Best wood for smoking onions | Caramelized sweetness + smokiness

by Joost Nusselder | Last Updated:  February 18, 2022

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Sure, everyone likes to smoke meat, but there are so many tasty vegetables you can smoke too, and onion is one of those amazing crowd-pleasers.

Smoked caramelized onions are a must-try if you like to switch things up.

Although smoking onions takes time, it lends a distinct smokiness to the onions that contrasts with their inherent sweetness.

Best wood for smoking onions | Caramelized sweetness + smokiness

Smoking onions can take a bit longer to smoke than other veggies because the onions must simmer slowly. They are wrapped in aluminum foil to maintain their juiciness.

The sugars break down and you end up with tasty smoky caramelized onions.

In about two hours, you can smoke whole or sliced onions so you can serve them alongside your favorite grilled or smoked meats, as appetizers or munch on them on their own.

Onions have a sweet and tangy taste that doesn’t need special wood chips when smoked. Therefore, you can use any fruitwoods or stronger smoking woods to smoke onions. Mesquite, hickory, and oak give a delicious smoky flavor whereas fruitwoods add more fruity sweetness.

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Most smoking woods create a balanced smoky flavor that complements the sweetness of the onions. Onions caramelize while they are smoking and this makes them bold, sweet, and full of aroma.

In this post, I’m sharing all the best woods for smoked onions and there’s a lot of variety because the onions taste good with most wood chip flavors.

Best woods to smoke onions

When determining which woods you can use to smoke onions, it’s best to choose from one of the best woods for smoking vegetables.

If it’s good for smoking veggies, it’s a great wood for smoked onions too!

If you don’t like the strong flavor of woods like mesquite and hickory, you can use a sweeter maple wood or use fruity sweet woods like apple.

Don’t worry though, I’ve got a lot more options for you so you’re sure to find one you like.

Smoking onions is just like smoking meat because you need to find the best wood smoke flavor to complement the rich, sweet taste of onion.

Alder

  • Intensity: mild
  • Smoke flavors: neutral, slightly sweet, slightly earthy & musky

If I had to choose one universal smoking wood, I would say it’s alder wood.

This wood has a delicate flavor and it’s very mild. Although it’s commonly used to smoke fish, it’s perfect for smoking all kinds of vegetables like onions too.

The subtle flavor characteristic of alder wood is fantastic. It’s the perfect go-to smokey taste because it’s delicate, mild, and somewhat sweet.

It also has a hint of earthiness but nothing as strong as hickory, for example.

Because it’s delicate and mild-tasting, I’d even go so far as to call it a neutral smoking wood. It has a subtle tinge of sweetness.

For onions, alder adds a very light smoky flavor so it’s best if you don’t like very strong smoke aromas.

As a result, if you prefer a softer smokey flavor, you should use it. The light musky and earthy taste of alder wood smoke gives the sweet onions a good flavor.

You can also mix the alder wood with a stronger wood like mesquite for a real southern-BBQ-style smoke profile.

Camerons Products Alder Wood Smoker Chips have a coarser texture but they burn clean smoke and this is important for delicate vegetables like onions.

Apple

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

If you’re looking for a fail-safe smoking wood, a sweet fruit wood like apple is always a great choice. It’s mild, delicate, and offers the right amount of sweetness and fruitiness.

Onions are already kind of sweet but adding a tangy fruity sweet smoke flavor to them makes them taste amazing.

Although this wood is mild, it still adds enough smoke flavor to penetrate the onions and gives them a subtle smoky aroma.

Apple is a very good wood to smoke with if you want the onions to maintain their natural flavors and this wood smoke doesn’t overpower them at all.

Therefore, you can obtain that desired flavor of BBQ smoke without making it very strong.

If you want to tone down the intense smokiness of a strong hardwood like mesquite, apple is an excellent blending wood.

It adds a more sweet flavor to the strong earthy aromas and also smells great. It masks the strong odor of onions and improves the taste overall.

Smoked caramelized onions will benefit from the light refreshing taste of the applewood chips.

The Oklahoma Joe’s apple wood chips are great for all types of smokers and they burn clean smoke. They also work well when soaked.

