Hickory: great smoking wood when used the right way

by Joost Nusselder | Last Updated:  August 15, 2022

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Do you ever wonder why your smoked meat tastes smoky, sweet, or bitter?

That’s not actually because of your meat preparation or whatever special seasonings you’re using. Sometimes it’s what type of wood you use.

Hickory- a great wood for smoking when used the right way

If you haven’t smoked with hickory wood before, stop right there! There are still several things you should know about this wood that might save your smoked meat.

Can you smoke with hickory wood?

Yes, hickory wood is a great type of wood to use for smoking because it imparts a strong, robust flavor to the meat.

You can also use hickory for other purposes, like grilling or barbecuing.

However, hickory wood should be used sparingly because your meat could taste bitter if it’s used in large quantities.

When smoking with hickory wood, it’s best to use small pieces or chips so that the flavor is not too overwhelming.

Of all the cooking woods, hickory imparts the most robust smokey taste to the meat. It also works great when smoking beef and pork slowly.

But it could result in a strong flavor that can be overwhelming if used too much, so be mindful with your hickory wood.

When used correctly, hickory can make for some delicious smoked meats!

What is hickory wood?

Hickory wood is a type of hardwood that comes from hickory trees, comprising the genus Carya (“nut”).

The genus includes 17–19 species of deciduous trees with pinnately compound leaves and big nuts.

Five or six species are native to China, Indochina, and India (State of Assam), as many as twelve are native to the United States, four are found in Mexico, and two to four are native to Canada.

A number of hickory species are used for products like edible nuts or wood.

Hickory flowers are small, yellow-green catkins produced in spring. They are wind-pollinated and self-incompatible.

Hickory is common in the eastern United States and the wood is often used in smoked meats. Smoking with hickory wood can impart a strong flavor to your meat.

Hickory smoke has a reputation for being both sweet and smoky, with a slightly bitter aftertaste.

If you’re smoking for the first time, or if you’re trying a new wood, it’s always best to start with a small amount.

You can always add more if you want a stronger flavor.

Learn more about which foods go best with which woods when smoking in my smoking wood chart

What does hickory mean?

The word “hickory” comes from a Native American word in an Algonquian language (likely Powhatan).

it is short for pockerchicory, pocohicora, or a similar word, which may be the name for the hickory tree’s nut, or may be a milky drink made from such nuts.

The tree genus name Carya is from Ancient Greek: κάρυον, káryon, meaning “nut”.

Characteristics of hickory wood

The hickory tree, which belongs to the genus Carya, produces hickory wood.

Twelve of the approximately 19 species of hickory trees are indigenous to the United States. China, India, Mexico, Canada, and the neighboring areas all include additional species.

Hickory trees are considered deciduous, which means that they only lose their leaves once a year in the fall. They will grow new leaves when spring arrives, continuing the cycle.

Like other hardwoods, hickory wood is very simple to light and has a lengthy burn period.

You can quickly light hickory wood to begin smoking your favorite foods by using a fire starter chimney.

Types of hickory wood

Hickory is two-fold in North America. Genuine hickory is overall somewhat denser and stronger compared to its counterpart.

True hickory thrives in the eastern United States. Pecan hickory, the softest of the two hickory species, grows in both the eastern and western United States.

A Janka rating for a plank of wood is used to determine its hardness by measuring its density.

Most North American species are between 900 and 1600 kg/ft. Hickory reaches a Janka hardness range of 1200 to 3200 pounds.

Hickory chips vs. chunks vs. logs

When choosing the right size of wood there are usually three simple choices: chips, chunks, or logs.

Wood chips are discarded wood scraps that ignite quickly but also burn very quickly.

I sometimes use wood chips when smoking smaller cuts of meat (like these cuts that smoke in under 2 hours).

As for myself, I love using hickory chunks when smoking food.

Lighting them takes longer than with wood chips, but the smoldering lasts a lot longer as well.

Use hickory wood chunks to impart a hickory taste to meats grilled on a gas grill, charcoal barbecue, or electric smoker.

Logs are complete pieces of wood, the kind you’d use to make a bonfire or a fireplace.

The best way to cook with these is in a pit or with an offset smoker, it’s called stickburning.

They will burn for a long time, but it is hard to control heat and smoke with logs, so don’t try this as a beginner.

Mixing hickory with lighter woods, such as oak, maple, or pecan wood, is a good idea since too much hickory smoke can give meals a strong taste.

Learn all about the fine art of mixing woods for smoking in my full guide on smoking profiles here

Popular meats to smoke with hickory wood

Almost all red meat and poultry do when with hickory as a smoking wood, as well as larger cuts like whole rib racks.

Smoking whole chickens, turkey, and cuts such as Texas-style beef brisket also work great with hickory.

Pork loin and pork shoulder, as pork and hickory are simply a great combination when smoking.

To give a superb smoky taste to cheeses or nuts, as well as to smoke fish, you can also use hickory.

Here it’s a good idea to mix with lighter woods, so the smoke flavor does not become overwhelming.

Tips for smoking delicious meats using hickory wood

Fire & Flavor Premium All-Natural Hickory Wood Smoking Chunks, Sweet but Hearty, Smoky Flavor for Use with Pork & Ribs, All Meats

Now that you know all about hickory wood and how to use it, here are a few tips to help you smoke delicious meats using this type of wood:

  1. Soak your hickory wood for at least 30 minutes before smoking. This will help to prevent the wood from burning too quickly and imparting a bitter flavor to your meat.
  2. Use light smoke, as too much hickory smoke can make your meat bitter.
  3. Avoid using green hickory wood, as this can impart an unpleasant flavor to your meat.
  4. If you’re smoking for the first time, or if you’re trying a new type of wood, it’s always best to start with a small amount. You can always add more if you want a stronger flavor.
  5. Hickory wood pairs well with almost all types of meat, so feel free to experiment with different cuts and recipes.

Sounds like hickory wood is your new go-to smoking wood?

Go ahead and try using it in smoking your next batch of delicate meats! You might be surprised at the difference in flavor.

Where can you get hickory wood for smoking meat?

You can purchase hickory wood for smoking meat at most grocery stores, as well as online retailers. Hickory wood is also available at many home improvement stores.

But to help you find the best one, check out these All-Natural Hickory Wood Smoking Chunks, Weber Hickory Wood Chunks, or MacLean’s Outdoor Hickory Wood.

Summing up

Smoking with hickory wood can add a delicious smoky flavor to your meat.

Just be sure to follow some of my smoking tips when using hickory wood, and use light smoke to avoid making your meat bitter.

Experiment with different cuts of meat and recipes to find your perfect hickory-smoked meal!

Whether you’re smoking for a big pool party with your friends or even just an ordinary day coupled with some cold beer, using hickory wood is your go-to partner when smoking meat.

Hey, did you know hickory is one of my favorite woods to smoke chili? Here’s why!

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.