Smoking wood chart | Ultimate guide to the wood you should use

by Joost Nusselder | Last Updated:  July 1, 2022

Always the latest smoking tips & tricks?

Subscribe to THE ESSENTIAL newsletter for aspiring pitmasters

We'll only use your email address for our newsletter and respect your privacy

I love creating free content full of tips for my readers, you. I don't accept paid sponsorships, my opinion is my own, but if you find my recommendations helpful and you end up buying something you like through one of my links, I could earn a commission at no extra cost to you. Learn more

When it comes to smoking food, it’s all about the type of wood you use. The wood’s flavor profile will impact the food, so it’s important to choose wisely.

The best wood for smoking will depend on the type of food you’re smoking. For example, mesquite is great for beef, while hickory works well with pork.

It also depends on how much smoke flavor you want. Some smoking wood is very strong (like mesquite) and can overpower the food.

The wood you choose should complement the food, not mask it.

Best wood for smoking

Wood can be divided into categories ranging from mild to strong, which makes it important to match it to the type of food or else it won’t taste very good.

So whether you use wood chunks or wood chips as your smoking wood, it’s important to choose a delicious wood to add smoke flavor.

Here is a guide to the different woods available for smoking, and what flavors they impart:

Wood flavor chart

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

The wood flavor chart explains the different flavors imparted by each type of wood and what foods to use them on.

This way you can get the perfect smoky flavor for your food each time!

Smoking wood chart | Ultimate guide to the wood you should use

Best wood for smoking beef: hickory

The best wood for smoking beef is hickory. It has a strong and intense flavor that can stand up to the bold flavors of beef.

The smoke flavor of hickory is best described as strong, intense, bacony and earthy. It’s perfect for smoking all types of beef, from ribs to brisket and burnt ends.

Hickory gives the kind of smoky flavor associated with traditional barbecue. Southern-style BBQ is typically smoked with hickory wood.

If you’re looking for a strong and intense flavor, then hickory is the best smoking wood and it ‘s perfect for all types of beef.

Oak is the next best option because it has a similar flavor profile to hickory. Oak wood chips will also give you a similar earthy taste.

Best wood for smoking pork: fruit wood (apple, cherry)

For pork, the best woods are apple, cherry, pecan, or maple. These woods will give the pork a sweet and mild flavor that is perfect for pulled pork, pork chops, and pork roast.

The smoke flavor of these woods is best described as sweet, mild, and fruity. They’re perfect for smoking all types of pork.

Pork shoulder, for example, is often smoked with apple or cherry wood. This gives the pork a sweet and mild flavor that is perfect for pulled pork sandwiches.

That’s not to say that hickory and oak aren’t delicious options too. They’ll just give the pork a more intense flavor.

So, if you’re looking for a sweet and mild flavor for your pork, then the fruit woods are the best.

Best wood for smoking poultry: fruit wood & nut wood (apple, pecan)

If you’re smoking turkey or chicken, the best woods to use are apple, cherry, pecan, or hickory.

Fruit woods and nut woods are mild-flavored and will give the poultry a delicate smoke flavor. The fruit woods will also make the skin of the poultry crispy and golden brown.

The smoke flavor of these woods is best described as mild, sweet, and fruity. They’re perfect for smoking all types of poultry.

Pecan and other nut woods are slightly sweet with a nutty taste which brings out the other natural aromas of the bird.

So, if you want the perfect fail-proof smoking wood for poultry, then go with apple, cherry, or pecan.

Hickory is another option if you want to produce smoke that is more intense and gives a savory, earthy, and bacony taste to the poultry. It works on turkey since it has a fairly robust flavor.

Best wood for smoking game & venison: mesquite

Mesquite is the best wood for smoking game and venison. It has a strong flavor that can stand up to the bold flavors of these meats.

The smoke flavor of mesquite is best described as intense, earthy, and slightly sweet. It’s perfect for smoking all types of game like deer, elk, and wild boar.

Mesquite is also the perfect wood for smoking bison since it can handle the bold flavor of the meat.

So, if you’re looking for a strong and intense flavor, then mesquite wood chunks or wood chips are the number one choice!

Best wood for smoking fish: alder

Alder is hands-down the best wood for smoking fish.

When smoking salmon, trout, or other fish, the best woods to use are alder, apple, or cherry.

Alder wood flavors are best described as lightly smoky and neutral. This type of smoking wood doesn’t impart a lot of flavor to the fish, so it lets the natural taste of the seafood shine through.

