The issue of using walnut wood for smoking is one that continues to see debate amongst pitmasters. Some claim that it’s not suitable at all, while others maintain that it’s fine for certain types of meat. In this piece, we’ll weigh in on the argument.
Walnut Wood For Smoking
Walnut has a very intense, tangy flavor that’s too bitter for most palates. It’s technically safe to use in the smoker, but a lot of pitmasters avoid it, preferring to stick with more traditional choices like oak or hickory. If you do try it, mix a small amount with a milder wood and use it to smoke game meats like venison and wild boar.
Why It Matters
Not all woods are suitable for the smoker. You can’t just throw any type of wood in there and think it will make your meat taste better.
For one thing, you need to select wood that’s been dried out and seasoned. When the wood is wet, it won’t produce the clean, rich smoke you’re looking for.
This is a particular concern with walnut wood. When the wood is still green, the smoke flavor will be bitter enough to render the food inedible. For best results, walnut should be seasoned for a minimum of 6 to 12 months before use.
Most importantly, the wood has to be hardwood. Softwoods like pine and cedar won’t work in the smoker because they contain resinous substances like sap and pitch. When these substances are exposed to heat, the resulting vapor will impart an off taste to your food. It might even make you sick.
When you purchase wood pellets, chips, or chunks that are designed specifically for cooking, you can rest assured that they’re safe. But if you opt to harvest your own wood for the smoker, a degree of caution is in order.
About Walnut Wood
Walnut is a very heavy, dense wood that comes from the same genus as hickory and pecan. Its dark, attractive color makes it a popular choice for furniture and flooring. The fact that it’s so sturdy doesn’t hurt, either.
There are two main types of walnut tree. Black walnut is the one that’s most commonly used in furniture manufacturing. English or Carpathian walnut is a milder version, but it still gives off a rich, dense smoke when burned.
Another interesting fact about walnut wood: It has an appealing grain pattern that earns it high marks from woodworkers. When we learned all these things about it, we almost felt guilty at the thought of burning it to season our meat.
Should you decide to give smoking with walnut wood a try, be forewarned that it’s pretty expensive. You might have a hard time finding it, too. Fortunately, there are alternatives that will make less of a dent in your wallet.
Can You Use Walnut Wood For Smoking?
Walnut is classified as a hardwood. That means it’s technically safe for use in the smoker. The question is, does it yield good results?
The detractors would say no, that walnut wood is unsuitable for smoking food. The smoke gives off a very heavy flavor that’s too bitter for most palates. It has a tart, acidic edge, which is overwhelming to delicate meats like poultry and fish.
Why does it taste so bitter? It’s because the walnut tree contains tannic acid. In fact, the leaves, fruit, and roots of the black walnut tree also include toxins that can be lethal for humans and certain other animals.
In addition, for some individuals, the smoke from walnut wood triggers asthma attacks and other allergic reactions. This is another reason why many pitmasters leave it off their list of possible smoking woods.
Proponents of walnut wood insist that it’s fine for smoking as long as you pair it with strong game meats like venison and elk. Even in these cases, though, it’s often mixed with other woods, as we’ll discuss later.
The bottom line? Walnut wood isn’t officially classified as being toxic to humans. But it’s best to use caution if you decide to experiment with it.
Best Foods to Smoke with Walnut Wood
As we mentioned, you should cross white meat like chicken and turkey off your list if you’re using walnut in the smoker. It’s also too overwhelming for seafood and delicate fish like trout.
Venison is our favorite type of meat to smoke with walnut wood. It has a robust, gamey taste that holds up well to the earthy smoke.
You can also use walnut on other game meats, such as wild boar, bison, and elk. We would suggest using it sparingly at first, as the smoke produces an intense flavor very quickly.
If game meats aren’t your thing but you still want to give walnut a try, consider mixing it with oak or fruit wood the next time you make smoked beef brisket. The tangy notes of the walnut smoke will pair well with the sweetness of the beef.
Pro Tip: When smoking with walnut wood, use a seasoning rub that contains coffee or espresso. This will bring out the earthiness of the wood smoke.
Suggested Wood Pairings
One of the best ways to offset the strong, bitter flavor of walnut is to mix it with other woods. A milder wood will sand down the edges of the flavor, so to speak. It will also lend complexity to the finished dish.
If you want to give your smoked meats a fruity flavor, try mixing the walnut with apple or cherry wood. Pear wood is another nice option—it has a bright, clean taste that will help to mask the bitterness of the walnut.
We also enjoy mixing oak with just about any other wood type. Because it falls somewhere in the middle of the intensity scale and has a lovely, distinctive flavor, it can be used to smoke many different types of meat and vegetables.
When combining walnut with another wood, use a small quantity of walnut and a larger amount of your second choice. This way, you’ll still get plenty of flavor from the walnut, but it won’t overpower the other wood.
A Word of Caution
We’ve already established that you need to take care when using walnut wood for smoking. But there’s one final point we need to mention: Keep a close eye on the smoker temperature.
Walnut tends to burn hotter than other woods. If you’ve set the smoker temp to 250 degrees, it might climb as high as 300 without you realizing it.
Our advice would be to set the smoker temperature slightly lower than you’d like, then see what happens during the first hour of the smoke. For example, if you want to smoke your food at 225 degrees, set the smoker to 200 at first.
That way, if the smoker is maintaining the set temp, you can go ahead and crank it up. But if you find that it’s burning 10 to 20 degrees hotter, there’s no harm done.
You can use walnut wood for smoking as long as you (or your guests) don’t have any adverse reactions to the smoke. The flavor isn’t for everyone, though, so you might want to stick with less controversial types of wood when entertaining large groups.