Best wood for smoking lamb | How to get your favorite flavor

by Joost Nusselder | Last Updated:  February 6, 2022

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In the world of barbecue, smoked lamb shoulder, leg, or rack is grossly underappreciated.

Lamb contains a higher fat content than beef and pork but is robust in flavors. It is considered dark meat which is very suitable for smoking.

Lamb can handle an intense smoky flavor from strong wood but also goes well with more sweet and fruity options.

Best wood for smoking lamb | How to get your favorite flavor

It mostly comes down to personal preference but there are certain woods that simply work better.

The best wood for smoked lamb is a strong wood like hickory and mesquite. Those traditional woods add earthy flavors. For those who like milder smoke, the classic sweet fruit woods like apple work well too. Olive wood and mulberry are two surprising smoke wood choices that can add a unique flavor to lamb.

Lamb is the type of meat that pairs well with many wood types.

I’m sharing the best smoking woods so you can make good choices depending on whether you prefer delicate flavor or intense flavor from your smoke woods.

Best wood for smoking lamb meat

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When it comes to smoking lamb, choosing the right wood is crucially important.

Each wood has a unique taste that enhances the flavor of your food.

There are several varieties of wood for smoking available in the market. Choosing the right one sometimes can be overwhelming especially for someone who does not have previous experience smoking lamb.

Lamb goes well with intense woods, fruity woods but some more exotic woods too! Let’s take a look at all your options.

Olive wood: great wood for smoked lamb leg

  • intensity: mild
  • flavors: sweet, lightly fruity, herbal, floral

Some might even say olive wood is the best wood for smoking fatty meat like lamb.

If you haven’t used olive wood to smoke lamb you’re missing out big time.

This wood has a mild and flavorful aroma, very similar to apple wood. It is sweet but has a herbal and floral flavor too, making it the perfect complex smoke for the various lamb cuts.

In addition, their very light and sweet smoke impart an herbal flavor and floral scent which doesn’t overpower but makes the strong gamey aroma of the lamb more pleasant.

We were also impressed by the even and clean burn of olive wood chunks and chips. Also, this wood burns at a consistent temperature, even on cooler autumn days.

I like to use olive chips for smoked lamb leg, both bone-in and bone-out because even if it’s a bit fatty, the olive masks it and gives it a sweet and floral herb-like aroma.

You can grab olive wood chips on Amazon for a low price and switch up your wood chip collection.

Cherry wood

  • intensity: mild
  • flavors: fruity, sweet, slightly tart

Cherry wood is an excellent wood because it has a fruity, sweet, and mild flavor.

It doesn’t make the meat taste bitter fast like the stronger flavored woods. Instead, cherry can impart a tart taste if you use too much of it in the smoker.

But, using cherry wood chips is the best way to smoke lamb.

The main advantage of this smoke wood is that it can be used on a wide range of meat, including game meat, goat, and of course lamb.

We think it is especially useful for cooking lamb because of its mild smoking intensity.

You can increase the taste of cherry wood by mixing it with stronger varieties such as hickory.

Cherry smoke takes a bit longer to penetrate the lamb so you won’t end up with a very intense fruity flavor.

Instead, you’ll taste a subtly sweet and fruity aroma and see a dark reddish color on your lamb chops.

Cameron’s Products sells cherry wood chunks in larger quantities so you can smoke lots of lamb.

Here’s how wood chips differ from wood chunks (and charcoal and pellets)

Applewood

  • intensity: mild
  • flavors: fruity, sweet, subtle

Apple is the most popular fruit wood for smoking all kinds of meat because it has a pleasantly sweet and fruity aroma with a subtle smokiness.

This natural sweetness is the perfect pairing for rich flavorful lamb meat if you want a lighter smoke.

The applewood burns fairly hot and provides a good sweet, smoky taste in your food.

Despite being similar to cherry wood, each one has different tastes. Like with other fruity woods, applewood requires time in order to impart that smoky-sweet flavor.

Apple is, indeed, a very popular mild smoking wood, and it’s difficult to go wrong with it. Just make sure to use seasoned applewood, not green apple wood.

Apple is not recognized for being a powerful smoker, but it’s one of the best sweet and fruity options.