The light smoke flavor is just enough to enhance the taste of the seafood.

But you can use a cedar wood plank for smoking salmon, however, that’s a wooden plank, don’t use wood chips.

Best wood for smoking shellfish: apple or hickory

When it comes to smoking wood for shellfish, there are two suitable options: either mild fruit woods like apple, or strong hardwoods like hickory.

The mild fruit woods will impart a delicate and sweet flavor to the shellfish. The strong hardwoods, on the other hand, will give the shellfish a more intense flavor.

So, if you want to smoke shrimp or oysters the best wood chips to use are apple and cherry because they provide a delicate sweet flavor that lets the natural strong seafood flavors shine through.

But, if you smoke lobster tails or crabs, you might want to use a stronger wood like hickory that will give the seafood a more intense flavor.

Best wood for smoking vegetables: maple

One of the top smoking wood types for all kinds of vegetables is maple.

This is a great choice for smoking vegetables because it has a mild and sweet flavor.

The smoke flavor is best described as being slightly sweet with a touch of maple syrup aroma. It brings out the earthy aromas of the veggies.

Since it’s sweet, this smoking wood gives a pleasant flavor to all kinds of vegetables. You can use it to smoke onions, peppers, tomatoes, or any other type of vegetable.

If you want a strong smoky flavor for corn, for example, you can use hickory or mesquite, but in smaller quantities.

The third option is to use fruit wood chips which give the vegetables a mild sweet and aromatic flavor.

Apple, apricot, and cherry are all fine options and will work great with vegetables.

Best wood for smoking cheese: cherry & apple

Fruit woods are mild but so sweet and flavorful, thus they’re perfect for smoking all kinds of cheese, especially softer cheese.

Cherry wood has sweet and slightly floral flavor that goes well with all types of cheese, especially brie and camembert.

It also adds a slight mahogany tint to the cheese which adds to its smoky appeal.

Apple wood is another great choice for smoking cheese because it has a delicate sweetness and fruity flavor. The smoke aromas of apple wood are also very pleasant.

For hard cheeses, you can use a stronger smoking wood like hickory. It gives an earthy and bacony taste to the cheese.

So, if you’re looking for a smoking wood that imparts a mild and sweet flavor to the cheese, then go with a light fruit wood like cherry wood or apple.

Learn how to easily cold smoke cheese here (and which cheese to use)

Best wood for smoking sausages: oak

Oak has the traditional smokiness people are used to. It’s a great choice for smoking all kinds of sausages because it imparts a robust flavor.

The smoke flavor of oak is best described as being hearty, rich, and full-bodied. It’s perfect for smoking beef, pork, or lamb sausages.

If you like the earthy, savory, and southern-style BBQ flavors, oak wood chips should be used to smoke sausages like Italian sausage, kielbasa, or bratwurst.

Best wood for smoking salt: hickory

Hickory is the best wood for smoking salt because it has a strong and distinct flavor. The smoke flavor of hickory is described as being earthy, woody, and bacon-like.

It’s perfect for smoking all types of salt like kosher salt, Himalayan pink salt, and sea salt.

The hickory smoke also adds a nice flavor to the salt which makes it perfect for use in rubs and seasoning.

Best woods for smoking & their flavors

In this guide, I’m sharing the most common smoking wood flavors you need to know about so you can add smoke flavor to meat, fish, cheese, and vegetables.

What type of wood you use will depend on how strong the smoke of particular wood is and how it impacts the food.

As I’ve already mentioned above, wood can be divided into different categories.

I’ll start with mild wood types, which means all kinds of fruit trees such as peach, apple, pear, cherry, etc. These are delicate trees that add sweetness to your food and a mild smoke flavor.

This type of wood works great with lighter meats such as poultry or fish, but also with pork as well.

Next at your disposal are woods that are actually slightly stronger known as medium smoke woods.

In the middle of the “table” are such trees as maple, hickory, pecan or oak. These are very popular trees used to smoke pork, game meat or beef.

Out of all of them, without a doubt, the most popular ones are hickory and oak.

Right at the end are very strong woods such as mesquite or walnut, which is not advised for inexperienced cooks.

The smoke from this wood is so strong that it really doesn’t take a lot to overdo it with the smoking, which will give the food an awful taste.

So, when using mesquite and even hickory can produce a strong smoke flavor.

This issue actually applies to all types of trees.

One of the biggest mistakes in smoking is lack of moderation, which means smoking for too long, giving the food an overly intense flavor (usually it doesn’t taste good).

