Best Wood for Smoked Chicken: 8 Tantalizing Options

Last update:
Smoked Chicken on The Grill

When it’s done right, smoked chicken is succulent and juicy—and most importantly, bursting with flavor. The type of wood you use for smoking has a direct effect on the results, so it’s critical to choose the right kind. I’m here to help you with that.

Best Wood For Smoked Chicken

I’ve found that fruit woods are often the best choice when it comes to smoked poultry, including chicken. Their low-key flavor will improve the delicate flavor of the meat without overwhelming it. Apple, cherry, apricot, and peach are all excellent. For a stronger smoke flavor, try oak or a nut wood such as pecan.

Best Wood for Smoked Chicken

Let’s dive right into the list of options. I haven’t listed these in any particular order—feel free to choose whichever one appeals to you most. You can even combine two or more to create a more nuanced flavor profile.

Apple

Many stuffing recipes call for apples as an optional addition, and apple juice and cider are popular brine ingredients. It’s no wonder, then, that the wood of the apple tree would impart a lovely flavor to smoked chicken.

Apple wood has a mellow, fruity flavor that will enhance the chicken’s best qualities. Be aware that it’s very mild compared to some of the other options I’ve listed here, so it may take several hours for the smoky taste to make itself known.

Peach

Peach wood is similar to apple in terms of intensity, but its sweetness is a touch more complex. It’s a good option if you want a milder smoke flavor but find apple a bit too dull for your liking.

Peach Tree

When using peach wood chips, be aware that they burn hotter and longer than some other fruit woods. This shouldn’t affect the total cooking time, but your chicken skin might crisp up faster than you were expecting.

Also, peach wood loses its flavor quickly after it’s been cut. You won’t notice if you’re using pellets, since these are made of compressed hardwood. Wood chips, on the other hand, will be less flavorful if you allow them to sit around for too long.

Cherry

This is another sweet fruit wood, but one that imparts a lovely reddish hue to the smoked chicken. The color is noticeable on all types of smoked meat, but since chicken is pale to begin with, it’s especially prevalent in this case.

You might be worried that the pink color will make it hard to tell when the chicken is cooked. This is one of the many reasons you should never rely on color alone when testing chicken for doneness. Use an instant-read meat thermometer and take the bird off the heat when it’s cooked to 165 degrees.

Apricot

All fruit woods carry hints of the fruits themselves, and apricot is a classic example. When you smell the smoke it produces, you can almost feel those sweet juices running down your chin.

I like to use apricot for smoked chicken when I plan on using the leftover meat to make chicken salad. Toss in some dried cranberries and fresh tarragon, and bind it all together with a homemade lemon aioli. You might just end up eating all of the salad before it even has a chance to make it into a sandwich.

Maple

Maple trees might not produce fruit, but their wood gives off an intoxicatingly sweet smoke. If you’re one of those folks who enjoys putting maple syrup on everything from pancakes to grilled salmon, you’re sure to appreciate what this wood brings to your barbecue. Try blending it with cherry or oak to balance out the flavors.

Almond

The nutty undertones in almond wood go a long way towards enriching lean meats like poultry. The wood burns hot and clean, leaving behind very little ash. Be sure to set some aside for the next time you have fresh fish to put on the smoker.

Pecan

A tad stronger than almond but with a similar nutty richness, pecan is a wonderful choice for smoked chicken. Its flavor is reminiscent of hickory, only not as intense. If you’d like to tone down the nutty taste, try combining it with apple or apricot.

Pecan Tree

Oak

One of the most popular all-purpose smoking woods, oak is characterized by its bold, rich flavor. Unlike hickory and mesquite, which can be too strong for poultry, this wood will give the chicken an unmistakably robust taste with no trace of bitterness.

Oak can burn for long periods of time, which is one of the qualities that makes it an excellent fit for the smoker. If the cooking process lasts long enough, it can imbue the meat with a tantalizing mahogany hue.

Woods to Avoid When Smoking Chicken

You don’t have to stick to the woods I’ve suggested, but there are a few that I would definitely stay away from.

I mentioned mesquite, which is arguably the strongest smoking wood out there; and hickory, which can be quite bitter and overpowering. These woods are fine when smoking beef and even hearty cuts of pork, but for chicken, they’re too much.

Alder is another one that I would avoid. Like hickory, it carries a bitter edge that will detract from the mild flavor of the poultry. I’d save this type of wood for smoked seafood, as the briny taste can hold its own against the bitterness.

The following types of wood should never be used on the smoker:

  • Cedar
  • Cypress
  • Fir
  • Juniper
  • Pine
  • Redwood
  • Spruce

These are all softwoods, which means they contain too much sap and moisture to create a nice clean smoke. In addition to leaving a foul black ash on the food, using softwoods can result in dangerous flare-ups.

Whole Chickens vs. Chicken Parts

Does it matter if you’re smoking whole chickens, leg quarters, thighs, breasts, or wings? Not really. The woods I’ve listed here should go nicely with all of them.

That said, you may want to stick to milder woods when smoking the breasts or wings alone. These are made up of white meat, which has a more delicate flavor than the dark meat of the legs and thighs.

Most of the woods I listed are fairly mild in the first place, and white meat cooks through quickly, so it might not be a major issue. This is just something to keep in mind if you prefer a more subtle smoke flavor.

Tips on Smoking Chicken

Use a rub that will complement both the natural flavor of the chicken and the wood you’ve chosen. For best results, make your own. A blend of garlic powder, paprika, chili powder, oregano, cayenne pepper, cumin, brown sugar, and kosher salt should work well.  

Smoke Chicken on Grill

Keep the lid closed as much as possible. The smoker will lose heat and smoke every time you open the lid. That means your chicken will take longer to cook and be less flavorful when it’s finally ready.

Smoke chicken at 300 to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. This is the ideal range because it allows the meat to take on plenty of smoke flavor while the skin gets nice and crisp.

Be careful not to let the breast meat overcook. The thighs and drumsticks can take temperatures up to 180 degrees without drying out, but the breasts will have the consistency of sawdust if they cook past 165.

Let the chicken rest for at least 20 minutes before you attempt to carve it. Otherwise, the juices will run out, leaving you with dry meat. 

For tips on how to smoke a whole chicken on a charcoal grill, check out this video tutorial. 

The Bottom Line

Chicken has a mild flavor that works well with sweet woods like cherry, apple, and apricot. If you prefer something stronger, pecan and oak are good bets.

No matter what’s on the smoker, your main goal should be to accentuate the flavor of the meat, not overwhelm it. This is especially important when it comes to lean meats like chicken.

Best of luck, and happy grilling!

Darren Wayland Avatar

AUTHOR

Leave a Comment