It’s also typically used to balance off stronger smoking woods like hickory, mesquite, or oak by adding sweetness and mellowing them out.

As such you could try blending it with some hardwoods to get a stronger smoky taste. Hickory and apple or pecan and apple are great options if you like an earthy but slightly sweet aroma.

Apple smoke works its magic on the lamb to develop the bark and give it a sweeter, more nuanced flavor.

Smokehouse apple wood chips are bark-free so you get the most intense fruity sweet flavor out of them.

Also check out crab apple wood that just like apple wood is great for smoking!

Oakwood

  • intensity: medium
  • flavors: earthy, traditionally smoky taste

If you like robust flavor and that classic Southern smoky BBQ taste, you’ll love oak wood for smoking lamb.

Oakwood is perfect for smoking lamb chops, and lamb leg. It adds an earthy and slightly musky flavor which complements the juicy meat and masks the lamb smell.

Oakwood is a natural mixture of fruit and hardwood in flavor. It means that the wood does not overpower meat’s flavor and texture, only slightly.

Did you know oak wood works great when blended with cherry wood, hickory wood, and applewood? You get a combination of earthy and sweet flavors or bacony if you choose hickory.

Pitmasters like to use Cameron’s Products kiln-dried oak wood chips

Mesquite wood

  • intensity: very strong
  • flavors: earthy, savory, very smoky, slightly pungent

I like to think of mesquite as the king of BBQ wood. Mesquite is a popular smoking wood in the South so you’ve surely seen it used for authentic delicious Texas-style BBQ.

Mesquite wood is ideal for smoking dark meats like lamb which has a distinct flavor. It can stand up to the earthy and gamey flavor of the lamb.

It has a strong smokey scent and flavor. Although mesquite has a reputation for easily over-smoking meat, lamb absorbs the smokiness effectively if you don’t go too far.

If you enjoy a robust smokiness, mesquite is the way to go.

The mesquite smoke in smoked lamb is noticeable, but it pairs well with sweet or herbaceous condiments such as mint jelly or rosemary rub.

If you enjoy smokiness and are confident in your ability to smoke lamb, the mesquite will provide that extra smoky punch.

You may also smooth out mesquite by blending it with milder smoking woods like apple, maple, or pecan.

Mesquite wood is one of the hottest burning woods because it has a high natural oil content.

If you’re looking for a bold, earthy taste, grab the Fire & Flavor mesquite wood chips.

Mulberry wood

  • intensity: mild
  • flavors: sweet, has a cotton-candy-like smell, a bit fruity

Mulberry is not just for smoking more delicate meats, it’s great for smoked lamb chops too.

In fact, it’s a great wood choice for all the lamb cuts because it has a sweet mellow flavor very similar to apple wood.

It’s also fruity but not quite like the more popular fruitwoods. It has its own distinct nuances.

When burning, the mulberry wood chips smell like cotton candy. This imparts the strong lamb flavor with a pleasant sweet aroma but doesn’t make it taste overly sweet.

Mulberry wood has a mild smokey aroma that is perfect for roasting Lamb. Mulberry woods best work when it’s combined with other fruit trees such as apple or cherry which can add a bit of tartness.

Add some of J.C’s mulberry smoking woods chips to your smoker box for a sweet taste.

Hickory wood: perfect for lamb shoulder & pulled lamb

  • intensity: strong
  • flavors: savory, bacon-like, earthy

Do you like the taste of earthy bacon-flavored food? In that case, hickory wood is the best wood for smoking lamb.

It’s noted for its smokiness, which is powerful and well-rounded, as well as its adaptability.

Lamb has a savory richness similar to beef, and it has a strong enough flavor to be complemented with a smokiness.

When smoking leg, shoulder, or rack of lamb, you usually do it for an extended period of time.

Naturally, this gives you more time to impart the smokiness, which, while you can achieve it with a mild smoky, fruitwood, you really get all of the typical barbecue goodness when you use hickory.

Smoking a lamb shoulder with hickory is a classic, and the end result is delicious pulled meat. Hickory smoked lamb is highly praised all over the world, and it’s also my first choice for smoking lamb.

Overall, hickory provides a noticeable earthy, bacony, and spicy aroma to your meal.

You might also blend in applewood or cherry wood to make it sweeter. Just remember that too much hickory wood can make your meat bitter.

