Best wood for smoking wild game | How to make the flavors blend well

by Joost Nusselder | Last Updated:  December 21, 2021

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Deer, wild boar, pronghorn, and elk are just some of the popular big wild game you can hunt or buy in North America.

If you prefer birds, turkey and grouse are popular birds you can find more easily. Poultry is quite easy to smoke in any type of smoker (electric, charcoal, gas) and it can be a healthier alternative to beef and pork.

If you’re a hunter, you know that game meat is delicious, especially when smoked. But which woods do you have to use to ensure the flavors blend well?

The secret lies in knowing the best wood flavor or smoking chips you need to add to improve and complement the flavors of your catch.

Best wood for smoking wild game | How to make the flavors blend well

The best smoking wood for big game like venison and boar is strong hardwood like mesquite and hickory, whereas mild fruity and sweet smoking woods like maple, apple, and cherry are best for game birds.

I’m sharing the top woods and wood chips to use when wild game meats.

Best woods for smoking game meat

There are those who prefer a subtle smoke flavor because they like to taste the rich, gamey red meat flavor.

How to buy a bbq smoker video
How to buy a bbq smoker video

In this case, fruity woods and sweet nut woods are the top choices.

Then, there are those who like the classic strong wood flavors like mesquite and hickory for their game meat. It depends on how you smoke food, but some game meat just tastes better with an intense smoke wood flavor.

The smoking process for wild game is a bit different from smoking most meats like pork chops, for example.

Venison, wild turkey, elk, deer, wild boar, and other game meat is leaner than your usual domestic meat. As a result, you have to take a different approach to the smoking process as well as the woods for flavoring the meat.

Alder

  • Intensity: mild
  • Flavors: natural smoke aroma, lightly sweet

Alder is mild hardwood and it’s one of the all-time favorites for many pitmasters. It’s not the kind of wood that imparts a bold, intense flavor, but it gives a very pleasant-flavored natural wood smoke aroma to your meat.

While alder is popular for smoking salmon and other fish, it’s actually a great wood for smoking wild game, especially birds and fowl. It’s also one of the best woods for cold smoking and smoking venison.

The wood’s flavor is best described as mild, subtle, and delicate. It also imparts the meat with a slightly sweet flavor.

Alder wood imparts a neutral color to the outer skin of the meat but the great thing is that it doesn’t leave a bitter flavor at all. It’s just a natural light smoke aroma.

Overall, this is a great wood for smoking red meat and white meat because it doesn’t overpower the taste of game.

You can get the Oaklahoma Joe apple wood chips which are cheap and high quality on Amazon.

Hickory

  • Intensity: medium
  • Flavors: strong, nutty, smokey, bacon-like

Hickory is considered by many the best wood for smoking game meat. Its popularity in the USA is no secret and it’s one of the best medium flavored woods.

This wood is very smoky and bacony but it’s also versatile for all of the game meats. You can use it to smoke any animal from alligator, to bear, to elk, deer, and even quail.

But, my favorite meat to smoke with hickory by far is venison.

It’s ideal for flavoring venison sausages, steaks, venison backstrap and shoulder because it doesn’t leave any unpleasant taste and adds the perfect amount of bacony smokiness.

Hickory tends to soften the strong gamey smell and flavor so it’s a good way to enhance the taste.

When using hickory wood for smoking meat, you’ll add a rich, slightly nutty BBQ flavor, and combined with the venison’s savory taste, it’s a dream combo.

The Weber hickory wood chunks burn very well.

Considering a Weber grill or smoker? Find my review of the Weber Smokey Mountain grill here

Mesquite

  • Intensity: strong
  • Flavors: strong smokiness, earthy, savory

Mesquite is another popular smoking wood for wild game. It’s used to smoke all kinds of dark and red meats in Texas-style BBQ. Mesquite wood is very popular when smoking bear, deer, and elk.

Whether you use wood pellets, wood chips, or wood chunks, the flavor will be intense and can overpower the strong gamey taste of the meat.

If you’re not into strong gamey flavors, mesquite can cover it up with a smokiness.

If you cover up venison in some aluminum foil or butcher’s paper, you can maintain all that savory richness of venison or other wild game and give it a medium mesquite earthiness and smokiness.

Msequite burns slowly but creates a lot of heat and it’s great for cooking the larger game cuts like wild boar, elk, etc.

