Chicken, turkey, cornish hens, game fowl…these are all delicious meats with delicate taste that can benefit from wood smoke flavors.
But, did you know that the wrong smoke can destroy an otherwise delicious barbecue?
Long-time smokers know that the balance between wood smoke, natural meat flavor, and condiments (rubs) is the key to the best tasting smoked poultry.
Which woods are best for smoking poultry?
Fruit woods like apple, cherry, peach are ideal for smoking poultry because they’re mild with a light and sweet flavor. Mild and fruity flavors are subtle and don’t overpower poultry, so they infuse the meat with just the “right” amount of smoke while allowing the poultry’s natural flavors to shine.
But, don’t skip hardwoods like pecan, maple, and hickory, which add a whole new level of flavor. They’re best if you prefer a stronger wood smoke flavor but don’t want something thick like mesquite, which can totally overpower meats like chicken.
Since poultry has a mild flavor, it’s easy to test the flavor profile of different woods. You can easily taste the difference between a sweet, savory, earthy, or bacon-like flavor.
Here’s a table overview of the best wood for smoking poultry:
|Wood for smoking poultry||Flavors|
|Alder||subtle, mild, sweet, slightly nutty|
|Almond||nutty, mild, subtle, sweet|
|Apple||mild, fruity, sweet, subtle, mellow|
|Cherry||mild, sweet, fruity, light|
|Grapevine||tart, acidic (slightly), fruity, strong|
|Hickory||sweet, earthy, savory, bacony, strong|
|Maple||subtle, light, sweet, mildly smoky|
|Mulberry||semi-sweet, earthy, fruity, mild|
|Olive||mild, earthy, woody|
|Peach||mild, very sweet, fruity, earthy|
|Pear||mild, sweet, fruity, subtle|
|Pecan||medium, earthy, nutty, rich|
|Pimento||mild, fruity, lightly pungent, floral|
|Plum||sweet, mild, fruity, earthy|
In this post we'll cover:
- 1 Why wood matters
- 2 Best woods for smoking poultry
- 3 Mixing woods for smoking
- 4 Which woods to avoid when smoking poultry
- 5 How to choose & use wood for smoking
- 6 The bottom line
Why wood matters
When you smoke with wood, the wood imparts a certain flavor to the meat. Therefore, you can go as far as to say that it’s similar to a rub or spice.
Each wood flavors your food differently, so it really DOES matter.
The one thing to note is that you should always use hardwood for smoking and never softwoods, and the wood should be seasoned and never treated.
Wood for smoking comes in three flavor profiles:
- Mild – these are woods with a light and subtle flavor like fruitwoods and used for poultry and pork.
- Medium – these impart a noticeable and quite strong flavor, like hickory, pecan, maple.
- Strong – the ultimate strong flavored wood is mesquite, and these woods are best for game, beef, and pork.
You can’t use all types of wood to smoke meat and each meat pairs well with certain woods.
For example, light meats like poultry pair well with light-flavored woods like fruitwoods because these are subtle yet still impart a sweet smokiness.
Beef and pork can benefit much more from a hardwood like mesquite, which has a strong earthy flavor. If you were to use mesquite to smoke chicken, for example, it would be too intense and bitter.
Best woods for smoking poultry
The best woods for poultry are fruitwoods and nutty flavored woods, so I’m listing them all here, plus some woods you can mix if you want a complex flavor profile.
As a general guideline, it’s best to use the long and slow smoking method for poultry.
Mellow woods like apple don’t give much in terms of flavor if you only use them for a short amount of time.
Alder is a sweet, mild, and subtle flavored wood. It’s used to smoke poultry and light game birds which don’t require a strong smokey flavor.
It has a bit of a nutty flavor but not quite like pecan or almond.
Alder flavors: subtle, light, sweet, slightly nutty
It is one of those nutty but mild woods that are light enough for poultry yet strong enough for other meats too.
