How Various Types of Wood Influence Different BBQ Flavors

by admin on May 20, 2013 · 7 comments

Different types of firewoodLet’s dive right into the meat of it. A multitude of inputs affect the delectable flavoring of your end result, the likes of which simply cannot be covered in an article online. If you’re looking to become the go-to pit master among your family, your circle of friends, or your co-workers, see this article as a launching pad to greatness.




The Pit Master Journey

The amateur pit master, whom we’ll call a pit apprentice, knows that there exist a variety of barbecue sauces to place on your piece of meat before or after the barbecue process, from mild to spicy, from light, peppered vinegar to the thicker tomato- and mustard-based. The next step up of apprentice may even be aware of dry rubs.

The middling pit master, whom we’ll call a pit journeyman, knows that on top of barbecue sauces one has various cuts of meat from which to choose. He also understands that a pit master uses a gas grill only under extreme duress and most likely with a gun to the head. In all other scenarios (e.g. always), he uses charcoal or wood, and ideally it’s the latter. But that’s a preference for the next level of pit mastery.

Because the elite pit master, whom we’ll call . . . a pit master . . . has put in his 10,000 hours, he understands all of the aforementioned and much more. More important than the barbecue sauce, more important even than the cut of meat, the true pit master realizes the most important factor in your barbecuing experience is the type of wood you use. And that’s because the true pit master, as often as possible (e.g. always) uses wood. And he knows which type of wood to use to achieve whichever type of flavor is his goal.


What Types of Wood to Use to Achieve Different BBQ Flavors

If you have the capability to use wood in your barbecuing experience, do it. As opposed to grilling with direct heat, you’ll have yourself a more tender, more succulent meat that’s chock-full of flavor. Numerous inputs exist to influence that flavor, but the primary factor is the type of wood you use. Different woods provide you with different flavors – here are some quick tips to take in before we delve into the specific types of wood to use:

  • You’ll need to soak your wood for up to an hour to get that primo smoke all up in your meat.
  • Keep your cooker squeaky clean. Smoking meat already carries an inherent health risk in that carcinogens can develop when cooked improperly or on too high of heat, not to mention undercooking – no need to increase that risk with a dirty cooker.
  • In line with the health perspective, do your best not to char your meat at any point in the cooking process, and try to use leaner meats – carcinogens are more populous when fat drips from the meat onto your heat source. Don’t ask me why – it’s science.
  • In general, stay away from using softwoods like pine, fir and spruce when cooking raw meat. If a meat has already been cured, softwoods may be appropriate, but they generally don’t flavor well and should be mixed with other types of hardwood. Be sure you’re well along on your path toward pit mastery before attempting to smoke with softwood.


Types of Wood to Use in Barbecuing


Hardwoods are your basic starting point in barbecuing. They burn at lower temperatures and for much longer than softwoods. Examples of hardwood and their resulting flavor profiles, generally speaking, are as follows:

  • Hickory – most commonly used due to its strong, bacon flavor profile
  • Oak – next most commonly used, producing medium-to-heavy smoky flavor
  • Mesquite – a stronger, tangier, earthy flavor
  • Alder – delicate flavor but sweet
  • Maple – smoky and a little sweet

Hardwoods are best for cooking pork and beef with their stronger, heavier flavors, but can be mixed in with fruit woods to get some nice, subtle flavoring.

Fruit woods

Fruitwoods, in general, provide for a slightly milder, but sweeter, flavor. Examples of fruitwoods and their resulting flavor profiles, generally speaking, are as follows:

Cherry – mild but fruity; highly valued as a smoking wood

Apple – mild but fruity; a little sweet

Pear – subtle but smokier than apple

Olive – lighter than other varieties of fruitwoods, slightly sweet

Fruitwoods are ideal for cooking fish and poultry, as they are lighter and take less time to cook. I prefer to always mix them with hardwoods at various ratios – but that’s a topic that could be another article and/or encyclopedia unto itself.

Once you start getting more experienced with different types of wood, you can start throwing on fruit and vegetables, smoking with herbs for added flavor, and combining wood types and grapevines for a wider variety of flavors and more subtlety, detectable only by a “supertaster” (that’s a real thing, FYI).


In conclusion, this article truly does little to no justice to the barbecuing arena. Volumes have been written by pit masters wiser than me. And I exaggerate slightly in the name of good fun and pit masters that wood is superbly more important than other factors in barbecuing, but the points mentioned above still stand. Barbecuing, depending on the level of pit mastery you want to achieve, can be incredibly complex with seemingly countless techniques for smoking and achieving a wide variety flavors. Regardless of what most people tell you, including me, be sure to experiment with all different types of wood. Like I said above, softwoods like pine can be used for smoking and you can still achieve a flavorful product, but it has to be done a certain way and never with raw meats.

Bottom line: do your research, then experiment. Then do more research, then experiment some more. Life itself is an experiment, so transfer that excitement of discovery into your cooking and carve your own path in the world of barbecuing. And above all, enjoy the process.

Jeff Hirz is a writer, freelancer and up-and-coming barbecue aficionado – or so he hopes. This article was written on behalf of Premier Firewood.

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