Different woods come with different smoking flavors that complement different dishes.
A wood that might go well with pork might not be great for beef, and the one that goes well with beef might not be for poultry.
However, there’s one wood that goes great with pretty much everything, and that’s oak!
The poster boy of powerful flavors, oak is one of the boldest, most popular, and most versatile smoking woods. It has a medium to strong flavor, with just the right amount of smokiness to complement any food.
In this article, we will dive relatively deep into the BBQ world and explore everything there is to know about oak.
In this post we'll cover:
What is oak wood?
Oak belongs to the category of hardwoods and is, by far, the most popular wood for smoking.
It belongs to the Genus Quercus of the beech family Fagaceae and has about 500 species around the globe.
It is generally found in cool temperate regions, including Asia, America, and Europe.
As per the available data, the largest number of oak species are found in Mexico, followed by the United and China.
However, let’s not just get too bookish and get back to the good stuff- its role in bbq! So, can we use any of the 500 species of oak for smoking meat?
Well, technically, yes. But be mindful that oak wood is categorically divided into white oak and red oak.
Both of the varieties have completely different uses and flavor strengths.
Where red oak is known as the queen of woods due to its strong smoky flavor, white oak is known for its longevity.
In other words, red oak is your best option if you are more into smoking some quick & easy ribs for your family and friends.
However, if you’re a seasoned chef who is into long cookouts like smoking brisket and stuff, you would like white oak more.
It will give the meat just enough flavor without overpowering its natural taste.
Some pitmasters also like to mix oak with other woods for a more nuanced flavor.
For example, cherry wood is often considered a popular choice as it adds slightly sweet notes to oak’s otherwise strong and bold flavor.
The above-mentioned combination is often ideal for pork and poultry, especially dark and gamey poultry like duck and goose.
It hits the perfect balance between smokiness and fruitiness.
What does oak taste like when smoking?
The flavor of oak wood depends greatly upon the type of oak, its age, and the cooking method you use.
For example, is it white oak or red oak? Is the wood dry enough? Do you soak the wood before burning it?
There’s a ton of things you must get right to ensure you get the most genuine flavors out of oak wood. Or let me rephrase; to get the best out of ANY WOOD!
That being established, oak has a bold flavor that can introduce many different notes to your food. The most prominent note you will notice is, of course, the signature smokiness.
Along with the smokiness, there’s a subtle hint of sweetness, but not so much to feel conspicuously on your tastebuds.
Just enough to add that much-needed complexity to the overall smokiness.
Along with the aforementioned flavors, it also has some subtle spiciness. But again, it’s just a complementary flavor rather than something you will immediately notice.
Generally, you can taste the spiciness on the bark of the meat, where smoke exposure is maximum.
Other than the different flavors, what also makes oak so unique is its penetration ability.
The rich oak smoke literally penetrates the meat rather than just touching the surface, infusing it with maximum flavor.
All in all, it’s one of those woods that goes great with everything, alone or in combination with other woods.
Woods you can combine with oak
Woods like pecan, mesquite, and hickory combine with oak. However, remember that some of these combinations can get quite overwhelming.
How? Well, how about explaining the flavor of each wood separately? That way, you’ll have a better idea of what I’m actually talking about:
Hickory wood is known for its intensely sweet, bacon-like flavor but with a smokiness that makes it super bold.
It’s one of the most overpowering woods in pitmaster’s storage and is generally used for smoking beef, pork, and poultry.
The hickory-oak combination has quite a mixed reputation among pitmasters- they either love it or hate it; there are no “in-betweens.”
Since both kinds of wood are super strong with their general flavor profiles, combining them for longer cookouts could result in way more smokiness than you would generally like.
I prefer using it for simple grilling sessions. However, If I need extra smokiness in my meat cuts, I would combine white oak with hickory instead of red.
As mentioned, white oak is generally milder than red, making it perfect for long cookouts, even with something as strong as hickory.
Bold, earthy, and extremely strong, mesquite is not a flavor for the weak.
In fact, only the taste buds of a seasoned professional can truly appreciate the unique deliciousness it adds to the meat.
But to be used in combination with oak? There’s NOTHING that beats the intensity of flavors it brings.
The combined flavors of both kinds of wood result in a smoky-savory blend with a slight sweetness.
Given that it overpowers the whole flavor of the meat, most people use the combination to eliminate gaminess from game meats or to add some extra kick to beef.
Applewood has more or less the same flavor as cherry wood when combined with oak, except it’s sweeter.
If you’re more into smoking pork, poultry, and fish, this might be one of the best wood combinations you will ever try, period!
Besides cherry, apple is the only wood that perfectly balances oak’s smokiness and is ideal for both long and short cookouts.
