Smoker wood is used to flavor the meat. There are almost as many different types of smoker woods (discussed below) as there are barbecue sauces. Each wood provides a different smoke taste and you will need to experiment somewhat to obtain the perfect flavor. You can use chips, sticks or chunks. Chips are readily available from your local “chain home improvement store”. Please be aware that chips burn much faster than chunks, so you will need to refresh your smoker with chips more frequently.
In my experience wood chunks work best. I like chunks that are 4” to 5” long x 2” (approx) x 1” to 2”. Some people recommend soaking the wood. Most commercially available wood chip providers recommend soaking the chips in water for at least 30 minutes. For hard wood chunks I have seen tests performed where the chunks are soaked overnight and then split the next day to measure how far the water has soaked into the wood. The results show that virtually no water penetration in the hardwood. This is consistent with my experience as a kid with leaving (hardwood) firewood outside in snow and rain. The hardwood doesn’t really allow water to penetrate after 1 to 2 days of being soaked. In summary, I haven’t found any advantage in soaking chunks.
You don’t need a lot of wood to obtain a nice smoke flavor. I have a small Brinkman Smoker on the patio and when using Apple wood, I typically use 4 to 6 chunks to start. After about 2.5 hours I had 2 to 4 more and that usually is sufficient for a 4.5 to 5.5 hour smoking duration (and there is a lot of smoke produced). Of course more wood produces a stronger flavor and less wood provides a milder flavor. You will need to experiment with the amount of wood and type of wood to achieve your desired smoke flavor.
Most fruit and nut trees make good smoking woods. Never use any treated woods, pine or other woods with sap (resinous woods) like cedar or fir. These will produce, shall we say, a “terrible” flavor.
Types of Smoker Woods
There are many different types of woods. The following are some of the more common varieties:
Almond and Pecan – these woods provide a sweet, nutty flavor that many people like with any type of meat.
Apple – this is a lighter, mild smoke. It takes several hours to really permeate the food with its nice, mellow flavor. It is a good choice for pork (especially ribs) and poultry. I also like to use it when smoking quail.
Cherry – this wood provides a sweet, mild flavor. Cherry is similar to Almond and Pecan in that many people like this wood with a wide variety of meats including pork, poultry and beef. Cherry is a very popular choice.
Hickory – this wood provides a strong smoke flavor. It is probably best used with beef or veal and larger cuts of these meats. Similar to Mesquite, if you are not experienced in using Hickory, you may want to use small amounts or mix it with lighter woods (such as apple) until you find the proper mix.
Maple – much like people glaze hams with maple, this wood provides a similar, sweet flavor for ham and poultry.
Mesquite – this woods burns hot, has a strong flavor and provides a lot of smoke. Mesquite is good choice for larger cuts of meat (such as brisket) as well as steak and burgers. Some people mix mesquite with other types of wood due to its strong smoke flavor.
Orange – Here in Florida, we love Orange Blossom Honey and Orange Tree wood is also good for smoking. It provides a very light and mild fruity flavor.
Oak – is not as strong as hickory, but not as light as Apple or Orange. This is a very all around good wood. May people like it with beef or lamb, just like a good Cabernet wine.