Let’s say you want to smoke some brisket low and slow – you have some hickory but your family doesn’t like that bacony, earthy flavor.
So, what can you do?
Well, you can mix in some applewood to add a hint of sweetness and tone down the strong hickory wood flavor.
Some people just prefer the sweet smoke flavor and the best way to achieve that is to add mild sweet woods to your smoker.
Mixing woods when smoking is one of the best ways to infuse the food with amazing flavors.
You can mix smoking wood and for some foods, it’s even recommended in order to create balanced flavors between strong woods and milder fruit or nut woods. You can use one of your favorite smoke woods or you can combine two or more to create flavorful smoke wood blends that best complement your meat.
In this guide, I’ll discuss how to mix woods and what pairings work well.
In this post we'll cover:
What are the benefits of mixing wood for smoking?
Wood for smoking can be classified into three main categories:
- strong or heavy
When deciding what smoking wood to use, you need to think about the flavor of the smoke in relation to the flavor of the meat/food.
Lighter woods pair well with lighter meats like poultry and fish. Heavy woods may be great for game and red meat, but may give a bitter flavor to chicken, goose, turkey, and small game birds.
There are benefits of mixing woods when you want to achieve balanced flavors, or you want to turn a strong wood smoke aroma into a medium or mild smoke flavor for your meat.
Another benefit is that you can cook more flavorful foods and give meat a nice dark color.
For example, you can use apple to smoke chicken and give it a sweet flavor, but then you can mix in a handful of cherry wood chips to give the chicken a nice dark smoke color.
Since there are so many wood types you can use for smoking meat, you can experiment and see which combinations offer the tastiest results.
How to pair smoking woods for flavor
Light hardwoods and fruitwoods are suitable for smoking most meats and foods. However, strong woods are usually reserved for steaks, brisket, big game meat.
But, here’s a brief explanation of what smoke woods are good for:
When smoking pork, poultry, fish, seafood, and even vegetables, the best woods are milder ones like alder (which is quite universal and goes with everything) or fruitwood like apple and cherry.
Of course, there are many types of fruitwood and these all have mild smoke profiles.
Some woods like red oak, pecan, and maple are pretty versatile and although they have different flavors, they create a mild to medium smoke profile that works with many types of meat and foods.
When smoking red meat like beef and other dense red meats and wild game meat, you’re better off using a strong wood with heavy smoke. The best wood for red meat is something like mesquite, hickory, and walnut.
The most common instance when you want to mix woods is if you’re smoking with a strong wood like hickory and mesquite.
These bold, earthy woods create an intense smoky flavor so it might be too strong for certain meats. If you don’t like that strong southern BBQ flavors, you might want to mix in some lighter woods with a mild smoke profile.
Woods like alder, pecan, maple, and fruit woods like apple, cherry, peach are all great options that add a sweet, fruity flavor. These woods all complement stronger woods and make them milder.
Poultry, ribs, and fish are all tastier when smoked with a mild wood or a combination of the lighter and strong wood.
What are the best wood mixes?
Depending on the type you use, the wood imparts a different flavor to your food. That’s why some woods go well together while some don’t create a pleasant smoke flavor.
For example, if you smoke fish with super-strong wood like mesquite, it can make the meat taste bitter. You can, however, use fruitwood and mix fruit woods depending on how sweet or fruity you want the taste to be.
Let’s take a look at the most common woods for smoking and why they pair well together.
First let’s start with the most popular fruitwood: applewood.
- Apple + cherry wood is the ultimate fruity mix. The cherry apple mix is probably the best fruity and sweet combo for poultry – if you love smoked chicken, you’ll love this.
- Apple wood + oak wood is a milder blend
- Apple + hickory wood creates a strong bacony flavor with a hint of sweetness. It works really well for all types of red meat.
- Apple + mesquite wood is a good way to tone done the heavy earthy taste of the mesquite smoke
I like to use mixed wood chips in my smoke box. Add 2/3 apple and 1/3 hickory for ribs. It makes them taste bacony but with a hint of delicate sweetness.
Then, the next best thing is cherry wood because it gives the meat a nice dark reddish color. When smoking meat, especially chicken or other poultry, expect a deep reddish color.
The only way to diminish the color intensity is to blend cherry wood with a mild apple.
- Cherry + maple wood is a great sweet and nutty combination
- Cherry + oak wood is a great blend for beef and lamb but also for all kinds of pork cuts.
Oak gives a rather neutral smoke flavor.
- Oak + hickory wood is a strong combination for those who love real southern-style BBQ. Two parts oak and one part hickory is one of the best proportions if you went a medium strong blend. It will taste like Texas barbecue without overpowering the natural meat aromas though.
- Oak + pecan wood is a delicate blend and the flavors are fairly similar
- For an all around blend that works for most meats, try combining oak with apple and hickory.
Pecan wood is one of the best mixing woods and although it creates more smoke than milder woods, it gives the meat a unique flavor once mixed with others.
- It is best for poultry and pork but for the ultimate wood mix for pork or ham, try mixing pecan with any citrus wood, like lemon or orange.
- Pecan and mesquite is an excellent pairing if you prefer a strong flavor for your food.
Unless you love intense BBQ smoky flavors that can sometimes be too overpowering, I recommend mixing mesquite wood with other woods.
However, add only a bit of mesquite when mixing with light fruit woods because it can overpower the mild woods if you add too much of this intense wood.
- Mesquite blended with pecan, oak or hickory is an excellent “authentic southern BBQ” flavor for meats like pork butts, brisket, wild game, duck, and lamb or goat.
- If you prefer lighter options, mesquite, with its earthy flavor pairs well with sweet cherry or apple. If you’re using wood chunks, you can blend 2 apple chunks with 1 mesquite chunk.
The types of wood I just mentioned are the best woods to mix together. Surely, you can mix wood any way you like but these are tried and tested and many pitmasters recommend them.
What are the proportions of strong/light wood when mixing?
Regardless of your meat smoking techniques, you’ll either use wood chunks, wood chips, or flavored wood pellets.
So, there’s a general guiding rule when it comes to pairing wood for smoking.
Usually, you combine 1/3 strong wood which has a strong flavor with 2/3 mild kinds of wood that have a mild flavor.
The thing to keep in mind though is that in order to avoid bitter flavor with your smoking session, it’s best to use less smoke wood because you don’t want too much smoke to overpower your meat’s natural flavors.
After all, when you smoke meat, the meat should be the star of the show, not so much the wood you use.
What woods are only suitable for mixing?
Most meats are suitable for use on their own. But, there is one wood that produces lots of bitter smoke and imparts food with an unpleasant bitter taste.
I’m referring to walnut wood. Black walnut is notoriously hard to smoke with.
The only thing that matters when you smoke with walnut is that you need to mix it with another wood, preferably a light fruitwood or something like alder which is delicate.
The reason why walnut is only used as a mixing wood is that it imparts meat with a powerful bitter aroma and it tastes pretty bad!
So, you can use it for red meats like beef and pork, as well as wild game. Avoid using it as a blend for light white meat like chicken or fish and seafood.
To repeat what pitmaster Meathead Goldwyn says, the type of smoke wood isn’t as important for flavor as the climate in which the tree grew. You can mix woods without worrying too much about perfect pairings.
Chances are you’ll still get amazing flavor as long as you don’t overdo it which can cause types like mesquite wood to make red meats and poultry bitter.
So, don’t be afraid to blend fruit woods to create sweet flavor, or to mix woods from any of the three categories of flavor intensity.
You can just use one single wood or blend 2 or more together for truly unique flavorful BBQ whether you’re grilling, hot smoking, or cold smoking.