Oklahoma Joe is not just great for making wood chips, they are famous for their reverse flow smokers

Apricot

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

Apricot wood chunks or chips (find out the difference between chunks and chips here) are the perfect alternative to apple wood.

It has a flavor similar to apple or peach but it’s a bit more mellow. It still adds a pleasant sweetness and it’s even more fruity than apple and peach wood chunks.

This wood is milder and sweeter than some of the other fruitwoods. This wood will not overwhelm the onions and is best if you prefer to taste the natural flavor of the vegetable.

Apricot wood tastes best when paired with a strong flavored wood like hickory because the aromas become very balanced.

The onions will then take on a traditional Texas-style smoky flavor with that milder sweetness from the apricot.

Complement the Texas-style flavor with one of these top 8 BBQ sauces for the perfect finish and flavor

Cherry

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

Cherry is probably one of the most versatile smoking woods. It has a mildly sweet flavor with a fruitier taste than apple.

It also has hints of floral aromas and you can use it to smoke onions as well as other vegetables.

You can even say cherry has a bit of a sour tanginess to it so it balances out the sweetness of yellow onions.

Cherry wood adds a reddish color to the onions but it’s very flavorful.

Since it has a mild smoke profile, you won’t feel overwhelmed by the subtle sweet smoke flavors.

If you like complex smoke flavors, you can combine the cherry wood chips with some oak wood for an earthier and muskier taste. Cherry also works well if you combine it with hickory, maple, and even pecan.

Combine cherry wood and hickory for a strong fruity and slightly sweet aroma with a hint of floral scent.

The Smokehouse cherry wood chips are very finely chopped so they’re perfect to use in all smokers, especially in electric smokers with a small wood chip tray.

Chestnut

  • intensity: mild to medium
  • flavors: nutty, sweet

Chestnut is not one of the popular smoking woods but it’s very underrated. It’s not a very strong wood so it is suitable for smoking onions.

The overall flavor of chestnut wood is nutty and quite sweet. It’s similar to other woods with a nutty smoke profile. You can compare it to pecan and they have a similar flavor and sweetness.

You can add some apple, cherry, or apricot fruit woods to mellow out the nuttiness of the chestnut. Combining chestnut with sweet fruit woods gives the onions more flavor and makes them taste even better.

Overall, chestnut is a sweet and nutty wood so it’s best for those who prefer really sweet caramelized onions with a milder smokey aroma.

I recommend adding a bit of chestnut and hickory to the smoking box for a more intense taste.

Hickory

  • intensity: medium to strong
  • flavors: earthy, bacon-like, slightly musky, and sweet

Hickory wood is among the most popular woods for smoking of all time. It has a distinct meaty, bacon-like flavor. It’s also very earthy, bold, and lightly musky.

Hickory is a medium-strength wood with a bold smoky flavor. Some people even say it’s a bit pungent but onion can take on the flavor without tasting bad.

Although it lacks the particular flavor profile of specific woods like apple and maple, it is noted for imprinting its flavor on smoked products with a bacony taste.

For the best caramelized onions you can blend hickory wood with a light peach or apple wood to make it even sweeter.

Once you’ve been cooking with hickory for a time, you’ll notice that it emits a curiously sweet, extremely scented smoke.

However, if you’re serving smoked food to guests who aren’t used to it, the flavor could be overbearing. But, this isn’t the case with onion.

In fact, since onions are full of juice, and usually wrapped in foil for smoking, they don’t pick up too much of the strong smoke so you end up with a well-balanced earthy smoke flavor.

This earthy bacony taste paired with the sweet onions makes for a delicious dish.

Since hickory wood burns hot, you can use Camerons Products finely chopped hickory wood chips to smoke. These burn clean and give the classic Southern-BBQ taste you’d expect.

Jack Daniels Whiskey Barrel wood chips

  • intensity: medium
  • flavors: classic BBQ, smoky, whiskey flavor

If you’re looking for a medium-strong wood to smoke onions with, you can’t get much fancier than whiskey barrel wood chips.

The smoke flavor is similar to typical oak wood chips, but it’s enhanced by the distinct flavor of No 7 whiskey. Smoky and earthy is the best way to describe it although it’s quite a delicate flavor.

