Softwood for Smoking: Types and Tips for the Best Flavor

by Joost Nusselder | Last Updated:  May 28, 2022

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Softwood is wood from gymnosperm trees such as conifers. Softwood is the source of about 80% of the world’s production of timber, with traditional centres of production being the Baltic region (including Scandinavia and Russia), North America and China. The term is opposed to hardwood, which is the wood from angiosperm trees. Softwoods are not necessarily softer than hardwoods.

Softwood is a great material to use when smoking meat due to its affordability, accessibility, and ability to produce flavorful smoke. However, it can be difficult to determine which types are best for smoking. In this guide, I’ll explore the various types of softwood and identify the top choices for smoking meat.

What is softwood

Softwood: The Burning Category

Softwood is a category of wood that is broadly derived from coniferous trees, also known as gymnosperm trees. These trees are characterized by their needle-like leaves that do not fall off in the fall, unlike deciduous trees. Some examples of softwood trees include pine, juniper, fir, and spruce.

What Softwood Produces When Burned

When softwood is burned, it produces a lot of heat and ash. Softwood is commonly used for smoking because it produces a lot of smoke, which adds flavor to the food being cooked. However, it is important to note that not all softwoods are good for smoking. For example, pine produces a lot of resin, which can give the food a bitter taste.

Softwood vs Hardwood for Smoking

While hardwood is generally preferred for smoking, softwood can be used as well. Maple is a type of softwood that is often used for smoking because it produces a sweet flavor. Juniper and fir are also good options for smoking.

Softwood for Smoking: A Guide to Types and Their Uses

When it comes to smoking meat, the type of wood you use can make all the difference. While hardwood is the go-to choice for most pitmasters, some people prefer the smoky flavor that softwood can offer. But what types of softwood are good for smoking, and how should they be used? Let’s take a closer look.

The Types of Softwood Available

Contrary to popular belief, not all softwood is created equal. Some varieties are better suited for smoking meat than others. Here are a few of the most common types of softwood used for smoking:

  • Pine: This is the most common type of softwood used for smoking. It’s readily available and inexpensive, but it’s also very resinous and can give meat a bitter taste.
  • Cedar: Cedar is a popular choice for smoking salmon, but it can also be used for other types of meat. It has a strong, smoky flavor that pairs well with beef and pork.
  • Maple: Maple is a versatile wood that can be used for smoking a variety of meats. It has a medium smoky flavor that’s not too overpowering.
  • Apple: Apple wood is a favorite among many barbecue enthusiasts. It has a slightly sweet and fruity flavor that pairs well with pork.

Choosing the Right Softwood for Your Meat

When it comes to choosing the right softwood for smoking meat, it all depends on your personal preferences. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Pine is not recommended for smoking meat, as it can ruin the flavor.
  • Cedar is a great choice if you’re looking for a strong, smoky flavor.
  • Maple is a good all-around choice, as it has a medium smoky flavor that’s not too overpowering.
  • Apple is a fan favorite for pork, but it can also be used for beef and other meats.

Using Softwood Chunks for Smoking

If you’re going to use softwood for smoking, it’s important to use it in the right way. Here are a few tips:

  • Softwood chunks should be used in addition to hardwood, not instead of it.
  • Softwood burns faster than hardwood, so it’s important to mix it with hardwood to ensure a longer burn time.
  • Softwood chunks are typically lighter than hardwood, so they may need to be soaked in water before use to prevent them from burning too quickly.
  • Softwood chunks can be used to add an additional layer of flavor to your meat, but be sure to use them appropriately to avoid overpowering the delicate flavors of certain cuts.

Why Softwoods Are Not Ideal for Smoking

Softwoods, such as pine, contain higher moisture and sap content compared to hardwoods like maple. This means that they burn faster and produce more smoke, which can be too smoky for some foods. The excess smoke can also leave a bitter taste on the food.

