Smoking with real wood will give your BBQ a flavor like nothing else. I didn’t know what real smoke flavor was until I started using wood splits. I had only gotten a hint of flavor before using wood chips, but even then the choice of wood affected the flavor of the meat. There are many different kinds of wood you can use to smoke meat. Most common are hickory, applewood and mesquite, but there are many more. In Texas, the most commonly used wood is post oak, as it is more available there. Cherry, pecan, and maple are also used. Fruit woods are typically sweeter. Don’t think sweet like sugar, it’s a sweet smoke so it’s different. I like to use fruitwood alone for pork butts. I’ll use applewood and hickory for ribs. Hickory has a medium flavor and is great for pork too, particularly ribs and pork belly (think bacon).
I recently started experimenting with post oak and find its mild flavor a nice match for beef, as they do in Texas. I used it for my beef shortribs and they were delicious. The fact is that pork, particularly a pork butt, can handle more punishment and more flavor. You typically rub pork with a lot more spices, right? You can use more flavorful woods as well. I feel that since beef naturally has more flavor, you don’t want to mask that natural flavor with too many spices and too flavorful a choice of wood. Post oak is a nice choice because of its mild flavor, but for my briskets I like to mix in a little cherry as well. It gives the bark a nice strong flavor, but isn’t overpowering. Cherry is also known for its ability to leave a deeper color smoke ring, which is really appealing. That mixed with the simple salt and pepper spice rub makes for delicious brisket. Mesquite, however, is way too strong for me. I only used it once and it was too much. ˇThat was back when I used wood chips though, which are less flavorful (in my opinion) than a real wood fire. The reality is you need to experiment. Taste is subjective, so you should flavor your meat with whatever wood you want.
One thing to remember is NEVER just use what’s laying around. Know what you are using. Pine will taste especially awful and terribly bitter. Do not use soft woods like cedar, fir, hemlock, cypress, and spruce. Cedar planks to cook on are different. They are more like cooking vessels, not a direct heat source, and do not impart the same flavor. Also, never use painted or treated wood. You don’t want to be eating those chemicals. A CLEAN fire is best, and that starts with clean wood.
The question is though, where do you find wood splits? Most of us don’t have cords of cooking wood at the ready. It’s not only expensive to buy a cord of specialty cooking wood, but a cord is a lot of wood and the ordinary backyard enthusiast isn’t going to go through that much before it rots. There are several specialty wood delivery services out there. Cutting Edge Firewood is one such service. They offer a variety of woods at different sizes and in different packages. They even have a large rack with a canvas cover to store hundreds of pounds of logs. They, no doubt, supply a very high quality product, but an 8.5×8.5×8.5 box of applewood splits is $70. That’s too much for me.
B&B sells 1.0-1.25 cubic feet bags of 10-12 inch logs for around $20, which is still a lot of money. They have every flavor wood and the quality isn’t bad at all. What you are looking for in a wood is about 20% moisture in order for it to burn well. Some wood is over dried and burns too hot and fast. B&B seems to be a nice compromise between the more expensive “ultra kiln dried” services and buying a cord of seasoned wood (which might have more moisture than you want). I typically use about 1.5 cubic feet of wood (give or take) for a brisket. Considering an average of 12 hours per cook for a brisket, that’s not too bad. Ace Hardware sells these bags and I have them delivered to my local store for free, since they don’t sell them locally.
Some smokers are too small to use wood logs though, in which case you would want to use chunks. These are more widely available, albeit in fewer flavors. Home Depot and Lowes sell chunks of applewood, hickory, and mesquite for a reasonable price. If you want flavors like pecan, post oak or cherry, you will most likely have to shop for chunks online. The thing to remember though is that you need them to burn, not smolder. Check out my post about fire management for more detail about that.
There is so much more information out there about choosing the right wood, some of it very scientific. Everyone has their ideas and I am no expert. Take my advice as a guide, not as gospel. Whatever flavor of wood you choose to smoke with, just remember that a clean fire will give you better flavor. Experiment with different woods. Find what you like best. If you plan on smoking every weekend, maybe a cord would work for you. If you’re like me and only smoke, on average, once a month (or less depending on the season), buying bags or a delivery service might be more appropriate. But have fun. That’s what’s more important. Enjoy the process and you will enjoy the product.