When smoking with mesquite wood, you want to smoke using a real smoker, not the grill. After all, low and slow smoking requires indirect heat, not direct heat which can overpower most meats with too much smokiness.

You can find good Camerons Products mesquite chips which are kiln-dried.

Oak

  • Intensity: medium to strong
  • Flavors: bold, well-rounded, and slightly earthy

The two most popular oak varieties include white oak and red oak wood. These give game a bold earthy flavor which is a bit milder than mesquite but very rich.

It’s best described as a well-rounded flavor that balances out the gamey taste.

Oakwood smoke is very balanced and offers a natural smoky flavor. It doesn’t have any hints of other flavors like most smoking wood. For example, there is no sweetness, nuttiness, or savoriness with oak.

Thus, oak is a good blending wood for smoking meat of all kinds.

The oak wood is very dense and holds in lots of moisture. This makes it more suitable for hot smoking venison and other game as opposed to cold smoking.

Generally, oak is a staple BBQ wood for all kinds of smoked meat from pork, to poultry, to various game meats.

It works well as a blending wood too with fruit woods like cherry and apple because it makes the smoke flavor slightly sweet but lets the game’s natural aromas come through. It’s like letting the natural meat flavors dominate but with a hint of that classic southern-style BBQ taste.

I recommend using Cameron’s oak wood chips for venison that’s been seasoned with lots of dry rub.

I’ve reviewed the absolute best BBQ dry rubs here

Northwest blend

  • Intensity: medium towards mild
  • Flavors: sweet, fruity, natural smokiness

The Northwest blend is a smoke wood mixture from the brand Wildwood Grilling made of trees from the Northwest region of the USA.

It is essentially a blend of three popular USA woods: maple, cherry, and alder. So, you can just get any wood chips from any brand and make your own blend.

Alder gives that light woody smoke flavor, maple has a sweet flavor that is especially good for game birds, and cherry gives a fruity smoke flavor and a reddish color to the meat.

You can use this blend for elk, deer, and turkey for an exceptionally tasty meat flavor.

Many wild game smokers recommend this wood blend because gives a mild smoky flavor with a hint of fruitiness and sweetness.

It doesn’t overpower wild game meat flavor, so it complements this type of meat and other red meats.

Pecan

  • Intensity: medium
  • Flavors: sweet, nutty

If you like nutty flavors, you’ll love the amazing nutty and sweet smoke profile of pecan wood.

Pecan is a popular smoking wood because it has a very unique nutty taste. Although it’s mellow and medium-strength, it’s usually used for smoking all kinds of meat. When it comes to game, it works well with venison.

It gives the venison a sweet, nutty, aroma. Pecan-smoked venison sausage or shoulder is one of the best cuts to try. When smoked with pecan wood, the taste is well-rounded and balanced.

You can blend pecan with the stronger woods to tone down the smokiness and make it sweeter.

What I like about pecan wood chips most is that they’re super versatile for smoking meat. You can use it for wild turkey, deer, elk, antelope and more but you can actually build up more flavor layers so it’s not just smokiness.

Weber’s pecan wood chips are the most affordable option since this wood can be pricey.

Apple

  • Intensity: mild
  • Flavors: subtle, sweet, fruity

Applewood is usually associated with smoking domestic meat like beef, pork, chicken, and fish.

However, it’s a great option for your smoker when smoking wild game because it gives a pleasantly sweet and fruity flavor to the otherwise strong meaty taste.

This wood burns hot and generates quite a good amount of smoke.

Apple is ideal for smoking wildfowl and game birds like wild turkey, grouse, and quail. It gives the lean white meat a delicate and subtle fruity aroma. But, you can also use it for bear meat to improve the taste.

For those who don’t like the taste of strong woods like mesquite and hickory, apple gives the best naturally sweet smoke.

Apple is the perfect pair for venison because it balances the strong savoriness with some fruity tang.

You can also use apple as a blending wood to cook all kinds of game birds and large game meat. It should be blended 50/50 with a strong wood like mesquite, hickory, or oak.

Apple is an affordable smoke wood and you can get Oklahoma Joe’s 2 pound bag for cheap.

Cherry

  • Intensity: mild to medium
  • Flavors: sweet, fruity

Cherry is the second most sought-after fruit wood for smoking game. That’s because it pairs with almost any type of domestic or wild meat.