Once you have a little more experience, you can go ahead and mix the types of wood, achieving a slightly different flavor or utilizing other characteristics of a particular type of wood.

Some of them give the meat a mahogany color while others are mostly known for their light, sweet flavor – combining both characteristics allows to achieve a unique flavor.

I’d like to remind, though, that blending wood and using wood of strong smoke is not among the simplest tasks and that is why I would advise beginners to avoid such actions.

One could go ahead and say that the best cooks use wood like spices. So to get great smoke flavor, you need to know how to choose the right wood based on a wood flavor chart.

Here are the best wood chip or wood chunk flavors to use for smoking:

Mesquite

  • strong
  • bold, smoky, earthy

Mesquite is a popular smoking wood, especially in Texas barbecue. It has a strong, robust flavor that many enjoy.

When people want a strong smoky flavor that penetrates the meat, they often turn to mesquite.

Mesquite is a very dense wood, so it burns slowly and evenly. This makes it great for long cooks where you don’t want to have to keep adding more wood.

It is characterized by a very intense flavor which is why I would advise against using it if you’re a beginner.

The flavor is best described as earthy with a strong smokey aroma.

It is very easy to overdo it with smoking which will result in a very bitter flavor of food and an intense, negative scent.

Its benefits can be utilized when one has adequate knowledge, it is good for short cooking.

Goes best with: most red meats, dark meats, game

Hickory

  • medium to strong
  • bacony, earthy

Hickory is another very popular smoking wood and it’s easy to see why. It has a deep, rich flavor that is perfect for smoking pork shoulders and ribs.

Hickory is a bit sweeter than mesquite, but it still has that intense flavor, which is described as bacon-like. It is a bit savory, slightly sweet, and very smoky.

Hickory is a bit easier to use than mesquite because it’s not quite as intense. However, it’s still easy to overdo it, so use it sparingly.

Goes best with: pork, ham, bacon

Oak

  • medium to strong
  • woodsy, earthy, savory, slightly sweet

Oak is a very popular smoking wood because it’s very versatile. It can be used for a variety of meats and it has a mild to medium distinct flavor.

The taste is best described as earthy, woodsy, and slightly sweet. It’s a bit less intense than mesquite or hickory, making it perfect for smoking chicken or fish.

But it’s the kind of wood that pitmasters use to smoke all kinds of meat, including, beef, pork, poultry, game, and seafood.

Goes best with: pretty much all types of meats including brisket or even sausages.

Maple

  • mild to medium
  • sweet

Maple is a milder smoking wood that imparts a subtle sweetness to food. It’s a popular choice for smoking ham and bacon.

The flavor is best described as sweet and smoky with a hint of maple syrup. It’s a bit less intense than hickory or mesquite, making it perfect for smoking poultry or fish.

Since maple wood is mild, it doesn’t overpower the food’s flavors.

Goes best with: ham, bacon, poultry, fish

Alder

mild
neutral, slightly sweet

Alder is a very popular smoking wood in the Pacific Northwest. It has a mild flavor that is best described as neutral.

It has a light, delicate flavor profile that adds sweetness to food which makes it go best with light food such as fish.

While it’s commonly used to smoke all kinds of fish, it’s also great for poultry, pork, and beef.

Alder is a very light smoking wood, so it doesn’t add much flavor to food.

Goes best with: fish, poultry, pork, beef

Cherry

  • mild
  • sweet, slightly floral, fruity

Cherry is a milder smoking wood and one of the tastiest fruit woods. It has a sweet and fruity flavor that is perfect for smoking pork, poultry, and beef. It also has a hint of floral notes.

The flavor is best described as sweet, fruity, and slightly tart. It’s a bit less intense than hickory or mesquite, making it perfect for smoking poultry or fish.

Cherry wood is also one of the prettiest smoking woods, so it’s perfect for smoking meats that will be served whole, like smoked ham or turkey. It gives the food a dark red color.

Goes best with: pork, poultry, beef, ham, turkey

Apple

  • mild
  • sweet, fruity, fresh

Apple wood is another fruit wood that imparts a sweet and fruity flavor to food. It’s a popular choice for smoking pork, poultry, and beef.

Fruit trees like apple, pear, and plum are great for smoking because they add sweetness to the meat but don’t alter the food’s flavor too much.

The flavor is best described as sweet, fruity, and mildly tart. It’s the perfect wood if you like a bit of sweetness in your smoked meats.

