I think people spend way too much time researching and obsessing over what the best types of wood for smoking and cooking are. If you search the internet you will find endless pages trying to describe the different types of wood and what their flavor is like. One wood is sweet, one is nuttier than the other, the other is bla bla bla.
Most of these descriptions come from one author copying what another said. How do you describe a flavor or a sensation? People try it all the time but you have to experience a sensation to know anything about it. When it comes to smoke flavor, it is the same as any other food. Everyone has their own tastes and we all experience our own sensations when we eat food. The only way to compare different wood for smoking is to try them and decide what you like. Not only is it the only way, I think it is the most fun of the only ways.
What is important is knowing what types of wood are suitable for smoking food and which are not suitable for smoking. The best types of wood for smoking and cooking are typically hardwoods, which are woods from broadleaf trees. That is trees with leaves instead of needles or scales. A common rule of thumb is to use wood from trees that bear fruit or nuts. This rule works much of the time, but there are trees like alder, which are very popular for smoking, but they don’t really have nuts or fruits.
Conifers like fir, pine, cedar, redwood and spruce should be avoided. Anything with needles or scale leaves should be avoided. These woods have resins, which would make your food taste horrible. There are some reports that they can even be poisonous. So far I have only heard rumours of that though. Certain types of cedar, like western red cedar, are used for cooking planks. But keep in mind, they are usually not burned to a great degree. So use with caution.
There are many types of wood that can be used for smoking, but to be safe, it’s probably best to stick with the more commonly used woods. These woods are time tested and there are usually reasons that these woods are used, and others are not commonly used.
As a general rule, the nut bearing trees will have more of a strong flavor, while the fruit bearing trees are more mild. As far as flavor differences between woods, that may be the one that is the most important.
The more mild woods for smoking are:
The more strong smoke woods are:
The more mild woods are good for foods that are not that strong in flavor to begin with. Poultry, fish, some pork.
Stronger woods are good for stronger flavored like beef, lamb and game meats, and foods prepared with strong or spicy seasonings.
Notice I said these woods are good for these purposes. This does not mean that is the only way to use them and that you can’t, for example, have great results smoking venison with a mild wood like apple.
I bet if you gave most people a blind taste test, I best most wouldn’t notice much difference between the flavor of most woods. Although woods like hickory, mesquite, madrone and manzanita that have a strong distinct flavor, may be an exception.
There are other factors that will affect the flavor of the food you smoke more than the species of wood you use. This can include the method of smoking, temperature, smoking and cooking time, sauces and seasonings, and the quality of ingredients.
So I say stop worrying about which smoking wood is the best, get some different types, give them a try, and see which ones you like the best. And be sure and come back and tell us what you decide.