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This is the best wood for grilling and smoking, according to an expert

Curious about what wood to use for the best tasting food from your grill? Here's what a pro says

Steak on the grill
Louis Hansel / Unsplash

When it comes to grilling and smoking foods, it’s hard to beat old-fashioned firewood for both a heat source and flavor. But did you know that different types of wood will actually bring different flavors to your cooking? Today we will look at the best wood for grilling and the differences between some of the most popular woods to cook with.

The warm glow and crackle of a true wood fire is borderline irresistible, but the stuff in your woodpile may not be the best choice for cooking with. We will explore some favorite wood types you can use to grill and smoke a steak that can be used in almost any smoker or charcoal grill.

What kind of wood is best for grilling?

Chicken drumsticks on grill
Markus Distelrath / Pixabay

You want to use wood that provides a long, consistent heat source without being too overbearing on smoke. We caught up with Alec Semersky from Hot Box Cooking Wood and asked him some questions about the different types of cooking woods and how they affect how food cooks and tastes.

It all starts with a good base, aka a quality bed of coals. Semersky said, “You can never go wrong with getting your fire going and establishing a bed of coals with oak. Kiln-dried oakwood is the best you can get because it has a long, steady burn and will provide a nice bed of coals without being overbearingly smoky.”

What is the best wood to grill steaks?

Full dinner grilling on a metal grate over an open campfire with a blurred couple in the background.
Myles Tan / Unsplash

Oak may also be the most versatile wood for cooking steaks. Semersky likes how it gives a good sear on a steak and provides consistent temperatures throughout the cook.

Using mesquite will give steaks and other red meat an unmistakably bold, and smoky flavor synonymous with Texas-style grilling and barbecue. Hickory wood is another good option for grilling steaks, as it will leave your food with almost a bacon-like flavor. These woods are fragrant and great for hot-and-fast grilling. But Semersky cautioned you to use them sparingly when smoking food as it’s easy for the flavor from the smoke to be overpowering.

What is the best wood to grill chicken?

Pieces of grilled chicken
Ekaterina Novitskaya / Unsplash

It’s hard to beat a combination of cherry and oak wood for grilling chicken. When cherry wood is added to an established oak fire, it brings a light and fruity flavor to the food that won’t overpower your dish. Other fruit woods, like apple, apricot, and peach, are mild enough that they won’t make your chicken taste acrid and sweet enough that they truly enhance the flavor.

What is the best wood to grill pork?

Pork ribs grilling on a barbecue
Grandriver / Getty Images

Sugar maple may be the perfect wood for grilling pork. Semersky called sugar maple the across-the-board choice for pork and says it works well for everything from bacon to pork chops. Sugar maple has a light maple syrup flavor that you can’t find in any other wood, making it a perfect pairing for pork. It’s especially good when grilling pork steaks, sausages, and ground pork patties.

What is the best wood to grill fish?

Grill salmon on a cutting board
Africa Studio / Shutterstock

While oak works pretty well with most fishy proteins, we are really drawn to alder. The wood is a bit milder, meaning it won’t overwhelm more delicate fish. This is an ideal wood species when grilling up salmon or smoking fish like halibut. Feel free to experiment with different wood types, but generally, the lighter, the better, unless you’re going for powerful smoky notes. Oh, and don’t forget to consider pairing your seafood with wine.

How do I get started grilling with wood?

Argentinian-style grill (Delta Model) from Nuke.
nukebbqusa/ / Instagram

Getting into grilling with wood is simple to do. There are many grill options (even some for under $500) that anyone would be fired up to own. “There’s an American subculture of barbecue enthusiasts looking for the next new thing,” said Lucas Servera of Nuke Grills, a company that sells Argentinian-made grills in North America made exclusively for cooking with wood and charcoal.

Grilling over wood is becoming more popular in North America because people are looking for more fun and unique ways to cook food outdoors. They are embracing styles of cooking like Argentinian, Brazilian, and South American, where spending time together gathering around and tending to the fire becomes just as important as what’s on the menu.

Whether you have a grill dedicated to wood-burning or you fire up some wood for grilling in your charcoal grill, cooking over real wood is definitely something worth trying this season.

Avoid cooking with these types of wood

A uniform pile of chopped wood stacked together exposing the cut area
Vidar Smits / Unsplash

It is important to remember that not all wood is suitable for grilling and smoking. In fact, several different species of wood should never be used to cook with.

Softwoods

Any softwood such as pine, redwood, fir, spruce, or cedar should never be used for cooking. These woods generally have high sap content, which can make the food taste bad or even make some people sick. The one exception to this rule is a cedar plank, which can be used for cooking, but don’t burn the planks for smoke.

Wood scraps

Got a pile of wood left over from a construction project? Keep it away from your food. It can be difficult to tell what kind of wood it is, where it was stored, and if it was treated with chemicals. Lumber is unsafe for cooking, so don’t use it.

Moldy wood

Moldy wood will lead to bad-tasting food, and the mold may also contain toxins, making it dangerous to use.

Pressure-treated wood

This type of wood has been chemically treated and can contain hazardous chemicals. You should never burn this type of wood, much less cook over it.

The best rule of thumb for grilling and smoking with wood is if you don’t know if it is safe to use for cooking, don’t use it. Always get your cooking wood from a reliable source so you can ensure that it’s safe to use on your grill.

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Mark Stock
Mark Stock is a writer from Portland, Oregon. He fell into wine during the Recession and has been fixated on the stuff since…
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