwood, apple is quite strong in the sense that you can distinguish the smoky and fruity notes in the halibut.

You can try Oklahoma Joe’s applewood chips which are some of the top-rated wood chips on Amazon.

Peach

  • mild flavor
  • sweet, fruity, stronger than apple

Peachwood chips offer a great sweet smoke flavor for non-oily white fish like halibut. It is stronger than apple though so you’re halibut will be a bit smokier and fruitier.

The peach wood is also a great blending wood for those strong woods like mesquite and hickory.

I would only use a very small number of strong wood chips in my blend for halibut though because this fish can be overpowered by smoke quite easily.

Peach is a good alternative to pear which can be slightly too sweet for some people. It’s the ideal smoking wood for halibut though because you get a well-balanced taste.

Maple

  • mild to medium flavor
  • sweet and slightly earthy

Halibut is a delicate fish so you don’t need woods with strong flavors but if you want something other than fruity woods, you can try maple wood.

There’s no harsh or thick smoke and this wood doesn’t leave a bitter aftertaste.

Maple is a very popular blending wood and it’s usually mixed with apple and hickory wood to create a unique smoky blend that still complements fish.

Don’t worry, maple is still quite mild and sweet flavored so it’s nowhere near as intense as hickory.

Therefore, if you just want a bit of sweetness and subtle earthiness, sugar maple is one of the best options.

These Western Premium Maple wood chips burn for about 30 minutes and then you can add more to flavor your fish.

Whiskey Barrel Wood Chips

  • medium flavor
  • smokey, classic BBQ flavor and notes of whiskey

If you want a unique blend for your smoker, Jack Daniels aged whiskey barrel chips are the best choice.

The whiskey barrel wood chips are made from aged barrels that were once full of tasty fine whiskey. When smoked, you get a smokey taste but there are notes of high-quality whiskey.

This type of flavor is great for halibut because the combination of salt, earthy BBQ, and a slight whiskey flavor is just too delicious to pass up.

The alcohol flavor is so subtle your guests might not even be able to tell exactly what it is.

Whiskey barrel wood chips are actually made from oak wood so your halibut will take on that classic southern-style smokiness.

This type of wood is more flavorful and smokier than the mild woods on the list.

If you like stronger smoking woods, these Jack Daniels wood chips are a must-buy.

Orange

  • mild to medium flavor
  • citrus-flavored, tangy, slightly sweet

When smoking halibut, you can actually use all kinds of mild fruit woods because these don’t overpower the natural fishy flavors. Orangewood is a surprising and refreshing option for citrus lovers.

When you smoke using orange wood chips, your meal takes on a pleasant citrus flavor that goes great with seafood, especially fish like halibut and even salmon. Orange is sweeter than lemon so it burns a more pleasant smoke.

Every seafood enthusiast should experience the flavor combination of orange and halibut.

Orangewood chips are mild and slightly sweet, but they can be hard to come by in your area. It’s possible that you’ll have to acquire orange wood chips online.

If you own a Traeger pellet grill, you can get orange flavored pellets on Amazon.

Not sure which grill to get yet? Here’s Traeger compared to Camp Chef grills in a showdown

Can you use a cedar plank to make smoked halibut?

Cedar planks are controversial – they are often used to smoke salmon but you cannot use the cedar wood chips for smoking because they can be toxic.

Here’s what you should know:

You can use cedar planks to smoke halibut in the same way you use it to smoke salmon.

The best way to smoke halibut on a cedar plank is to make a basting sauce made of butter, lemon juice, sea salt, garlic, and a herb mix.

Spoon the basting sauce onto the halibut fillets and smoke them. Then season with freshly ground pepper for the best flavor.

Which woods to avoid when smoking halibut

Since lighter smoking wood is best, you should avoid all types of very strong woods like walnut or mesquite.

Sometimes even hickory can be too much. If it is, just mix in some fruity woods (here’s how to mix smoking woods for good flavor).

You should never smoke food with softwoods like conifers or resinous trees which contain toxic sap, resin, and terpenes. Not only will the fish taste awful, but burnt sap can make you ill and isn’t good for your health.

Therefore, be sure to avoid pine, fir, cypress, and similar woods when smoking halibut (and all fish actually!)

How long to smoke halibut?

When smoking halibut, the smoke time has to be short so the meat doesn’t get dry and chewy.

Halibut is cooked between 1 1/2 and 2 hours or until its internal temperature reaches 140-145°F.

It’s best to mount a smoker for indirect cooking at 250-275F.

Because halibut is so lean, smoking too long will dry out the fish before it can cook completely. Anything higher it heats too quickly to absorb any flavors of smoke before it’s finished.

At 350°F typical Halibut files will take 15-35 minutes to cook until it reaches the 145°F internal temperature. This is a faster cooking process than usual.

It doesn’t take too long for the fish to take in an adequate quantity of smoke and develop great flavors on the smoker.

I still recommend smoking at lower temperatures for about 2 hours because then you’re really giving it that mild yet smoky aroma.

To keep proper tabs on the temperature of the fish or meat you are smoking, a good wireless meat thermometer is indispensable

Takeaway

If you brine the halibut in white wine and lemon juice, a sweet fruity wood like apple, peach, or orange can be the perfect pairing flavor.

Those who prefer smokier aromas will appreciate whiskey barrel chips, maple, and pecan. It all comes down to preference.

Once you figure out the best wood for your smoked halibut, make sure to smoke fish for less than 3 hours to avoid drying it out.

As soon as you perfect the smoking process you’ll be making smoked halibut all the time for sure!

Another great fish to smoke is eel. Use the right smoking wood and get the best out of this special fish

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.