The two most important things you can do to add the flavor to the meat you are cooking are:

  1. Use a great wood for that special flavor
  2. Use a great rub, a rub that enhances the flavor of the meat you are cooking, and one that is easy to use

Different woods add a different smoke flavor to the meat you are barbecuing. Experiment with different woods with different meats until you find the right combination for you taste.

 

In the early days of barbecue, the trees that were native to a region had as much to do with the development of a regional style as the kinds of livestock the local farmers raised and the types of sauces, marinades, and rubs that were used on the meat. Over time it’s gotten easier to source different woods from around the country in the form of chunks and chips, but if you’re cooking with logs, you’re still likely to end up working with what’s growing around you.

Sourcing Wood 

If you use chunks or chips it’s easy to pick up a bag of wood online or at a local barbecue or hardware store. Logs aren’t quite that simple. Much of the packaged firewood sold in stores is kiln-dried and will burn up so fast, producing so little smoke it won’t do you much good at all. It’s better to look for wood that was cut down locally, allowed to dry naturally, and is available for sale in bulk. If you live near a rural area, you might find wood for sale just by driving around, but if you live in a city, you can find ads for firewood on Craigslist and in the classifieds.

 Firewood is typically sold in a measured amount known as a cord: four-feet wide by four-feet high by eight-feet long, a total of 128 cubic feet. A face cord is equal to a cord in height and length but less than half a cord in width. The price of wood always fluctuates based on supply and demand, but asking sellers their price per cord gives you a reliable way to shop for the best deal. Be cautious against sellers who offer wood by the trailer or truckload, as they’ll sometimes deliberately stack the wood in a way that makes it difficult to measure. He also says to watch out for sellers who try to pass off a face cord as a full cord.

Always insist on inspecting the firewood before you buy. You’ll never find a cord where every log is absolutely perfect but on the whole you want wood that still has some energy and life to it. Avoid wood that looks powdery, rotten, or waterlogged. If the wood was recently cut down it likely has more internal moisture than you’d want for a cook, but you can always store it for use at a later date. How long it takes to dry out will depend on climate. During a dry, hot summer the wood could be ready to go in a matter of weeks if it gets enough sunlight; during a cold, wet winter it may take months—or even a year!

The best way to tell if a log is ready for the smoker is to simply pick up different logs from your pile and compare how they feel. The heavier a piece of wood is, the more internal moisture it has. During the cook you’ll want some heftier logs that will burn longer and produce more smoke, but you don’t want logs with so much moisture that they have trouble combusting. If the bark on the wood is starting to fall off or there are noticeable cracks in the grain, that’s a good sign that the wood is properly seasoned. You can also thump the wood with your thumb: seasoned wood will give you a deeper, more full-bodied sound than fresh wood, which will sound more clipped and dull.

DO

  • Use wood that’s aged naturally outdoors for six months to a year. This drying-out process is called curing or seasoning. A freshly cut piece of wood, known as green wood, has too much internal moisture, which will produce more smoke as the wood burns and slow down the combustion process.

  • Have more wood on hand than you think you’ll need for your cook, especially if you’re using wood as your primary fuel source rather than coal or briquettes.

  • Have a good mix of wood in terms of density, size, and quality. Drier, lighter pieces will burn much faster than denser, heavier ones, but they also won’t produce as much of the clean, flavorful smoke you want to taste on the meat. Both will come in handy at different stages of the cook.

  • Source your wood from trees that have died of natural causes like drought, disease, or insects. Don’t kill healthy trees in the name of barbecue.

DON’T

  • Use woods that may have been exposed to paint, stains, or other chemicals. Scraps of wood from a lumber yard are a bad idea.
  • Use wood that’s covered in mold or fungus.
  • Use softwoods like spruce, pine, or fir. These woods are higher in resin and oils that produce thick, acrid smoke when lit. Cook with hardwoods only.
  • Buy wood that’s been cured or seasoned in an oven or kiln. The exposure to high heat makes the wood extra dry, which causes it to burn faster and lose flavor.

Texas Wood

The defining wood of central Texas barbecue is a local form of white oak called post oak. One of the many uses of white oak is the production of whisky barrels, and if you use white oak or post oak for barbecue, you’ll notice the smoke gives the meat a slightly sweet, vanilla-tinged flavor similar to a Kentucky bourbon.

The three other woods most commonly used across the state are hickory, pecan, and mesquite.

Hickory is one of the more popular choices for longer cooks. Like oak, it burns clean but has a slightly stronger flavor that’s comparable to bacon. Pecan has a mild, sweet flavor but doesn’t burn as long as oak or hickory. He recommends it for shorter cooks like fish, ribs, and poultry. Mesquite is one of the most abundant woods in Texas. It burns hot and fast, produces lots of smoke, and has an intense, earthy flavor. Mesquite take a long time to cure but can be tamed. It’s best used for quick cooks like steak, or burnt down as coals.

Wood Characteristics

Here is a list of commonly used smoking woods and the meats they compliment.

Wood
Characteristics
Best With
Oak
A heavy smoke flavor. Any oak will do. The second most popular smoking wood.
Red meat, pork, fish, and some wild game.
Hickory
Strong, smoky taste. The most common smoking wood.
Good with any meat.
Mesquite
Sweet, light taste. 
Great with all meats. Especially good with ribs, lamb, and vegetables.
Pecan
Nice taste. Lighter than hickory.
Good with almost anything.
Apple
Sweet, fruity smoke taste.
Beef, poultry, wild game, pork (especially ham)
Acadia
Similar to mesquite, but not as strong.
Most meats. Most vegetables. Good with beef.
Almond
A nutty, sweet flavor.
Good with all meats.
Alder
Very delicate. Slightly sweet.
Fish, pork, poultry.
Apricot
Milder and sweeter than Hickory.
Good with most meats.
Ash
Burns fast. Light, but district flavor.
Red meats and fish.
Birch
Slightly sweet. Good with pork and poultry.
Cherry
Slightly sweet fruit flavor. Good with all meats.
Grape Vines
Similar to fruit woods. Good with all meats.
Grapefruit
Medium smoke flavor. Slight hint of fruit. Good with beef, poultry, and pork.
Lemon
Medium smoke flavor. Slight hint of fruit. Good with beef, poultry, and pork.
Lilac
Very light smoke flavor. Good with seafood and lamb.

 

  • You can use almost any type of wood for smoking except PINE and CEDAR.
  • Try different woods or combinations of different woods with different meats.
  • Always use a wood that is well seasoned (dried). Never use green woods as they can permanently ruin your cooker

I have tried many kinds of wood, as people often send me wood from all around the United States, but I always go back tot mesquite. Mesquite burns rather hot, and has a light sweet taste. It goes perfect with beef, pork, fish, poultry, and lamb.

If you are just learning the art of smoking your meat, start off using a small amount of wood to see how you like the flavor. You can then add more wood to increase the smoky flavor. Don't overuse it. It is possible to get too much smoke flavor over long cooking periods, this could make your meat bitter. This is particularly true with the heavier wood flavors like hickory and oak. Mesquite and the fruit woods just don't seem to do this to your meat because of their lighter smoke flavor.

Meat that has been smoked tastes even better on the second day. The smoke flavor seems to get better with time. So, your leftovers just taste better the second and third days. Always cook some extra meat as it is just fantastic the next day.