What’s the best wood for smoking brisket? Whether you’re a novice or a seasoned pitmaster, the wood you choose can make or break the barbecue. Here’s how to make your selection.
Best Wood For Smoking Brisket
Which wood you select depends on the flavor profile you’re trying to create. Because brisket is a hearty cut of beef, it can stand up to strong woods like mesquite and hickory. But if you want a milder smoke taste, apple and olive wood are good bets. Oak is a great all-purpose wood for the smoker due to its medium intensity and long burn time.
Is Brisket Beef or Pork?
These muscles are responsible for holding up about two-thirds of the steer’s weight. As such, the meat is naturally tough and requires a long, slow cooking process in order to make it palatable.
Best Wood for Smoking Brisket
The first thing to remember is that some woods produce stronger smoke flavors than others. It’s important to learn which is which, especially when smoking milder meats like poultry and fish. These can easily be overpowered by the smoke.
Brisket, on the other hand, is more versatile. The rich-tasting beef can hold its own when exposed to bold smoke flavors. You can even experiment with different combinations by using two or more types of wood. This adds layers of complexity to the finished dish.
Strong to Medium Smoke Flavors
Widely regarded as one of the strongest smoking woods on the market, mesquite has a sweet, earthy flavor that can be overpowering when used alone. However, this is the wood that many pitmasters choose when they want to make authentic Texas brisket.
With an intoxicating nutty aroma and bold, bacon-like flavor, hickory is another excellent choice for brisket.
Like mesquite, hickory can produce bitter notes if you use too much, which is why I like to mix it with other woods to tone it down. A blend of oak and hickory is a winning combination, and one that also works well with pork butt.
You can use oak to smoke anything from scallops to beef tenderloin. Medium in terms of intensity, with a flavor that’s smoky without being bitter, this is one type of wood that I always keep on hand.
Oak is popular in central Texas, where they tend to smoke brisket using a simple blend of salt and pepper. Since oak trees are native to the region, it makes sense to use this type of wood in the local cuisine.
Mild Smoke Flavors
The sweetness is the first thing you’re bound to notice about maple wood smoke. It has an earthy tang that complements the natural flavors of the beef without taking center stage. It’s not for everybody, though. If you don’t like maple syrup, you probably won’t like the taste of the smoke the wood produces, either.
Sweet and nutty, pecan wood is wonderful when used to smoke fish, chicken, or cheese. Brisket can benefit from its good qualities as well, but I would suggest blending it with something else to prevent the beef from tasting too sweet.
The smoke from apple wood is mild and fruity. It’s mellow enough to pair with mild-tasting meats, but it’s also a nice fit with brisket if you find that oak and hickory are too strong for your palate.
Olive’s flavor is reminiscent of mesquite, but it’s not nearly as bold. If you like that earthy taste with your brisket but want something milder, give olive wood a try.
This is a sweet, fruity wood that imparts a ruby tinge to smoked meats. Try pairing it with hickory for a complex flavor boost.
Wood Chips vs Chunks vs Pellets
The flavor of the wood matters more than the style, but you can’t just mix and match these styles. Some are designed for specific smoker types and might not be suitable for your unit. Let’s take a closer look.
These are exactly what they sound like: chips of wood scraps and shavings. They’re good for gas, electric, and charcoal smokers.
Since they’re so small, though, wood chips might not be the best choice for smoking brisket. It takes a long time for the meat to reach the optimal temperature of 200-203 degrees—as long as 12 to 20 hours.
Depending on what type of smoker you have, you might have to replace the wood chips every 45 minutes or so. That can be a real pain.
These pieces of wood are roughly the size of a clenched fist and work well in offset smokers as well as gas grills. Since they burn longer than wood chips, they’re ideal for larger briskets.
Pellets are made from compressed hardwood sawdust. The kind used for smoking are processed without any toxic chemicals, so they produce clean smoke that imparts a lovely wood flavor.
If you want to use wood pellets, it’s best if you have a dedicated pellet smoker. These units use the pellets as fuel, so the wood is more than just a source of flavor. You can add pellets to a charcoal grill too, but the effect is somewhat different.
I’ve listed this as an option because it’s used in many commercial settings, and the wood will last for many hours without needing to be replenished. However, logs tend to be 12 to 18 inches long, so they’ll only work if you have a huge offset smoker.
How to Blend Flavors
When it comes to mixing flavors, you have a couple of options.
Do you want to tone down the bold smoke produced by hickory or mesquite by adding a mellower wood? Or are you hoping to create a more nuanced flavor profile by combining various mild-tasting woods?
The choice is yours. Try experimenting with a few different blends to find out what works best.
What the Masters Say
Have you ever heard of Aaron Franklin? He’s a barbecue expert in Central Texas, where post oak grows in abundance. He uses this type of wood to smoke brisket for convenience as well as flavor.
Myron Mixon, another chef on the competitive circuit, favors a blend of hickory and fruitwoods to give his briskets an edge. Mixon is unusual in that he relies on unseasoned fruitwood rather than wood that’s had a chance to dry out. He claims that these types of wood rely on the sugar sap to give them their flavor.
Finally, pitmaster Malcolm Reed of howtobbqright.com relies on a mixture of pecan and hickory for his smoked brisket. The hickory is dense enough to burn slowly over long periods, while the pecan contributes depth of flavor. Check this action out.
Other Tips for Smoking Brisket
- Don’t use green hardwood. The sap will impart a bitter flavor and ruin your meat. Use only seasoned hardwoods, as these have had a chance to dry out.
- Avoid softwoods like cedar, pine, fir, and spruce. These contain too much sap and moisture to burn efficiently in the smoker.
- Make sure the wood is free of fungus or mold.
- Maintain a steady smoker temperature so that the brisket cooks at the correct pace.
- Don’t overdo it on the smoke. No matter which type you use, too much smoke can give the brisket bitter undertones.
Smoking Brisket on a Pellet Smoker
While pellet smokers are convenient and efficient, the smoke flavor that pellets produce is relatively mild. Those of us who want the meat to taste extra smoky may be disappointed in the results.
You also need a source of electricity to power a pellet smoker. The pellets are fed into the burn pot by an auger, then ignited by a hot rod. If your outdoor cooking area is too far from the nearest power outlet, this can be problematic.
If you want to use a pellet smoker for your brisket, try using oak, mesquite, or hickory. Since these produce a bolder flavor to begin with, they can help to overcome the meek nature of the pellet smoke.
The Bottom Line
What’s the best wood for smoking brisket? Every expert will tell you something different. The lack of a consensus gives you free rein to experiment with various wood types and flavor combinations.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!