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Sara Hansen

The Secret to Smoky BBQ Flavor: Choosing the Right Type of Wood Chips

When it comes to smoking meat, there are a few key factors that can affect the outcome of your cook. One of the most important being the type of wood you use. Different woods impart different flavors to the meat, so it's important to choose the right one for the job. And one of the most popular forms of fuel for smoking meat is wood chips, which, like other wood fuels, come in a variety of types (aka “flavors”).

In this article, you'll learn why and how wood chips play such a big role in smoking meat, how to select the perfect wood type of wood chips to enhance your meat, and some bonus tips on using them. Don't settle for mediocre barbecue; elevate your grilling game by picking the best wood chips to match your preferred taste and style.


The Role of Wood Chips in BBQ Flavor

When it comes to achieving that perfect smoky BBQ flavor, the type of wood chips you choose can make or break your final result. The smoke produced from burning wood chips is one of the main things that gives meat that signature “BBQ” flavor and aroma. But how exactly does it do this and why are the results different between different types of wood?


The Science Behind Wood Smoke

The science behind how smoke affects meat is simple yet fascinating. To summarize it briefly, when wood is burned, it releases a complex mixture of gasses and compounds. These include carbon dioxide, water vapor, syringol, and guaiacol

When the smoke particles come into contact with the meat, they react with the proteins and fats in the meat, creating new flavor compounds. These flavor compounds are what give smoked meat its smoky, slightly charred flavor that we all know and love.


The Importance of Choosing the Right Type of Wood Chips

Choosing the right wood chips when smoking meat is crucial for achieving the desired flavor and aroma in your BBQ. Different types of wood impart different distinct flavors, with some being more subtle and others being more bold. The right choice of wood type can enhance and complement the natural flavors of your meat.

For example, hickory wood chips provide a strong, smoky flavor that pairs well with rich, fatty meats like pork and beef. On the other hand, fruitwood chips like apple or cherry can provide a more delicate, sweet smoke that's perfect for chicken or fish. So, let's dive a little further into the types of wood that are available to choose from.


types of wood chips | choosing the right wood chips
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The Types of Wood Chips for Smoking Meat

In general, two types of wood are commonly used for smoking meat: hardwoods and fruitwoods.

Fruitwood Chips

Fruitwood chips are made from various fruit trees and are known for their sweet and subtle flavors, making them better suited for lighter meats.

  • Apple: Apple is a popular choice for smoking poultry, pork, and some fish. It has a mild, fruity flavor that pairs well with the natural flavors of the meat.
  • Cherry: Cherry is another good choice for smoking chicken and fish. It has a slightly sweeter flavor than apple, and it can also be used to smoke pork and beef.
  • Peach: Peach wood chips provide a mild flavor that works well with virtually any type of meat, especially poultry and pork.


Hardwood Chips

Hardwood chips are made from trees such as oak, hickory, and mesquite, and they offer strong and bold flavors.

  • Hickory: Hickory is one of the most popular woods for smoking meat and has a strong, smoky flavor that goes well with pork, beef, and poultry.
  • Oak: Oak is another versatile wood that can be used for smoking a variety of meats, especially red meat. It has a slightly milder flavor than hickory, but it still imparts a nice smoky taste.
  • Maple: Maple is a good choice for smoking lighter meats, such as chicken and fish. It has a sweet, mild flavor that compliments the natural flavors of the meat.
  • Pecan: Pecan is similar to hickory, but it has a slightly sweeter flavor. It's a good choice for smoking beef, pork, and poultry.
  • Mesquite: Mesquite is a distinct, strong-flavored wood that is best suited for smoking beef and game meats. It has a smoky, slightly spicy flavor that can be overpowering if used too heavily. This wood is a favorite of Texas-style BBQ purists.



Technically, there is a third type of wood known as softwood. This wood, which comes from trees such as pine and cedar, is not commonly used for smoking meat. This is because of their high resin content, which can cause a bitter taste and even produce toxic smoke. Cedar planks are a popular accessory used to grill salmon on (and it’s perfectly healthy to do this), but don’t use the wood to create smoke when smoking meat.

Whether you prefer sweet and subtle fruitwood chips or bold and strong hardwood chips, experimenting with different types can help elevate your BBQ game to the next level.


