Types of Wood for Smoking Meat and Fish

You might think that using wood for smoking meat and other food would be a simple thing.  If so, you’re only partially right. While it isn’t really complicated, understanding the basics about using wood for smoking meats and fish is really important.  Different types of wood in different states can have a really big impact on the finished product.

Before we really get going, there is one absolute rule that you must always follow:

NEVER use chip-board, particle board, pressed board, or any other kind of processed wood that is held together with glues or other chemicals.  The glue and chemicals will come out of the pressed wood and enter the meat.  They can be VERY poisonous and could make you very sick.

OK…that aside, what do you need to know about wood for wood smoking?  A few key things

Types of wood for smoking meat

Typically wood used for wood smoking would be considered hardwood.  This can include many different kinds of trees and bushes, each of which will give the finished product a slightly different flavour.  Most commonly used are:

  • hardwoods:  beech, hickory, maple, oak, elm (slightly stronger and typically used with meats like beef, pork and wild game)
  • fruitwoods: apple, pear, cherry, peach (these are typically milder in flavours and are often used with fish or poultry)
  • Others:  mesquite, alder, edible woody herbs (rosemary, thyme), pecan, walnut

Never use the following woods for smoking:

  • resinous woods: Pine, Fir, spruce, cedar etc.
  • soft woods:  poplar, cottonwood, willow
  • wood that has been painted, stained or otherwise treated
  • wood from construction sites or furniture factories
  • scrap wood pallets
  • mouldy or fungus covered wood (even if it is natural)

Size of the wood for smoking meat

Depending on the kind of smoker you have, what you are smoking, and how long you intend to smoke the meat for, you will need different sizes or cuts of wood.  You have a few choices:

  • logs – Large peices of wood that are either burned whole, or cut into smaller peices.  Typically used with larger smokehouses that have an external firepit with piping that delivers the smoke to the smokehouse.  You need to be able to control the heat of the smoke produced.
  • Sticks and kindling: Also used in larger smokehouses, but also in smaller smokers as well.  We are looking at wood of only an inch or so in diameter.  Often used when the smoking time is not very long
  • Wood Chips:  These are very popular with small scale home meat smokers.  They are very easy to light, the temperature is easy to control, and you can add more chips quickly to extend the smoking time or increase the level of smoke in the smoker.  Quite easy to buy in most home centre stores.
  • Pressed chips:  These are often used in automatic electric smokers, but can be used on their own.  Much like wood chips, they are made out of sawdust pressed into little bricks or pucks.
  • Sawdust:  Can be a very good source of smoke.  Just be sure to get clean sawdust/chips.  The nice thing about using sawdust is that the smoke can last a very long time because when it is pilled up, it tends to smolder rather than burn, which produces smoke slowly over a longer time, and with less heat.  It can also work very well for very quick smoking – for example sprinkling some mesquite sawdust over charcoal for the last 7 minutes a steak is cooking on the barbeque.

This is the very basic information you need to know about wood for smoking meat and fish.  From here you need to really experiment to find out what flavours you like most and how different woods give different tastes.

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Dry Rubs for Meat

A dry rub is nothing more than a mixture of herbs and spices that are rubbed onto a peice of meat before it is smoked, cured, or cooked.  They have two main purposes:

  • to add flavours and or spice heat to the meat
  • to tenderize the meat to some degree

The main purpose of a dry rub is to add flavours to the meat your are about to smoke or cook.  This is done by mixing a variety of herbs, spices, onions, and peppers into a powder that can then be rubbed onto and into the meat you’re working with.  Some of the most common ingredients are:

  • paprika
  • dried garlic (made into a powder)
  • salt
  • black pepper
  • dried onions (made into a powder)
  • dried sweet peppers
  • dried chilies  (not, chillis are not peppers, despite the resemblance)

Other common ingredients include

  • Thyme
  • basil
  • turmeric
  • Bay leaves
  • oregano
  • corriander seeds
  • cumin (seeds and powder)
  • rosemary
  • celery seeds
  • citrus zest (outer skin of lemons, oranges, limes etc.)

When it comes to making your own dry rubs, the best way is to start out with small batches.  Develop a simple recipe for a base rub that you can then modify by adding in other herbs and spices.  Different meats respond better to different flavours, you’ll need to mess around a bit to find the ones you like best.  Of course you can always start off with a commercial rub and then make your own to try and match it.

Don’t be shy about using fresh herbs in your rubs.  While they are not truly dry, they can add amazing levels of flavour when used properly.

Typically a dry rub is not really intended to tenderize the meat very much.  If you choose, you can add in a commecially made meat tenderizing powder, which incidentally are normally made from pineapples.  Pineapple juice works well too, as do some other acidic fruits (lime for example), but the added liquid means you aren’t really using a ‘dry’ rub.  Don’t let that stop you from trying it though.  Just add enough juice to make the dry rub into a paste and use that.

When you are making your rubs, keep in mind what kind of meat you will be using them with, and how you will be preparing that meat.  Certain ingredients like paprika and turmeric add a lot of colour, others like rosemary and garlic can add tons of flavour – so much that it could overwhelm more delicate meats like some kinds of fish.  The way you are cooking the meat will also change how the rub interacts with the meat.  A long slow visit to a smokehouse is not the same as a fast sear on a 500 degree barbque.

In the end what you will end up doing more than enything else is testing.  Be sure to write down your recipe

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