Is it okay to use red oak for smoking meat? If so, is it better suited for certain types of meat than others? And what differentiates red oak from other types of oak?
If you’re asking these questions, you probably already have a supply of red oak wood chips, pellets, or chunks and are wondering what to do with them. But whether or not that’s the case, we’re here to clue you in.
Red Oak For Smoking
Both red oak and white oak are suitable for the smoker. Actually, oak is an excellent and versatile choice because it has a distinctive flavor that’s noticeable without being too bold. Although white oak burns a bit hotter than red, there isn’t a major difference between them flavor-wise.
Why Choose Oak?
Oak-fired meats are a popular restaurant staple, particularly in fine-dining establishments. There’s a reason for that: Oak imparts a rich, complex flavor that complements meat without overpowering it.
Oak wood is easy to procure and relatively affordable, thanks to the ubiquitous nature of this particular tree. If you want to smoke your meat with peach wood, you might have a hard time finding it. That’s not the case with oak.
In terms of intensity, oak falls somewhere between mild woods like apple and stronger ones such as mesquite and hickory. It’s a nice compromise if you enjoy the taste of smoke but want to give the other flavors of the dish a chance to shine.
The flavor is earthy and slightly sweet, with vanilla undertones. In fact, white oak is often used to make whiskey barrels, so the taste reminds some diners of Kentucky bourbon. While red oak isn’t as suitable for holding liquid, its flavor is largely the same.
What’s The Difference Between Red and White Oak?
The majority of the oak trees in the US can be divided into two major categories: red oak and white oak. You may not know which one you’re buying, but here are the differences between these two umbrella terms.
White oak trees can grow to a slightly larger size than red oaks. When left to their own devices, white oaks may grow up to 80 feet, with broad branches and a high acorn output. Red oaks tend to halt their growth at around 60 feet and have a thinner appearance.
While the bark of a red oak is fairly smooth, white oak trees have a rough bark with deep grooves. Red oak trees are also darker in color, as evidenced by the name. The wood itself has a rosy hue, as opposed to the neutral shades of the white oak.
One more key difference between the two is the shape of the leaves. The leaves of the red oak are sharp and pointed at the ends, whereas white oak leaves have rounded tips. That’s the easiest way to tell whether an oak tree is red or white when viewed from a distance.
As we pointed out earlier, white oak is better suited for whiskey barrels because the cells continue to hold fluid inside once the tree dies. Red oak trees don’t share this quality, meaning the wood is more porous.
When it comes to heat output, white oak has a slight edge over red oak. It produces over 30 million BTUs per cord, whereas red oak produces 27 million for the same amount of wood burned. The variance is negligible, but it is there.
It’s worth noting that none of these differences should have an effect on your barbecue. In terms of flavor, red oak and white oak taste virtually the same.
Don’t worry about whether the oak tree was red or white when selecting your wood. If you come across someone who can tell the difference between the two in a blind taste test, they either have an exceptionally discriminating palate, or they’re pulling your leg.
What Meats Pair Best With Red Oak?
Oak is a highly versatile smoking wood. You can use it to smoke anything from bone-in chicken thighs to juicy pork sausages to beef tenderloin. If you’re only going to select one type of pellets or chips, you can’t go wrong with oak.
That said, we think its flavor works best of all with the naturally sweet notes of fresh beef and lamb. Those of you who smoke whole packer briskets and legs of lamb on a regular basis should appreciate everything that red oak has to offer.
Other Popular Smoking Woods
Can’t find red oak—or any kind of oak, for that matter? Don’t worry. There are plenty of other options out there, and you’re bound to find one that works well with your menu. Here’s the rundown on some of oak’s hottest (if you’ll pardon the pun) competitors.
Best For Brisket
Although there’s no substitute for oak when it comes to that authentic Texas BBQ taste, we would recommend using cherry in its place. Its fruity notes will play well with the beef’s natural sweetness, and the wood will impart a beautiful mahogany color to boot.
If cherry isn’t bold enough for your palate, you can experiment with hickory or mesquite. Since mesquite is so strong, we would suggest mixing a small amount in with the hickory (or another type of wood) instead of going full force with it.
Best For Turkey
Apple is a good bet when smoking turkey because it’s mild and sweet. Many recipes for turkey brine include apple juice or cider, so it stands to reason that the wood from the apple tree would complement the poultry.
Best for Ribs
When smoking ribs, it all comes down to the degree of smoke flavor you prefer. Since ribs are thin and have a lot of surface area, they take on a great deal of smoke. That means you can opt for mild fruit woods like cherry, apple, and peach and still get a ton of flavor.
On the other hand, if you want a bolder smoke taste, ribs are rich enough on their own to stand up to hickory. Remember that this wood can impart a bitter taste if you overdo it, so you might want to consider blending it with a milder, neutral-tasting wood.
Best for Chicken
Since chicken has such a mild flavor, it’s an excellent palette for most woods that are mild to medium in intensity. Try smoking it with alder, maple, cherry, apple, or pecan, or any combination of these.
Stay away from hickory and mesquite when smoked chicken is on the menu. The flavors are too strong and will overpower the delicate poultry.
Best for Fish
Speaking of delicacy, fish should be paired with woods like maple, pecan, and alder to bring out its best qualities. Maple is particularly wonderful with salmon.
Best for Pork
Best for Cheese
Planning on cold smoking some cheese? This is a lovely practice that will add depth to your next charcuterie platter. Try it with maple, pecan, alder, or apple, depending on the type of cheese you’re using.
The Bottom Line
You might not know if the oak wood you’re buying is red or white, and that’s okay. If it is labeled as red oak, know that this wood is not only suitable for the smoker, it’s one of the finest options on the market.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!