Pecan is nutty and aromatic, with some mild and sweet nuances.
Combined with the robust smokiness of oak, all the notes blend into a very well-rounded combination of different flavors.
You get subtle sweetness with strong smokey and nutty flavors in your food.
Pecan and oak are among the best wood combinations for grilling and smoking, and almost everyone likes them.
You can use the combination for smoking pretty much everything, including beef, pork, and poultry.
As we have already established, sweetness, when in moderate amounts, goes great with smokiness.
Luckily, maple has it in the right amount.
While you can combine it with oak for smoking your favorite brisket, it is usually considered the best option for smoking poultry and pork.
It is also a great wood to use when smoking vegetables, though.
What are some of the best things to smoke with oak
As mentioned, oak is one of those woods you can use to smoke anything and expect only greatness.
However, certain things just taste better when infused with oak’s heavy, smoky flavor.
Following are some of those:
If you have smoked pork before, you will know that pork requires a low but consistent heat to cook to perfection and absorb maximum flavor from the smoke.
The sweet smokiness combined with the steady, low heat and a lot of smoke from (white) oak ensures that the pork isn’t overcooked and absorbs maximum flavor throughout the cooking time.
The end results will astonish you. I’m not even exaggerating.
Beef has a very rich flavor. While it tastes great on its own, sometimes that extra kick is just what it needs to take things to the next level.
And that “kick” is what oak provides to it! Although you can smoke almost any cut of meat with oak, the pitmaster’s favorite is brisket.
The generally rich taste and soft texture of brisket combine well with the boldness of oak, developing in a hot chunk of savory, hot, and smoky meat.
A brisket smoked without oak wood is a brisket incomplete.
Generally, all types of poultry go great with oak- both gamey and non-gamey.
The non-game poultry, like chicken, is generally cooked with white oak as it has a delicate flavor that can easily get overpowered by extreme smokiness.
However, as far as game meats are concerned, red oak is considered an ideal choice. There are several reasons for that.
First, it burns at extremely high temperatures, which is necessary since game meats are naturally tough, and require longer cooking times.
Another reason is its intensity of flavor. While some people like that subtle gaminess when eating poultry like duck or goose, too much gaminess (like in quails and pheasants) can be overwhelming.
The intense smokiness of red oak not only balances down that gaminess and eliminates much of it by replacing it with smoky hints.
It penetrates the meat deep inside and brings the much-needed complexity to the otherwise overwhelming gaminess of the meat.
Most seafood, including many fish, has a generally neutral flavor.
While you can enhance it by brushing and marinating it with spices and sauces, nothing quite adds the magic to your food that a little smoke does.
If you’re considering grilling some fish and looking for something that perfectly complements its natural flavors and all the seasonings, oak is your best bet.
It will penetrate the fish meat deeply, filling it with just enough flavor to tantalize your taste buds.
Here are some common vegetables popularly smoked with oak and why:
Eggplant is a naturally creamy and slightly bitter vegetable. However, it’s also one of the most popular vegetables for smoking.
Oak smoke removes the bitterness of the eggplant.
It replaces it with a delicious smokiness that makes eggplant recipes so much better, whether it’s the middle eastern classic like Baba Ghanoush, the classic French Ratatouille, or just a simple sandwich.
If you’re into making sauces and dips with tomato, make sure to smoke it with oak, or any other wood for the purpose, before adding it to the mixture.
Smoking not only brings out the natural sweetness and acidity of the tomato but also infuses it with much-needed smokiness and boldness.
Everything tastes better with some smoke.
Zucchini is for vegetables, as some fishes are for proteins- both are super mild and always need an extra kick for flavoring.
It could have some seasonings or, you got it right, some smoke. Whether serving it as a side dish or in a salad, a little smokiness goes a long way.
When smoked with oak, Bell pepper converts from a grassy and bitter-flavored to a subtle-sweet and smoky-flavored crisp vegetable that tastes better with everything.
You can add it to pizzas, sandwiches, or anything that requires bell pepper.
Other vegetables that are great to smoke with oak include sweet potatoes, corn, carrots, beets, etc.
Mushrooms are also popularly smoked with oak to enhance their generally neutral flavor.
It’s really just a “whatever you like” sort of thing. You can smoke anything with oak if it feels great on your tastebuds.
In conclusion, oak is a fantastic wood for smoking due to its versatility and accessibility.
It offers a mild, smoky flavor that is well-suited for a wide range of meats and vegetables, and its density ensures a consistent burn.
Oak is also readily available in most regions, making it a popular choice among BBQ enthusiasts.
However, it’s essential to use properly seasoned oak to avoid excessive smoke and bitterness in your food.
Overall, if you’re looking for a reliable and flavorful smoking wood, oak is an excellent choice to consider.