Best wood for smoking tuna | The right options for this versatile fish

by Joost Nusselder | Last Updated:  March 21, 2022

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Tuna is a great-tasting and versatile fish that convinces even those who are not completely into seafood.

By smoking tuna, you bring its flavor to another level still and you simply have to try it.

To get the most out of your smoked tuna, it’s important to use the right type of wood for the smoking process though.

Best wood for smoking tuna | The right options for this versatile fish

Because a tuna steak needs to cook a lot less long than other cuts of meats, you want to make sure the wood you use matches the flavor profile of this healthy fatty fish.

Personally, I recommend using mild-flavored wood chips like apple, peach, or cherry wood for smoking tuna. But of course, the options don’t end here. Some other wood chips that work great with tuna because of their varying flavor profiles are those of hickory, mesquite, and pecan.

This being said, let’s go find out why exactly are these woods ideal choices to smoke tuna!

Which are the best woods for smoking tuna?

When smoking fish like tuna, you’ll generally want to use light-flavored wood chips so that it doesn’t overpower the delicate flavor of the fish.

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The taste that they add to the meat is complemented by a squeeze of fresh lemon and a sprinkle of black pepper on the juicy tuna.

However, if you prefer a stronger smoke flavor to your meat, hardwoods work well too.

Applewood

Applewood is a mild wood that gives a slightly fruity flavor to smoked tuna. It’s the best option if you’re looking for something a little bit different than your average smoked fish.

Due to the subtle flavor of the wood, the meat needs to be smoked for longer than usual to absorb it.

So, going for applewood to smoke your tuna means going for the typical slow-and-low style barbecue!

Applewood can literally make any kind of meat heavenly – pork, ribs, chicken, just name it and I’ll hand you applewood chips.

Combine applewood with some cherry wood chips, and you will be in for a treat!

Cherry

Cherry wood chips are slightly sweet and will give a delicate flavor to your smoked tuna.

Like applewood, cherry wood is a mild wood that adds a subtle sweetness to the tuna. It’s perfect if you want to enhance the natural flavor of the fish without overpowering it.

Additionally, it darkens the color of the meat which is an absolute appetizer.

Cherry wood chips are best used in combination with applewood or hickory since they work best in enhancing flavors.

Further, mixing these wood chips with others ensures that the meat does not turn too dark to seem edible.

Peach wood

Peachwood is a traditional wood for smoking fish. Just like other fruit woods, peachwood too has a delicate flavor.

The gentle smoke of peach wood gives your tuna the perfect amount of smoky sweetness.

Blending this with stronger and rich-flavored woods like hardwood or mesquite will give you a perfect smokey-sweet fish.

Hickory

Is a “best-wood-for-smoking-XYZ” list really credible if it leaves out hickory wood?

Hickory is a smoky, robust wood that pairs well with fatty fish like tuna, and to be honest, with any meat that you can think of.

It has a strong flavor that can be used for literally “smoking” tuna. If you like a smokier taste to your fish, hickory is a good option.

Too much smoke can make the meat bitter though. So be careful about how long you smoke your tuna with hickory wood and how many wood chips you throw in.

Its bold flavor can be too much for some people, but if that’s what makes you roll, go for it!

Find out here what you can do if your smoker has too much smoke

Mesquite

Mesquite is another strong hardwood that gives a peppery flavor to smoked tuna.

It has a bold, earthy flavor that pairs well with the rich flavor of tuna.

However, remember that mesquite is the kind of wood that will keep you on your toes! It burns hot and fast.

So, if you are planning to host a lazy and long BBQ night, steer clear of mesquite (badly wanted that to rhyme, but let’s move on).

Alder

Alder wood chips have a pleasantly subtle flavor that pairs well with seafood. This neutral-flavored wood adds an extremely delicate and subtle hint of sweetness to the smoked fish.

This hardwood does not take away the seafood-like taste of the tuna while also offering the smoky and earthy aroma that we barbecue-lovers crave.

Add in some applewood chips for added fruitiness and the flavor profile that you will get will definitely knock your socks off!

Also check out this delicious recipe for Marinated Tuna Steak

Pecan

Pecan is a sweet wood that pairs well with all kinds of fish, including tuna.

Pecan is a mild-flavored wood that adds a slight sweetness and a nutty flavor to the meat that is sure to please your taste buds.