These chips are rather powerful in comparison to fruity woods, so use them sparingly in your smoked onions. This whiskey alcohol flavor goes well with onions and has a similar flavor to stews made with a lot of onions and a bit of alcohol.

Don’t worry, the smoke won’t make your onions taste like bourbon, but it will give them a delicious and subtle whiskey aroma.

It takes an often banal onion to the next level so it’s best if you want to serve the onion as appetizers. The onions have a fantastic and subtle flavor thanks to the aged barrels.

Charred white oak barrels are used to make Jack Daniels whiskey barrel chips. Their barrels are made of good quality wood so you can be sure these chips give great flavors.

The strong earthy oak taste is blended with aged whisky which makes the onion taste quite smoky but delicious.

Since the onions are full of juice, they absorb some of that refined whisky aroma.

Make sure to get Jack Daniels whiskey barrel wood chips for smoking on Amazon. These burn well and give a delicious smoky aroma to your food.

Maple

  • intensity: mild to medium
  • flavors: sweet and sugary

When you ask a pitmaster what the best wood for smoking vegetables is, you’ll probably hear maple.

This wood has a delightful and pleasantly mellow sweet taste. Its smoke doesn’t overpower onions and is well balanced.

Maple wood chips can be used if you prefer naturally sweet smoke woods. The onion takes on a faint yet sweet smoky flavor from this wood. Even though maple is subtle, it is very noticeable.

Sugar maple is preferred by most pitmasters because it produces a clear, tasty smoke. When it comes to smoke profile, this wood resembles a fruitwood because of its intense sweetness.

It’s widely used to smoke vegetables but makes for a great blending wood too.

Mix the maple with apple for a deliciously sweet taste, maple with oak wood for an earthier flavor, or maple with alder for a neutral smokey aroma are the ideal choices.

If you want to save some money, the Western Premium BBQ Products Maple BBQ Smoking Chips are affordable but offer amazing flavor without additives like oil.

Mesquite

  • intensity: strong
  • flavors: earthy, musky, strong smoky aroma, bold

If you’ve been smoking and grilling foods for a while, you know all about the strong smoky BBQ flavors of mesquite wood. After all, mesquite, along with hickory and oak make up the trio of best Texas-style BBQ woods.

This wood has a distinct earthy and smoky aroma with a lightly musky aftertaste. It’s a bold smoking wood with a strong flavor so it’s sure to give your onions a lot of aromas.

Mesquite burns hot and fast so you have to be careful not to use too many wood chips. Since the smoke flavor is so intense, you might overdo it and make the onions taste a bit pungent or bitter.

Therefore, I recommend using a smaller quantity of mesquite wood chips.

Alternatively, you can blend mesquite with a lighter fruit wood like apple, cherry, or peach to add some sweet and fruity flavor to the smoke.

The Fire & Flavor Premium mesquite wood chips will give a serious bold earthy wood smoke taste to your onions and you can use them to smoke dark meats too.

Oak

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

Oak is one of the medium-strong smoking woods and it will give onions a pleasant earthy and smoky taste, just like classic BBQ.

The smoke is a bit more intense than fruit woods yet it’s subtle enough not to overpower the onions.

Oakwood is perfect if you like bold, robust flavors that don’t leave a pungent or bitter aftertaste at all. Also, oak gives the smoked onions a nice dark color similar to that of smoked meats.

If you want to use the tastiest oak wood, red oak is best because it gives a pure smokey aroma. It’s lighter and milder than hickory so it’s best for those who want something in-between strong and sweet.

You can also blend the oak wood chips with mild fruity woods like apple or pear wood which will sweeten and tone down the earthiness.

When smoked with oak, the onions have a very rich smoky flavor so you might even think you’re taking a bite out of smoked brisket!

The Camerons oak smoking chips are kiln-dried and full of bold earthy flavor so give them a try if you want smoked caramelized onions with a balanced wood smoke taste.

Olive

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

Some smoking woods are harder to find than others and olive wood is a prime example. There’s no doubt onions are fragrant but olive wood gives an even stronger floral, herby, and fragrant aroma.

This wood has a mild smoke flavor profile and the smoke is mellow compared to the strong hardwoods. But, it gives a fruity, floral, herbal, and slightly sweet flavor to the onions.