The flavor is not overly nutty and still has a sweetness to it. Most people compare almond to pecan, but it’s a bit lighter.
Almond flavors: nutty, mild, subtle, sweet
Generally, almond wood chunks and chips are more expensive because they are more of a premium smoking wood.
This is a mellow type of flavor. It is mild and sweet, so not too overpowering for chicken and game fowl.
Apple smoke takes quite a while to permeate and flavor the meat.
It’s best for long smoking as long as you don’t overdo it with too much wood. It also adds a bit of a brown color to the crust, like cherry, but not as dark.
Apple flavors: mild, fruity, sweet, subtle, mellow
Why not start smoking with apple chips? Find them here
It’s one of the sweetest and fruity flavored woods. It works well as a mixing wood, and if you mix it with a stronger wood like hickory or oak, it imparts tons of smokey and complex flavor.
But cherry is excellent on its own, and it’s great for chicken and turkey.
Cherry gives poultry a dark and reddish color. But, it doesn’t smoke very much, so don’t expect huge smoke or intense taste.
Cherry flavors: mild, sweet, fruity, light
Grapevine is quite interesting and unique because it’s not really a wood, but a vine you can cut down from your garden.
When used for smoking poultry, watch out because it’s not sweet as it sounds. Instead, this one has a fruity flavor with a bit of a tart taste, so it’s best to use it sparingly.
It’s great for game fowl, chicken, and turkey because it makes it a bit acrid, which pairs well with certain dry rubs.
Grapevine flavors: tart, acidic (slightly), fruity, strong
When you think of hickory wood, the first thing that springs to mind is a good old Southern BBQ with ribs, brisket, and chicken wings.
It has a classic “bacon” flavor that’s easy to distinguish from other woods.
While hickory has a strong flavor, it can also impart tasty smokiness to poultry, as long as you use it sparingly. You only need one or two chunks of hickory or a few wood chips because it imparts a bitter flavor if you use too much with poultry.
Using this wood is advantageous because it burns slowly, so it’s great for long smoking.
Hickory flavors: strong, sweet, earthy, savory, bacony
This fruitwood is one of the most versatile because it’s very subtle in flavor, so you can smoke all kinds of meats with it.
It’s full of sugar, so it imparts sweetness as well as a light and subtle flavor, which is why it works well with all kinds of poultry, including chicken, turkey, and game fowl.
When smoking something like game fowl, you want the smoke to add that bbq smokiness, not you don’t want to overpower the fowl’s unique taste.
Maple is sweet, but it lacks the fruitiness of cherry or apple, so it’s great for smoking turkey. It’s best to use minimal rubs and spices and let the sweetness of the maple shine through.
Maple flavors: subtle, light, sweet, mildly smoky
It’s most similar to apple wood because it burns a sweet smoke. The flavor is fruity, sweet, and quite mild.
This wood is popular worldwide because it’s readily available, but it gives a great subtle flavor that’s not too overpowering for poultry.
Think of it as an earthy and slightly less sweet alternative to apple.
Mulberry flavors: semi-sweet, earthy, fruity, mild
This wood has an interesting profile flavor because while it’s mild enough for poultry, the taste is intense and very smoky.
Olive is a very popular BBQ wood in the Mediterranean. It is considered to be a lighter version of mesquite because it has a similar woody flavor.
Olive flavors: mild, earthy, woody
Peach has a similar mild, sweet, and fruity flavor to apple and other fruitwoods. Its subtle hint of sweetness makes it versatile for light meats.
You can use more because it doesn’t overpower the meat’s natural flavors. Peach also has a bit of earthiness like hickory, but it’s much sweeter.
Peach flavors: mild, very sweet, fruity, earthy
It’s so similar to peach wood that it’s hard to tell the difference.
But, this wood is also very sweet and fruity. It is mild, so it’s great for smoking chicken and small game birds.