It’s usually used to smoke grouse, turkey, quail, and pheasant.

You can use cherry wood when you want to darken or blacken the skin of poultry, game birds like quail, and waterfowl. It will make the skin darker and more appetizing. It also creates a nice smoke ring which is what many pitmasters want.

Cherry has a very tasty pleasant smoke aroma which is a combination of sweet and fruity. It’s great for those who don’t like strong smoking woods. Since it produces a steady smoke, it’s suitable for shorter and longer smokes too.

Also, cherry is a good mixing wood with other fruit woods like apple or peach which will reduce the amount of darkness it adds to the meat.

Additionally, you can mix it with strong woods like hickory and mesquite to mask the strong gamey flavor of the meat.

Get cherry wood chips Amazon.

Blackberry

  • Intensity: mild
  • Flavors: fruity, sweet, with a light smokiness

Many people don’t know how great blackberry wood is. That’s probably because it’s a bit hard to get your hands on it.

If you have blackberry bushes you can use the wood to grill and smoke amazing chicken and other poultry as well as small game birds.

In fact, blackberry is one of the best woods of all time for smoking wild game birds, especially small game birds like grouse, quail, pheasant, and partridge.

The flavor from this smoke is mild and delicate but very fruity and sweet. It’s a bit too delicate for large game meats, but for birds, it’s one of the best.

Also check out the top 8 best BBQ sauces for the perfect finish and flavor

What woods to avoid when smoking game

First, you want to avoid the softwoods like pine, cedar, fir, spruce, and other conifers and resinous trees. These are toxic if you use them to cook or smoke food.

Also, you should never use greenwood and stick to seasoned woods only.

Finally, avoid any treated wood as the chemicals that burn off can make you ill.

Now, the thing is that game, and venison specifically isn’t very hard meat to smoke. They pair well with almost any type of wood but it comes down to the tastes and preferences of the person eating it.

Some people like it sweet, some earthy, so it’s up to you which woods you use.

I don’t recommend woods like pimento unless you’re smoking Jamaican-style jerk foods. It has a strong flavor that resembles spices and black pepper but with the game, it’s an odd combo.

Tips for smoked wild game and venison

The most popular smoked wild game includes venison, elk, bear, grouse, turkey, and waterfowl.

But now that you know which woods you can use, it’s time to find out some more handy tips on smoking to ensure the highest quality smoke.

Wild game is lean but dry and when you smoke it, it becomes even drier. If you smoke jerky, you can make it super tasty and flavorful by using a strong wood like mesquite.

Also, when smoking any game, ensure that you open up the smoker only if absolutely necessary. You don’t want the smoke and heat to escape because this can mess up the flavor intensity.

Many people love the taste of sweet and fruity flavors on smoked game but if you want to go the traditional route and smoke like back in the day, you should use strong woods.

Venison, for example, is just too good with hickory to pass up. If you like sweetness though you can mix in some applewood.

In Western parts of the USA, people are more likely to use mesquite whereas east of the Mississippi, you’ll notice people prefer hickory. Both are rich, earthy woods and go well with all game meats.

If you struggle with giving the game meat a distinct flavor, I recommend the strong woods which can penetrate the connective tissue in the meat.

How long do you smoke game meat?

Since game meat is lean, you don’t need to smoke for very long, but still, the low and slow method is the best.

For venison, you smoke at low temperatures between 175 – 200 F. Put a meat thermometer in the thickest section of the venison to check the meat’s internal temperature.

You need to smoke for approximately 2 to 5 hours, depending on the cut and size.

The internal temperature must hit at least 120 F but not higher than 140 F.

For wild birds and waterfowl, you want to smoke for 3.5 to 4 hours on average until the meat reaches a temp of 165 F inside.

Meat, like elk has to cook for about 4 to 5 hours until it reaches the internal temp of 130 F.

Takeaway

Wild game is lean but strong-flavored meat and it goes well with many kinds of wood, both strong and mild.

While some people prefer to pair game with strong smokey woods like mesquite, oak, and hickory for an intense BBQ, others like to taste the nuances of the meat so they pair it with nutty woods like maple and pecan or light fruity woods like apple and cherry.

It all comes down to what you have available but also what kind of marinade or dry rub you use. This can impact the flavor when mixed with smoking woods.

Don’t be afraid to experiment and try blending woods for unique flavors.

Find the ultimate smoking wood chart 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.