Wood for Smoking

The wood used for smoking should be relatively new and kept in a well ventilated but covered area. A freshly cut tree contains 50% moisture, the dried wood about 25%. That level of dryness requires about 6–9 months of drying. Wet wood can be recognized immediately because of the hissing sound it creates when burned. This is escaping vapor and boiling particles of water. To achieve moisture contents of < 20%, the wood must be oven dried.

Any hardwood is fine, but evergreen trees like fir, spruce, pine, or others cause problems. They contain too much resin and the finished product has a turpentine flavor to it. It also develops a black color due to the extra soot from the smoke, which in turn makes the smoker dirtier, too. This wood will burn quickly and cleanly, but will not be suitable for smoking. However, there is a region in Germany called Bavaria where they have been using evergreen for centuries. They have acquired this taste in childhood and they are very fond of it even though most people don’t like it. And of course you cannot use any wood that was previously pressure treated, painted, or commercially manufactured.

The type of wood used is responsible for the final color of the smoked product and it can also influence its taste but only to a small degree. All fruit and citrus trees have a light to medium sweet flavor and are excellent with poultry and ham. Many say that cherry wood is the best. Oak, available all over the world, is probably the most commonly used wood for smoking. It produces a brown color. If hickory is used, the color will have a more vivid red tint in it.

Wood types can be mixed to create custom flavors. For instance, walnut, which has a heavy smoke flavor, can be mixed with apple wood to create a milder version. For practical reasons a home sausage maker will probably use oak or hickory most of the time. Some sausages like German or Polish Hunter Sausages develop their characteristic flavors and aromas by adding juniper branches or berries to the fire. Juniper is the main ingredient for making gin, so we know it has to be a fine element.

Powdered bark of some trees have been used for medicinal purposes: (willow tree-aspirin, cinchona tree - source of quinine to fight malaria or to make tonic water) and they all taste bitter. Bark of the birch tree produces a lot of soot when it burns. Thus we can draw a conclusion that it will be much safer to remove the bark.

The following woods are great for smoking:

  • Acacia - the same family as mesquite, though not as heavy. A very hot burning wood. Smoked color: yellow, lemon type
  • Alder - light flavor that works well with fish and poultry. Contains a hint of sweetness, good with poultry and light – meat game birds. Traditionally used for smoking salmon. Northwest.
  • Almond - a nutty, sweet flavor
  • Apple - mild, fruity flavor, slightly sweet. Good for poultry, pork. Northwest.
  • Apricot - mild, sweet flavor. Good on fish, poultry, pork
  • Birch - medium hard wood, flavor similar to maple. Good with poultry, pork,
  • Black Walnut - heavy flavor, can impart bitter taste if not monitored carefully
  • Cherry - mild, fruity. Good with poultry, pork, beef.
  • Citrus - lemon, grapefruit, orange, nectarine – light fruity flavor, good with fish, poultry, pork and beef.
  • Fruit trees - apple, cherry, apricot – sweet mild flavor
  • Hickory - strong flavor, good with beef and lamb. Smoked products develop reddish color. Southern regions.
  • Maple - like fruit, sweet flavor. Northeast.
  • Mulberry - sweet, similar to apple
  • Mesquite - very strong flavor, burns hot and fast. Good for hot short smoking, better for grilling.
  • Oak - probably best all around wood for meat smoking. Strong but not overpowering, good for sausages, beef or lamb. Smoked products develop light brown to brown color, depending on the length of smoking.
  • Peach - mild, sweet flavor. Good on fish, poultry, pork
  • Pear - light and sweet, smoked color dark – red. Excellent with poultry and pork.
  • Pecan - milder version of hickory. Burns cool. Southwest region.
  • Plum - mild, sweet flavor. Good on fish, poultry, pork
  • Walnut - heavy smoke flavor. Can impart bitter taste if not monitored. Good with red meats and game.

To simplify the matter:

  • fish and poultry - alder and fruit trees
  • meats - oak and hickory

Dry or Wet Wood

Here is another question that never seems to go out of fashion: “what’s better, wet or dry”. Wet chips or sawdust, seem to produce more smoke but this is not true. The extra amount of smoke is nothing else but water vapor (steam) mixed with smoke. This does make a difference when hot smoking at 105-140° F (40-60° C) and the smoke times are rather short. That extra moisture prevents the sausage casings from drying out during smoking. Besides, wet chips are not going to be wet for very long; the heat will dry them out anyhow. Wood chips produce good smoke when wet and they decrease temperature, but the moment they become dry, they burst into flames and the temperature shoots up. The grease from the sausage drops down on the little flames, the temperature goes up, and the once little flames are now big flames. In one minute we may have a raging fire inside the smoker.

When a smoker has a separate standing fire pit, large pieces of wood can be burned as the resulting flames will never make it inside the smoker. As you already know, we don’t use wet wood for cold smoking because we want to eliminate moisture, not bring it in. Cold smoke warms the surface of the meat up very finely, just enough to allow the moisture to evaporate. Creating cold smoke for two days with wet wood will never dry out the meat. When hot smoking, the smoke along with the air is drying out the casings, which develops a harder surface. The surface of the meat will become drier, too. By using wet wood when hot smoking, we moisten the surface of the product, aiding the smoking.

Wood Pieces, Wood Chips or Sawdust

The type of wood used will largely depend on the smoker used, and the location of the fire pit. If the smoker is connected with a fire pit by a pipe or a trench, it makes absolutely no difference what type of wood is burned as this design can take a lot of abuse and still provides efficient and comfortable smoke generation. Most people that use these types of smokers don’t even bother with chips or sawdust and burn solid wood logs instead. Burning wood inside of small one-unit smokers creates the danger of a fire erupting.

We have to use wood chips or sawdust with a safety baffle above to prevent flames from reaching upwards. This would also prevent fat from dripping down on the wood chips and starting a big fire. When preparing sawdust, do not throw it into water, but place it in a bucket and then moisten it using a spray bottle. Mix sawdust by hand until it feels moist. This sawdust will burn longer and at lower temperatures than other woods and will be the material of choice for smoke generation in small electrical smokers.

When smoking in a home made barrel smoker with a fire pit in the bottom part of the drum, it is much easier to control the smoking process by using dry chips. These smolder and burn in a more predictable manner. Wet chips are just soaked in water on the outside, even when placed in a bucket overnight. The only way to make them really wet is to cover them with boiling water and leave them in it. Hot water penetrates wood all the way through.

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