Pear flavors: mild, sweet, fruity, subtle taste
This wood is stronger than fruitwoods and has a more distinctive nutty flavor. But it’s also lighter than hardwoods like mesquite and hickory, yet it’s still similar.
It infuses poultry with an earthy flavor, but it’s quite subtle and easy to use.
It burns quite cool but still gives enough smokiness for all kinds of meats.
Pecan flavors: medium, earthy, nutty, rich
The pimento tree produces small berries, and it’s the most popular wood in Jamaica, used to smoke authentic jerk chicken.
This wood may be hard to find in North America but if you can, buy the pimento wood chips because these impart a unique flavor to the chicken.
They give a mild, fruity flavor with a hint of floral flavor. But, there is also a bit of a pungent taste which works well with the spices and berries used to cook jerk chicken.
Pimento flavors: mild, fruity, lightly pungent, floral
Plum is another sweet and fruity fruitwood, which is a lot like apple and peach. It’s a lot sweeter and much milder than hickory but has a slight earthiness to it.
When using plum wood, make sure it’s not overseasoned, or it may taste strange.
Plum flavors: sweet, mild, fruity, earthy
Mixing woods for smoking
You can definitely mix woods to get a particular flavor and hue. Generally, pitmasters mix medium or strong wood with mild fruitwood.
Popular combinations for poultry include:
- Hickory + cherry: The cherry imparts that sweet fruity taste and the hickory gives the meat a dark mahogany brown color, which makes it look like a true barbecue.
- Cherry/apple + oak: Oak is a kind of universal smoking wood, but it has an intense flavor profile, so you only need a small amount. Mixed with apple or cherry, it makes the meat taste sweet and smoky.
- Mesquite + peach/cherry: You can mix a hardwood like mesquite with a mild wood like peach or cherry for Southern-style chicken wings. It’s a strong smokey flavor, but the sweetness of the fruitwood imparts a balanced taste.
Which woods to avoid when smoking poultry
Not all wood is safe for smoking meat. You want to use hardwoods that are very low in resin, sap, and terpenes.
Softwoods, such as conifers, should never be used for smoking meat because they are toxic and make you sick. Therefore, avoid fir, cypress, spruce, cedar, and similar woods.
Also, stay clear of elm, eucalyptus, and sycamore as these impart a bad flavor, and they are toxic too.
Now, as I’ve mentioned, many trees are full of dangerous toxins and are not to be used for smoking.
This also includes lumber scraps that may be improperly stored or contain a chemical coating that makes you ill.
Also, look out for mold, which can cause severe illness and make your food taste awful.
When smoking, use seasoned wood logs, chunks, or wood chips. You can find these at local supermarkets, specialty shops, or on Amazon.
How to choose & use wood for smoking
When smoking foods like chicken and turkey, your best option is to use wood chunks, wood chips, or wood pellets.
It depends on your smoker, of course, and depending on what kind you have, you can choose the woods you like best.
There’s no real need to soak the wood chips, but some pitmasters recommend using soaked wood chips for better flavor.
- Wood chips: they burn hot and fast and tend to release the smoke in bursts, so you need to keep adding more during the smoking process.
- Wood chunks: these are larger than chips and they burn slowly and release smoke over longer periods of time so you don’t need to keep adding as much.
- Pellets: the pellets come in flavors too and they work for smaller cuts of meat like poultry. They burn relatively quickly too and are similar to chips.
The general consensus on smoking is that poultry meats are lighter in flavor, so you should use mild and medium flavored woods so as not to overpower the natural taste.
If you want to experiment, you can always add a strong wood like mesquite, but it’s best to mix with mild woods.
As long as you don’t overdo the wood when smoking, you’re sure to get a delicious BBQ every time.
Remember that the long and slow method is best when it comes to smoking for exceptional flavor, especially when using mellow woods.
Want to learn more about your smoker? Best BBQ Smoker Books | 5 best guides from beginner to advanced