Matching Types of Wood Chips with Types of Meat

When it comes to smoking or barbecuing meat, choosing the right wood chips can make all the difference in the world. As mentioned above, different wood chips impart different flavors and aromas to the meat, which can either enhance or detract from its natural taste.


smoking with wood chips | choosing the right flavor of wood chips | types of wood chips


So, how do you know which wood chips to use for the meat you're cooking? Let's take a look at some classic pairings between wood chips and types of meat:


For beef, the best wood chips to use are hickory, mesquite, oak, or pecan. Hickory wood chips are the most popular choice for creating a savory smoky taste that complements the meat's natural flavor, while mesquite wood chips impart a more intense and somewhat spicy smoke flavor. Oak wood chips produce a milder smoke flavor that is perfect for beef cuts such as brisket. And pecan wood chips add a sweet and nutty flavor to the meat.



Pork pairs well with wood chips such as apple, cherry, hickory, and maple. Applewood chips have a sweet and fruity flavor that enhances the meat's natural sweetness, while cherry wood chips offer a mild and fruity smoke flavor that is perfect for pork chops and ribs. Hickory wood chips, as mentioned earlier, are a classic choice for smoking most any type of meat, while maple wood chips add a subtle sweetness to the natural, salty flavor of pork.



When it comes to smoking poultry, the best wood chips to use are apple, cherry, hickory, or pecan. Apple and cherry wood chips impart a sweet and fruity flavor to the meat that pairs perfectly with the mild flavor of chicken or turkey. Hickory wood chips add a more robust smoky flavor to the meat, while pecan wood chips offer a sweet and nutty flavor that complements the meat's natural flavor.



When smoking seafood, the best wood chips to use are maple and oak. Maple wood chips have a mild and sweet flavor that compliments the delicate flavor of fish. While oak wood chips produce a milder smoke flavor that can also be a good choice for seafood.

Of course, these are just general guidelines. The best way to find the perfect wood for your BBQ is to experiment and see what you prefer and what gives you the best results.


Bonus Tips for Using Wood Chips to Smoke Meat


tips for using wood chips | choosing the right flavor of wood chips | types of wood chips


As you can see, when it comes to smoking your meat, the right wood chips can make all the difference. Not only do they add a smoky flavor, but they can also create a unique taste depending on the type of wood you choose. Here are some tips for using wood chips properly and achieving the perfect smoky flavor on your meat:

  • Control the Smoke: Controlling the amount of smoke is crucial when smoking meat. Too much smoke can overpower the flavor and make the meat taste bitter. Remember, you want a steady stream of thin, blue smoke.
  • Use the right amount of wood: Too much wood can make your meat bitter, so it's important to use the right amount. A good rule of thumb is to use one cup of wood chips for every three pounds of meat.
  • Smoke the meat at a low temperature: Smoking meat at a low temperature (225-250 degrees Fahrenheit) will help to develop the nice, smoky flavor that you want.


Using Wood Chips with Gas Grills

Yes, you can still use wood chips on a gas grill.  Doing so can create the same smoky flavor as a charcoal or wood-fueled grill/smoker. Here's how to do it:

  1. Wrap the wood chips in aluminum foil, creating a packet with holes poked in the top.
  2. Place the packet directly on the heat source, under the grates.
  3. Preheat the grill to high and let it smoke for about 15 minutes before adding the meat.


Using the Right Wood Chips Can Help You Achieve BBQ Success

The type of wood chips you choose can make or break the flavor of your BBQ. By selecting the right wood chips, you can achieve that irresistible smoky flavor that will have everyone coming back for seconds. Remember to consider the type of meat you are cooking, the intensity of the smoke flavor you want, and the overall taste you are trying to achieve. 

Whether you prefer hickory, mesquite, or applewood, make sure to experiment with different types of wood chips to find your perfect combination. With the right wood chips and a little bit of practice, you can become a BBQ master in no time.

Do you have a preferred type of wood? Did you recently try a different type with a specific kind of meat? Leave a comment below and tell us all about it!


Do you want to get more insider information like this, as well as proven competition barbecue cooking techniques and secrets that will help you master your smoker or grill? You can get all of this and more from the Champion Pitmasters and Grillmasters here in the BBQ Champs Academy online barbecue cooking classes. Our step-by-step classes, all in high-definition video, are unlike anything you’ll find elsewhere online and are packed with everything you need to know to start cooking like the pros. 

Get your All-Access pass now to get the full inside scoop!

Sara Hansen

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