Faster Burn Rate

Softwoods burn faster than hardwoods, which means they are not ideal for longer cooking times. If you want to smoke meat for a longer period, hardwoods are the better choice as they burn slower and provide a consistent level of smoky character.

Less Sugar Content

Softwoods contain less sugar compared to hardwoods, which means they are not the best material for making a nice drop of maple syrup. The sugar content in hardwoods is the primary reason why they are commonly used for maple syrup production.

Not Ideal for Construction

Softwoods are generally known for their fast growth and are commonly used for construction purposes. However, this does not mean that they are the best choice for smoking food. The safety of the product and the taste of the food should be the primary concern when choosing the type of wood to use.

Overall, Hardwoods Are the Better Choice

While softwoods can be a good alternative for starting a fire, they are not the best choice for smoking food. Hardwoods, on the other hand, provide a consistent level of smoky character without the excess smoke. They also burn longer and contain more sugar, providing a better taste for foods like meat. If you want to get the most out of your smoker, it’s best to stick with hardwoods.

Hardwood vs Softwood for Smoking: The Flavorful Truth

When it comes to cooking with wood, most people turn to hardwoods. Hardwoods come from deciduous trees, which are known for their dense and slow-burning properties. This means that hardwoods produce long-lasting embers that create a consistent heat source for cooking. Some of the most popular hardwoods for smoking and grilling include oak, hickory, maple, and cherry.

Hardwood Trees Offer Better Performance for Smoking

Hardwoods are the main choice for smoking because they contain certain compounds that affect the flavor and performance of the wood. These compounds include lignin, cellulose, and hemicellulose. When burned, these compounds create a sweet and smoky flavor that is pretty hard to beat. Hardwoods also contain a high content of organic carbonyls, which are released as the wood burns and give meat a delicious caramelized flavor.

The Delicious Truth About Hardwood Smoking

In the end, the choice between hardwood and softwood for smoking comes down to personal preference and the desired flavor profile. While softwoods may be safer for cooking, hardwoods offer a better performance and a more delicious flavor. So, next time you’re grilling or smoking, choose a hardwood like hickory or unknowingly believing that you’re smoking with a deliciously sweet softwood like pine.

The Lignin Compound: Why Hardwood is the Ideal Choice for Smoking and Grilling

When it comes to cooking with wood, the lignin compound is a primary consideration. Lignin is a material that provides the structural support for trees and is found in the cell walls of all woods. It contains two basic groups: syringyl and guaiacyl, which work together to provide the strength and rigidity needed for the tree to stand upright.

Why Hardwoods are the Best Choice for Cooking

Hardwoods, such as maple, oak, and fruit trees, contain higher levels of lignin than softwoods, making them the perfect choice for smoking and grilling. The higher lignin content in hardwoods means that they produce hotter fires, which are ideal for cooking foods. Additionally, hardwoods produce twice as many polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) as softwoods, which are known for their great flavoring and antioxidant properties.

The Concerns with Softwoods

While softwoods, such as coniferous trees, may be commonly used for smoking, they are not the best choice. Softwoods have elevated levels of sap and air in their cell makeup, which causes them to burn at cooler temperatures and release unpleasant flavors. Softwoods also contain higher levels of toxic compounds, such as formaldehyde, acetic acid, and other bacterial reduction compounds.

The Benefits of Hardwoods

In contrast, hardwoods are a great choice for smoking and grilling because they:

  • Provide a hotter fire
  • Produce more PAHs, which provide great flavor and antioxidant properties
  • Contain lower levels of toxic compounds
  • Are known for their great flavoring and antioxidant properties

Overall, when it comes to cooking with wood, hardwoods are the clear winner. So, if you want to start smoking and grilling your foods with wood, hardwoods are the perfect choice.


So, softwood is a great choice for smoking meat, especially when you want a lot of smoke. 

You should use softwood chunks instead of chips and use them without soaking to get the most smoke flavor. So, get out there and give it a try!

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.