Most beginners use apple wood when smoking meat and other foods because it’s a safe choice and it has such a pleasant mild smoke flavor.

Goes best with: pork, poultry, beef

Apricot & peach

  • mild
  • very sweet, fruity

Apricot and peach are two other fruit woods that add a sweet and fruity flavor to food. They’re both great choices for smoking pork, poultry, and beef.

The flavor of these woods is best described as sweet and fruity. They’re perfect for smoking all types of foods if you like your smoke sweeter.

Goes best with: pork, poultry, beef

Pecan

  • mild to medium
  • nutty, slightly earthy

Pecan is a very popular smoking wood in the south. It has a mild and nutty flavor that is perfect for smoking pork, poultry, and beef.

The flavor is best described as nutty and slightly sweet. It’s a bit less intense than hickory or mesquite, making it perfect for smoking poultry or fish.

Pecan wood is also one of the most versatile smoking woods, so it can be used for a variety of meats.

Goes best with: pork, poultry, beef, ham, turkey

Citrus trees (like orange and lemon)

  • mild
  • zesty, sweet, delicate

All woods of this type give a similar light and sweet fruity flavor with a refreshing zesty tartiness.

Citrus woods are best used with poultry, pork, and fish. They can also be used to add a light fruity flavor to beef.

The flavor is best described as light, sweet, and fruity but slightly tart.

Goes best with: fish, poultry and pork

Grapevine

  • mild
  • fruity, slightly sweet

Grapevine is a very popular smoking wood in wine country. It has a mild and fruity flavor that is perfect for smoking pork, poultry, and beef.

The flavor is best described as fruity and slightly sweet. It’s a bit less intense than hickory or mesquite and gives the food an interesting purple hue.

Grapevine is also one of the most unique smoking woods, so it can be used for a variety of meats.

Goes best with: pork, poultry, beef, ham, turkey

Mulberry

  • mild
  • sweet, fruity

A delicate wood with a flavor reminiscent of the apple. It goes well with light food, although it can actually be used with all types of meat.

Mulberry wood is best used with poultry, pork, and fish. It can also be used to add a light fruity flavor to beef.

The flavor is best described as light, sweet, and fruity.

Goes best with: fish, poultry, and pork

Pear

  • mild
  • sweet, fruity

Pear wood is another fruit wood that imparts a sweet and fruity flavor to food. It’s a popular choice for smoking pork, poultry, and beef.

The flavor is best described as sweet, fruity, and mildly tart. It’s the perfect wood if you like a bit of smokiness but aren’t keen on strong Texas-style flavors.

Pear wood smokes food very evenly, so it’s perfect for smoking all types of meats.

Goes best with: pork, poultry, beef, ham, turkey and chicken

Does smoking wood matter?

There are many smoke flavors that you can add to your food, and the type of wood you use will contribute to the flavor.

If you’re looking for a specific flavor, then you’ll want to choose the right wood.

For example, if you want an intense smoky flavor, then you’ll want to use a strong wood like hickory or mesquite.

If you want a sweet flavor, then you’ll want to use a fruit wood like cherry or apple.

And if you want a light and refreshing flavor, then you’ll want to use a citrus wood.

If you’re smoking fish, for example, you can use just about any type of mild wood.

But if you’re smoking a beef brisket, then you’ll want to use a strong wood like hickory which gives a tasteable bacony and earthy flavor.

A mild smoke flavor means using a wood with low tannins like fruit woods or nut woods. A strong smoke flavor means using a wood with high tannins like hickory, mesquite, or oak.

Remember that the type of wood you use will contribute to the flavor of your smoked food.

So, when smoking meat and other foods, the best wood for smoking depends on the type of flavor you’re looking for.

After all, too much smoke flavor can ruin your food and make it bitter!

Takeaway

As you’ve seen, this wood flavor guide covers the most popular smoking woods and the flavor each one imparts to your food.

It also helps you pick which wood flavors go best with which types of foods.

The different smoke flavor profiles allow you to customize your smoking experience and create the perfect flavor for any dish.

So, does smoking wood matter? It depends on what you’re looking for.

If you want a smoky flavor, then use a stronger wood like mesquite. If you want a sweet flavor, then use a fruit wood like cherry.

And if you’re looking for a more subtle flavor, then use a milder wood like alder.

Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide which smoking wood chips you want to use. Experiment with different woods and see what you like best.

Next, learn exactly how to use wood chips for smoking like a pro

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.