You’re missing out if you haven’t tried smoking sliced onions with olive wood.

The perfume of this wood is delicate and pleasant, akin to that of applewood. It’s sweet with a hint of herbal and floral notes, giving it the ideal complex smoke for all onion varieties.

Furthermore, these light and sweet smoking chips impart a herbal flavor and floral perfume that doesn’t overpower onions.

The smooth and clean burn of olive wood chunks and chips is impressive. Also, even on cooler autumn days, this wood burns at a steady temperature and you won’t end up over smoking the onions.

Amazon sells great olive flavored wood chips at a low price so it’s the perfect chance to try this unique smoke wood.

Peach

  • intensity: mild
  • flavors: fruity and sweet

As you’ve seen by now, fruit trees are very mild and give a sweet fruity smokey taste to the onions. Peachwood is no exception and it’s very similar to apricot and pear wood.

Peachwood is quite sweet and fruity so it complements the caramelized onions very well. However, you can expect a stronger smoke profile compared to the other fruit woods like apple.

It’s still a mild wood but you can really taste the fruitiness. Also, peach has a certain woodsy flavor to it so it’s a bit different from the other woods out there.

Peach doesn’t leave a tart or acidic aftertaste and balances out the strong odors of the onions without becoming too strong.

Compared to apple, it turns the food a slightly redder color and produces an even better smoke ring so it’s easy to smoke with.

The Western Premium BBQ peach wood chips give a sweet and fruity flavor and create the perfect smoking ring you’re after.

Pecan

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

Pecan is the top nut wood you can use for smoking meat and vegetables, especially onions.

It’s not an overly powerful smoke wood so it infuses the perfect amount of nutty and sweet aroma to your onions.

Peacan generally gives a sweet flavor but it’s much nuttier than the fruit trees. The flavor of pecan wood also has a hint of traditional smokiness.

Fruit trees have a stronger flavor than pecans, but hardwoods like mesquite have a softer flavor.

Pecan wood burns relatively quickly compared to other woods, so you can use it if you want to cook for an extended amount of time.

Pecan wood chips have a stronger smoke flavor profile than other fruitwood chips. However, compared to hickory and mesquite, this hardwood is a softer option.

These wood chips go well with onion because they add flavor and zing. Since onions are juicy and sweet, the nuttiness gives them a unique taste.

Use it sparingly, as it can become overbearing and harsh if used in excess. Some people say it can taste a bit pungent if you smoke the onions for too long.

Weber pecan wood chips don’t contain bark so you get the pure pecan nutty flavor without added impurities.

Which woods to avoid when smoking onions

The woods you should never use for smoking any food are softwoods.

These are full of resins and toxic saps that not only make the food taste bitter, but they are also bad for your health. Ingesting wood smoke from conifers and other softwoods can make you ill.

Several trees to avoid include pine, cedar, fir, hemlock, cypress, and spruce. Actually, anything from the coniferous family should be avoided.

Cedar planks are unique in that they are utilized as a cooking vessel rather than a source of direct heat or smoking wood because cedarwood is also full of toxins if burned directly.

Cedar planks are used for smoking salmon but aren’t suitable for smoking onions.

Now, when it comes to onions, you should avoid smoking with citrus woods like lemon, lime, orange, and grapefruit.

These woods have a very mild smoke profile and add a slight tanginess but it gets lost in the overall flavors of the onions.

Although you can technically use them and end up with good smoked onions, you won’t get that amazing classic BBQ flavor you’re after.

Can you put onion in a smoker?

Yes, smoked onions are delicious and when smoked, there’s a balanced flavor between smoky and sweet.

All types of onions can be smoked, including sweet, sour, and tangy. Yellow, white, and red onions are the most common smoked varieties but you can also smoke shallots or Vidalia onions.

It’s hard to overpower the onions with too much smoke flavor. Their flavor is the perfect balance of sweet, tangy, and classic BBQ smoke taste.

For the best results, it’s best to soak the wood chips or wood chunks of your choice in a bowl of water for about half an hour before smoking.

Soaked wood chips burn slower so you get enough wood smoke for the entire smoking session.

If you want a stronger smoke flavor, cut the onions into halves and smoke them like that. A whole onion will have a slightly more subtle smoke aroma.

