What kind of wood should you use to smoke your meat? Tough decision. There are so many different types to choose from that it can be overwhelming, especially for novices. Once you’ve learned to pick up on their subtleties, however, the process will go much more smoothly. Here’s our take on the great hickory vs mesquite debate.
Hickory vs Mesquite: Flavor Profiles
Hickory is considered a medium-strength wood, one that imparts a generous smoky taste. Although it doesn’t have its own distinctive flavor profile–the way certain woods such as apple and maple do–it’s known for leaving its stamp on smoked meats like bacon.
Hickory gives off a vaguely sweet, intensely fragrant smoke that’s easy to recognize once you’ve been cooking with it for a while. Be forewarned, however, that if you’re preparing a meal for guests and they aren’t familiar with smoked food, the taste might be a tad overwhelming.
Tip: If you choose to use hickory for smoking, don’t overdo it. When the food is exposed to hickory smoke for too long, it can take on a bitter aftertaste.
Even diners who’ve never sampled mesquite-smoked foods before will recognize the flavor as soon as they’ve taken that first bite. How is this possible? Because mesquite is the strongest wood used for barbecue–so strong that it should be used sparingly. In fact, it’s often combined with milder woods, like apple and pecan, in order to tone down the intensity.
Amateurs should definitely use caution when experimenting with mesquite for smoking. Even seasoned BBQ masters are careful with it, because even a small amount can overwhelm the ingredients. We would also recommend reserving its use for low and slow cooking applications.
Hickory vs Mesquite: Best Food Pairings
Which foods pair best with hickory? As we’ve mentioned, it’s a natural partner for bacon, which means that it goes well with most cuts of pork. It also brings out the natural sweetness of beef, and it lends a nice intensity to chicken, particularly dark meat cuts like drumsticks and thighs. Some pitmasters have even experimented with hickory for smoking fish and cheeses, but we think it overwhelms the subtle qualities of these ingredients.
Mesquite is used almost exclusively for hearty cuts of beef, especially in Texas, where the flavor is renowned. In particular, brisket is one of the most popular partners for mesquite wood. It can also be used to intensify the smoky qualities of pulled pork, especially when used in combination with a mellower wood.
Shapes of Wood Used for Smoking
Flavor isn’t the only aspect you’ll have to consider, although it does play a role here. You should also think about the shape of the wood you’ll be using for the cook. Here are the most common types.
Wood chips and shavings are the most popular choice for grilling, particularly if you’re using a gas or charcoal-fired unit. Because they burn down quickly, they need to be replaced often. We wouldn’t recommend them for large cuts like brisket or pork shoulder, unless you’re using only a small handful to flavor other types of wood. Check out this handy tutorial for a visual demonstration on how to use wood chips for smoking.
These are roughly the size of a clenched fist, which means they’ll last longer in the smoker. They’re a great choice for offset smokers and charcoal grills.
The largest of all, split logs can be used for the main heat source as well as for flavor, especially in large offset smokers. They’re the go-to method when you’re smoking huge quantities of meat at once and need the wood to burn for hours on end.
Wood pellets are made from compressed hardwood, which has been ground into sawdust and reshaped into small cylinders. You’ll need to have a pellet grill if you want to use this type of wood for smoking.
Hickory vs Mesquite: Is One Better than the Other?
The first thing you should know is that both mesquite and hickory burn at roughly the same rate. That means you won’t have to adjust your cooking time on account of which wood you use.
Second, remember that if you’re cooking for a group of people, you may be the only one to notice the difference between hickory and mesquite–that is, as long as you’ve done the job properly. If you haven’t overdone it on the smoke, then the flavor will be nicely balanced. Only experts like yourself will be able to tell which type of wood you’ve used. Others might notice the smoky undertones, but the distinction will be lost on them.
Does that mean you shouldn’t bother to learn the difference? Not at all. On the contrary, as the chef, the distinction should be your primary concern. When it comes to choosing hickory vs mesquite, the decision comes down to several factors: The cut of meat, the length of the cook, the type of wood, and your experience level.
Large, hearty cuts like beef brisket would benefit from a dose of mesquite, as would pork shoulder (also known as Boston butt). Because these cuts require a long, slow cooking period, we would recommend using only chips or chunks of mesquite. If you’d like, you can supplement these with a few logs of milder wood to round out the flavor.
Hickory imparts more than just a taste–it will also imbue the food with an impressively rich mahogany color. Use chunks for longer cooking applications and larger cuts, and wood chips if you’re just grilling up a few chicken thighs or sausages.
In either case, try not to use smoke for more than half the cooking time. Longer exposure will overwhelm the flavor combination you’re trying to create. If you’re using a pellet smoker, use a mellow wood for the majority of the cooking time, supplemented with just a bit of hickory or mesquite.
Can Hickory and Mesquite Be Combined?
The short answer is yes, but there are a few caveats.
First off, we would recommend trying both hickory and mesquite on their own beforehand, so you’ll be better able to recognize the distinction between the two. If you do choose to combine them, it’s a good idea to use modest amounts of hickory and even less mesquite.
You should also use the wood chips for a shorter period of time–say, one-third of the total cooking time, rather than half. That way, the food will have a strong dose of that prized smoky flavor without being too overwhelming.
The Bottom Line
Is hickory better than mesquite, or vice versa? Not really. The main point to remember is that hickory gives off a moderate-to-strong flavor, while mesquite will pound any other flavors into submission if given the chance. Once you’ve had a chance to experiment with both, the choice should be a simple one.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!