How to Select the Right BBQ Wood

firewood burning in a BBQ smoker

Choosing the right BBQ wood is highly personal. It is common for pitmasters to each have their own signature blend of woods. Ours consists of pecan, hickory and oak, but there are many possibilities depending on the flavor you are craving. Think of it as what grapes are to fine wines: a winemaker blends the grapes together to bring out different complexities and numerous layers of flavor. The same effect can be achieved with your meat by selecting complimenting woods for your smoker. Pecan and hickory always work well together, but if you want to add a bit of sweetness to the flavor, throw in some cherry or apple woods.

The selection of wood varieties available for you to choose from will generally be based on the wood that is grown locally. In Texas, BBQ wood preference is even regional within the state due to the sheer size and ecological diversity within its borders. Northern Texas generally smokes with a blend of hickory and pecan, Central Texas uses white oak, and in Southern Texas mesquite is king.

The type of meat can impact your choice of wood as well. You may not want to use the same wood for red meat and fish. Think about what flavors might go well with each type of meat and if you’re smoking more than one type, can you find a common ground?

As a general rule of thumb, see what is available in your area and go from there. There is a wide range of woods that will produce great tasting BBQ, but you should never use pine or cedar unless you want to risk ruining your meat. Experiment a little and most importantly don’t stress too much about your choice. Not everyone you serve will be a meat sommelier, most will just be happy to be eating barbecue.

Here’s a little cheat sheet from Sam’s Smoker Pro to get you started on your wood blending journey.

WoodCharacteristicsSuggested Meats
AlderVery delicate with a hint of sweetnessGood with fish, pork, poultry, and light-meat game birds. Traditionally used in the pacific Northwest to smoke Salmon.
AppleSlightly sweet but denser, fruity smoke flavor.Beef, poultry, game birds, pork (particularly ham).
CherrySlightly sweet, fruity smoke flavorGood with all meats.
Grape vinesAromatic, similar to fruit wood.Good with most meats.
HickoryPungent, smoky, bacon-like flavor. The most common wood used.Good for all smoking, especially pork and ribs.
MapleMildly smoky, somewhat sweet flavor.Good with pork, poultry, cheese, vegetables and small game birds.
MesquiteStrong earthy flavor.Good with most meats, especially beef and most vegetables.
MulberryThe smell is sweet and reminds one of appleBeef, poultry, game birds, pork (particularly ham).
OakOne of the most popular wood’s, Heavy smoke flavor.Good with red meat, pork, fish and heavy game.
PeachSlightly sweet, woodsy flavor.Good with most meats.
PearSlightly sweet, woodsy flavor.Poultry, game birds and pork.
PecanSimilar to hickory, but not as strong. Try smoking with the shells as well.Good for most needs.
PlumThe flavor is milder and sweeter than hickoryGood with most meats.
WalnutVery heavy smoke flavor, usually mixed with lighter woods like pecan or apple. Can be bitter if used alone.Good with red meats and game.
Chart from Sam’s Smoker Pro
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  1. Dennis Earp on May 9, 2020 at 7:01 am

    Thanks Joe. Happy smoking!!!

  2. Mike carney on May 17, 2020 at 6:54 pm

    I personally like pecan and white oak. Would love to do the Alder around open pit with salmon.

  3. Joe Morgan on July 7, 2020 at 12:21 pm

    I will have to try some of my newly acquired alder wood on some steelhead. Used Mesquite last time.