Smoky caramelized onions

Smoked caramelized onions are the result of the sugar present in onions breaking down in the presence of heat into hundreds of different compounds.

Caramelized onions also freeze well and can be reheated making them perfect to use at home.

Take advantage of everything you can grill in your smoker and also add some tomatoes to it.

Serve caramelized onions alongside steak, pork, in sauces, with eggs, and on rustic bread with terrines and pátés.

Recipes can be made at home using either a TRAEGER Grill or any smoker. I like to use an electric smoker too because you can set the temperature and leave.

Can you cold smoke onions?

Cold smoking is a terrific way to give fruits and vegetables a rich, smokey flavor without cooking them.

This technique preserves their texture, color, and nutritional value in their natural state. This is simple to perform at home with any smoker and takes up to 6 hours.

You can even cold smoke pickled onions.

It’s best to peel the onions and let them marinate with a salt dry rub overnight. Then, rub off the salt and put them on your smoker rack.

Cold smoking onion takes about 4 to 6 hours.

How long do you smoke an onion?

It takes about 2 to 3 hours to smoke onions. Compare to other smoked vegetables, onions take longer to smoke properly because they need to achieve a tender and butter-like texture on the inside.

You should hot smoke onions at about 210-250 degrees F for approximately 1.5 to 3 hours, depending on how soft you like your onions.

After 1.5 hours, the onions will still be firm and a bit crunchy.

After about 2 hours, the onions caramelize perfectly so they become sweeter and take on a darker color.

For the perfect soft smoked onions, I recommend putting the onions on a piece of aluminum foil with a drizzle of cooking oil. Then smoke for 1 hour at about 225 degrees.

Next, seal the foil around the onions and continue to smoke for an additional 2 hours – you’ll end up with perfectly smoked onions with a soft texture.

The smoke flavor penetrates through the foil and makes the onion flavors very complex with just the right amount of smoke wood flavor.

How do I use smoked onions?

Due to the slow temperature and relatively short smoking time, onions soften slightly but still retain much of their bite. Their texture is soft and buttery.

They can be used in most cooking recipes which call for onions. Here are some fantastic ways to use smoked onions:

Side dishes

Smoked onions make for an excellent side dish.

You can serve them with your favorite grilled meats and smoked meats like steaks, brisket, pork shoulder, and even smoked chicken (have you tried pellet smoker beer can chicken?).

Smoked onions are also a good topping for hot dogs and sausages. Since the smoked onions are sweet and rich you can pair them with slightly sour sun-dried tomatoes.

They are also a good addition to other side dishes like potatoes or other veggies.

Preserve them

Because this recipe is quick and easy, make a single batch, then dice and dehydrate them so you can use them as toppings later.

Dehydrated onions can be used diced or mixed together into smoked onions powder. Smoky onion powder will be a perfect ingredient to put into pork brisket, ribs, or chicken rubs!

Add them to other recipes

Smoked onions are ideal to add to any recipe that calls for onion. Just prepare them using the recipes.

Make sure to use them in smoked beef chili or meatballs or in chicken noodle soup for a more savory spin.

You can also use the smoked onions as additions to stews and veggie dishes.

I even like to use smoked onions as garnishes for most meats, especially red meats which have a strong flavor. If you’re cooking up wild game, you can sweeten the gamey flavor with this topping.

Dress up classic dishes

Add smoked sliced onion on any tortilla, nacho, wrap, burger or sandwich. Use them to do dips or for jams!

Use them when you prepare the smoked pizza especially if you have done the Traeger pizza oven hack. A good pizza and hamburger can always do with some smoked onion.

Takeaway

There are truly so many different woods you can use to smoke onions and several flavors really stand out like whiskey barrel chips, strong mesquite, or a sweet maple.

But, all the woods provided on this list are part of the best wood types for smoking onions so don’t be shy to use them.

If you can get your hands on the common wood varieties you can be sure the onions will turn out delicious.

And if you feel adventurous, you can always splurge on some wood such as olive or apricot that is going to give the smoked onions a sophisticated flavor.

Read next:  Get a kick out of your smoker and use these woods for smoking hot pepper jalapenos

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.