This wood that belongs to the hickory family burns slow making it an ideal choice for barbecues that last for hours, unlike the mighty mesquite.

However adding a lot of pecan wood chips can make your smoked tuna taste disgustingly pungent, and hence it is best used in moderation, or in combination with other woodchips like fruitwoods.

Why do these woods work so well with tuna?

Tuna in itself has a mild flavor. It’s somewhere in between seafood and meat.

Thus, the hunt for the ideal wood chips to smoke tuna branches out into two vastly different routes.

The subtle flavors of the softwoods like apple, peach, alder, and cherry add just a hint of fruitiness and sweetness to the fish while letting its original flavor shine through.

Using fruitwood adds a mild smoke flavor to the fish, unlike the hardwoods.

The hardwoods like mesquite and hickory, on the other hand, are stronger flavored woods. They will give your meat a smokiness which is more or less the “real barbecue vibe”.

Pecan wood is an option to turn to if you are looking for a flavor that stands out.

So the wood you choose depends heavily on what you and the ones you are cooking for prefer.

For how long should you smoke tuna?

Tuna is a delicate meat. Thus about an hour to 1.5 hours of smoking should give you the perfect smoked tuna.

Smoke the tuna until it reaches a good 140 degrees with your smoker set to an internal temperature of 225-250 degrees.

If you are planning to make tuna steaks, either cook them on elevated surfaces or flip them once in a while. This will ensure that your tuna steaks cook evenly.

The exact time that your tuna steaks will take to roast is dependent on their thickness.

It might take more than 1.5 hours, or at times, less than an hour.

So I would recommend checking in on your smoking buddy with a meat thermometer from time to time.

Looking for more fish to smoke? This is the top 10 fish smoking choices for the seafood lover

Woods that should be avoided when smoking tuna

As you can see, if you are looking for the best wood for smoking tuna, you have plenty of options.

But there also are a few that should be avoided no matter what not only for tuna but while smoking meat in general.

Evergreens

The family of evergreens, including cedar, pine, spruce, fir, etc. contain high levels of resin and sap. Thus they can give off a nasty flavor to the meat and even affect its color.

Combined with the possibility of the presence of toxic compounds, by throwing in evergreen wood chips into the smoker you will have set your barbecue night up for disaster!

Greenwood

Greenwood chips are an absolute menace! You will be waiting for an eternity for your tuna to smoke if you, for some wild reason, decide to choose this wet wood for your smoker.

To start off, you will struggle to light it on fire because of its water content.

And if you do manage to set it ablaze somehow, its excruciatingly slow burn will need you to keep the tuna in the smoker for hours which will make the smoking process a drudge.

And the worst part is that after waiting with your raving stomachs for so long, the tuna you will serve will have a disgusting aftertaste because of the white smoke of the greenwood.

Treated wood

Painted or stained wood is definitely one you should avoid. Such treated woods contain toxic chemicals like lead which are fatal to humans.

If that in itself is not enough to convince you, let me add that it adds a horrible taste to the meat. If that is not enough to keep you away, I don’t know what is!

Unidentified wood

Well, should I really have to explain this? Wandering off into the woods and being like “gotcha” to the first tree you see is not the best idea.

You may just end up with wood chips that give your meat a weird taste, or worse, end up harming you because of their toxic composition.

Moldy wood

Molds and fungi transfer a very nasty taste to the meat, and perchance, may contain toxins (yes, this is a recurring subject here and it should be kept in mind at all times!)

Cedar wood

The smoke from cedar wood chips leads to conditions like dermatitis and conjunctivitis. Need I really say more?

I mean, if you are a fan of swollen skin, sure, these are the best wood chips for you.

The best way to use cedar for smoking is with cedar planks!

Conclusion

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the quest for the best wood for smoking tuna, as it will vary depending on your personal preference.

However, some great wood chips to try include applewood, cherry, hickory, mesquite, and pecan.

If you want to complement the mild natural taste of the fish, go for soft fruitwood like applewood, cherrywood, etc. And if you like robust smoky flavors, the best wood chips are hickory or mesquite.

The number of wood chips you throw in will affect the degree of smoke flavor in your tuna; adding more wood chips will add more smoke flavor.

I’ve written a full guide on using wood chips for your smoker here

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.