Check out MacLean’s hickory wood chips which are fine enough so you can use them in your electric smoker too.

Pecan wood

  • intensity: mild to medium
  • flavors: nutty and slightly sweet

The flavor of pecan wood is best described as nutty and semi-sweet with a bit of classic smokiness.

Pecan fruit is much stronger flavored than fruit trees, but it’s milder than hardwoods like mesquite.

It burns fairly faster than other wood so you can use that wood if you want to cook for an extended period.

Its flavor is strong but milder than oak and fruity wood. Therefore, it complements dark meat like lamb very well.

Pecan is among the most popular smoking wood choices for lamb and its smokey flavor has a particular nuttiness to it.

It’s definitely on the milder side, with a natural sweetness to it.

I’ve had some fantastic pecan and hickory smoked lamb, and it’s definitely worth a try for people who want a softer smoke, either alone or in combination with harsher smoking woods.

Pecan is a classic, and it’s definitely worth adding to your smoking woods rotation, especially if you smoke a variety of meats.

To avoid things being too sweet or mellow, it’s recommended to match it with a spicy rub or sauce, or something herby, if you like strong flavors.

Check out the Weber pecan wood chips and enjoy the nutty sweet aroma of the smoked lamb.

Which woods to avoid when smoking lamb

When it comes to smoking meat like lamb, there are some woods that just won’t do much to improve or enhance the meat’s natural taste.

For example, alder is the type of neutral wood that doesn’t really add any depth or real smokiness.

Maple is the same because it won’t make the lamb sweeter or richer at all and the wood smoke aroma just turns out pretty bland.

Softwoods

Softwoods must always be avoided when smoking meat. All the woods like pine, fir, sycamore, cedar, cypress, etc. contain sap and resins which are toxic when burned.

When the toxins penetrate the food they make it bitter and very unpleasant. But, the bigger issue is that they can make you ill once you ingest them so avoid them at all costs.

How long to smoke lamb

When smoking lamb, it depends on which cut you’re smoking and if it’s bone-in or boneless.

For example, a lamb leg or shoulder with the bone-in must be smoked at 250 °F for about 5 to 6 hours.

After the first 4 hours, you need to check the meat’s internal temperature with a meat thermometer to ensure the meat reaches 195 degrees F.

You need to place your temperature probe at the deep part of the meat, near the bone.

A boneless lamb shoulder takes about 5 hours to cook too but you need to start spraying it with water after the first 45 minutes in the smoker.

At intervals of 30 minutes, you need to add some moisture because otherwise, the lamb can get too dry and chewy.

After a maximum of 6 hours in the smoker, the lamb should be tender.

Try this delicious smoked lamb shoulder & rub recipe you can make yourself

Smoked leg of lamb boneless vs bone-in

Lamb is often sold divided in two – the lower shank end and the upper fattier sirloin end.

The fattier boneless cuts cook more evenly and the carvings are easier. Then decide if you want bone-in or not.

After the removal of bone, the flesh cooks faster so naturally, cooking times are shorter and it can be easily cut again later in as you will not need to struggle with a bone.

On the other hand, a bone-in leg is believed to become more flavourful while cooked slowly. But smoking takes longer and carving is difficult.

To trim or not to trim the fat?

You should always trim the lamb chops you bring home to enhance the lamb’s flavor. Simply cut off the opaque white fat on the sides of the lamb chops with a sharp knife.

Try to remove as much fat as possible while avoiding removing tasty meat.

Generally, the fat-free lamb cuts are tender and juicy when smoked. A bit of fat is tasty but too much is overwhelming for the taste buds.

Takeaway

I think I covered all the best woods for smoked lamb, so the next time you want to smoke bone-in lamb shoulder you will know which wood chips to buy.

You can’t go wrong with a popular wood like hickory, mesquite, or apple. Nutty woods like pecan wood are tasty too. But if you want good flavor with a distinct aftertaste, olive and mulberry are fine choices too.

It comes down to personal preference just be sure to keep in mind that lamb is one of the heavier types of meat like beef and pork.

Therefore, you want the wood smoke to penetrate the meat properly so you can really distinguish the tasty flavors.

If you want to get really adventurous, how about smoking bison? These are the best woods to use for that

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.