The type of wood you select has a direct influence on the flavor of your smoked meats, cheeses, and vegetables. Some woods work better with certain ingredients than others, and there’s always the matter of personal preference to take into account.
What’s more, not all types of wood can be safely used in a smoker. Before you select a smoking wood, it’s vital to ensure that it’s suitable for this task. Our guide to using white oak for smoking will tell you everything you need to know about this wood type.
White Oak For Smoking
White oak is one of the best woods you can choose for smoking meats and vegetables. It has a rich, sweet flavor that embellishes food without overpowering its natural qualities. There aren’t a lot of noticeable differences between white and red oak, but white oak is preferable if you can find it.
Oak is one of the most popular smoking woods—and not just because it’s so widely available. It has a distinctive flavor that’s robust and full-bodied, yet not overwhelming. It’s also more affordable than some specialty smoking woods, such as peach.
While woods such as apple and alder might be too mild, and the bold flavors of hickory and mesquite can give food a bitter aftertaste, oak represents a good compromise. Anyone who enjoys the flavor of smoked meats should love the earthiness that oak wood offers.
The flavor of oak complements many different meats, from chicken thighs to pork sausages to filet mignon. If you’re looking for a medium-intensity wood that can be used to smoke just about anything, oak is a great choice.
In central Texas, pitmasters often use a form of white oak known as post oak to smoke their meat. This type of oak is also used to make whiskey barrels, so diners with discerning palates claim that the meat has a sweet vanilla-tinged flavor reminiscent of bourbon.
You can buy oak wood in pellet, chip, or chunk form. Pellets are obviously ideal if you have a pellet grill, but you can use them on a charcoal-fired unit as well. Wood chips don’t burn as long, but they can be used on any type of grill or smoker.
If you opt for wood chunks, you can put them directly on the coals of a charcoal fire. They’ll create more smoke over a longer period of time than chips will, making them the perfect option when smoking larger cuts like beef brisket.
White Oak vs. Red Oak: An Overview
Did you know that the United States is home to at least 60 different species of oak trees? Even though most people are familiar with oak trees in general, not many would be able to distinguish between the distinct species.
That said, most of them can be separated into one of two categories: white and red. Before you select one of them for your barbecue, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the qualities that distinguish them from each other.
White oak trees can grow to an immense size and produce a lot of acorns, which means they serve as a source of food and shelter for many animals. When allowed to grow to their full potential, white oaks finish up at somewhere around 80 feet high.
With practice, you can tell a white oak from a red oak by the color of the wood. The bark is lighter and rougher, with an ashy tinge to it. What’s more, the leaves have rounded tips as opposed to sharply defined angles.
Red oaks aren’t quite as tall, but they usually grow to about 60 feet. They also have a leaner appearance, as their branches don’t stretch out as far. Like white oaks, they’re often used as shelter and a source of food for wild animals.
The bark of a red oak is smoother than that of a white, and the overall color is much darker, with a deep rosy hue. When you examine the leaves, you’ll see that they have pointy ends, which is an easy way to distinguish them from the rounded leaves of the white oak.
Breaking Down The Flavor
When it comes to selecting a type of oak for your smoker, is there a significant difference between red oak and white oak? The answer is: probably not.
Although the trees are slightly different in terms of appearance, their wood structures are virtually identical. Both are made up of cells that resemble tiny straws, which allow the tree to draw water and nutrients from the soil.
The key difference between red oak and white oak is that when a red oak tree dies, these cells still allow water to pass through. On the other hand, when a white oak dies, the membranes between the cells will solidify, meaning the “straw” won’t work any longer.
On a practical level, this means that white oak is better for things like boatbuilding and making whiskey barrels, because the wood is less porous. But if you’re just burning the wood to flavor your food, you won’t notice much of a difference.
Feeling The Burn
All right, so we’ve determined that white oak and red oak are virtually identical in terms of the flavor they’ll impart to your smoked food. But does one of them burn hotter than the other?
This is more of a concern when you’re using the oak for firewood rather than for smoking, but the quality of the fire itself does have an effect on your cooking. Case in point: softwood isn’t suitable for the smoker, in part because it doesn’t burn cleanly enough.
Oak is an excellent choice when selecting firewood because it’s very dense, with a low water content. While it’s important not to burn it when it’s freshly cut, it’s a long-lasting wood that burns cleanly and produces amazing flavor.
White oak produces hotter fires than red oak, but only by a small margin. To be precise, dry white oak firewood will produce over 30 million BTUs per cord, as opposed to red oak’s 27 million.
The key takeaway here is that red oak works great, but white oak performs just a trifle better. If you have to choose between the two, white oak would be the clear choice.
On the other hand, if you know the wood chips are made from oak but you’re not sure what kind, don’t stress about it. Any type of oak will impart delicious flavor.
Types of Wood To Avoid
As a rule of thumb, you should never use softwoods for smoking. Fortunately, the companies who market wood chips and pellets know this. If you’re purchasing store-bought products, you can rest assured that they’ll be safe as long as they’re intended for cooking.
Pine, cedar, fir, and spruce all fall into the softwood category. What’s more, some hardwoods aren’t appropriate for cooking either. Mangrove, sassafrass, oleander, yew, and poisonous walnut will all release toxins that can contaminate your food.
If you’re not sure whether a type of wood is suitable, don’t use it in the smoker until you are. A Google search should tell you what you need to know.
The Bottom Line
Can you use white oak for smoking meat? Yes. In fact, it’s one of the best options you’ll find.
If you live in the Northeastern US and you buy oak chips for smoking, there’s a good chance that they’re made of white oak. But if they’re actually red oak, that’s fine too—you probably won’t notice any difference.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!