Wood chips for smoking: types and their peculiarities

Smoking food for preservation is an ancient tradition. It’s the oldest form of cooking, and it’s been done since before written records. The word “smoke” is from old Norse and means hot vapor or steam. This is because smoking works by drawing out moisture in the meat with a mixture of heat, oxygen depletion, and smoky flavorings (usually wood chips). Wood is the traditional reagent, but many smokers use wood substitutes like peat, bamboo, clay, and even sugar today. We will look at how wood smoking works and some of its history.

How wood smokers work

The most popular way to smoke foods is by a smoker. A smoker is usually a large metal box with a metal grate in the bottom, which holds the food during smoking, and vents on top to allow the smoke mixture to enter. Fire is placed below to heat the inside, and food is hung above, out of direct contact with the heat. The grate allows moisture from below to drip down onto the mass of burning coals below, creating a hot-cold-hot cycle that cooks by steams and dries out by evaporating moisture.

The wood smoke flavoring agent is usually wood chips from various woods. These chips are typically soaked in water but can also contain other additives. To cook indoors, the smoker is set up outdoors on a picnic table or fireproof surface and vented to the outdoors by a chimney pipe. The smoking time will vary depending on the desired level of flavor and aroma – 3 or 4 hours might be suitable for some foods where you just want some smoky flavor with no burning required. At the same time, barbecue should be done as long as possible to get that perfect crust with intense smoke flavor.

Types of wood chips

There are several types of wood chips used. These include oak, hickory, and mesquite. 

  • Oak is the most popular due to its abundance and ability to provide most of the flavor. Oak contains tannins that can produce a mild bitterness at lower temperatures, adding to the flavor if you have higher outdoor temperatures. Hickory is very similar in flavor but tends to have a smokey taste throughout the cooking process. Mesquite has little smokey taste but burns hotter and longer than other woods, so it will often produce a stronger aroma.
  • Hickory wood chips are available at some supermarkets or hardware stores and are cheap compared to other wood chips. These are usually sold in ½-inch thick slices or as a collection of paper-thin slices that have been toasted longer and have a slightly darker color (more flavor). Hickory is also pretty good for smoking as it has very mild tannins.
  • Mesquite wood chips are higher in the tannins and are usually sold in ¼-inch thick pieces. They burn at around 900 degrees F and have a solid smoky smell and taste compared to oak chips but much less than hickory.
  • Rosewood Chips – The most expensive but most flavorful manner of smoking has been done with these chips made from the heartwood of an evergreen cedar tree. These chips also give a strong aroma, but they don’t burn like mesquite or hickory.

Other woods that can be used include alder, applewood, cherry, maple, and fruit tree wood chips (peach, plum). These are usually sold in fruit-flavored varieties best for flavoring desserts or other foods with fruit flavors. Though not as smoky as the woods mentioned above, they will burn well and add some flavor. Foods flavored with fruit wood chips are usually soaked in something sweet to offset the bitterness of the smoke before being cooked.


Smoking food is a great way to preserve and give it an extra flavor. The best way to smoke food is in a smoker, but if you don’t have one these days or want to do it outdoors, some alternative methods are available. Today’s alternative methods can be as easy as using a combination of aerosol charcoal and wood chips, which will work well on fish and other dry foods.

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