While there are many options when it comes to smoking meat, pork butts, ribs, sausages, chicken, the one that leaps to the front when it comes to truly mastering the barbecue is the all-mighty brisket. Smoking a brisket can be a daunting challenge to new barbecue enthusiasts as it can be extremely sensitive to time, heat, smoke, and meat preparation. Choosing the best wood for smoking brisket is an essential step in this process.
Brisket can be such a hard beast to tame since it often spends so many hours on the barbecue.
Use too light of a wood, think alder, a common choice for smoking salmon, and your brisket won’t have the bold flavors we have come to expect. On the flip side, mesquite, which has the highest lignin (a compound that gives wood its strength) content of any of the popular smoking hardwoods, can leave a brisket tasting like an old fireplace if the fire and smoke aren’t well managed.
Making your choice for the best wood for smoking brisket comes down to both a matter of taste and often a matter of convenience as well.
While a pitmaster deep in the heart of Texas may prefer the taste of hickory on their brisket, it doesn’t make much sense to use it if the only hardwood they can find within 200 miles is mesquite.
Luckily, as a backyard barbecuer, you have the option of picking up different woods to experiment with to find your favorite.
Choosing the Best Wood for Smoking Brisket
Selecting the best wood for smoking brisket will depend on a few factors.
The first being your taste preference!
If you love the taste of hickory on your brisket and have access to it then thats what you should use for smoking brisket.
Let’s run through some of the most common woods used for smoking brisket.
Starting out with the strongest flavored woods and gradually working our way down to the milder and sweeter varieties.
Mesquite is often the wood of choice for Texas-style barbecue. A debate could be had as to whether this choice is due to the preference on flavor or the preference of flavor was forced upon their palettes due to mesquite being one of the only readily available hardwoods in west Texas.
As discussed above, mesquite contains more lignin than any other domestic hardwood used in barbecue. This gives meat smoked over mesquite a distinctive, almost spicy smoked flavor. It can also lead to meat with an extremely smoky and offputting flavor if not well managed.
Mesquite, owning to the lignin content, likes to burn hot. This can lead to having to more closely manage the fire through damper control which, as you can probably guess, can lead to oversmoking the meat.
If you’re using charcoal with mesquite chips, it can be easier to manage the smoke and flavor as you can directly control how much wood is on fire.
Hickory, along with oak, are going to be your two most popular wood choices, at least among BBQ restaurants, for smoking brisket.
It is my personal choice for the best wood for smoking brisket. I love the strong flavor yet the meat picks up from hickory smoke yet it is still forgiving enough that the smoke isn’t overpowering even after a long cook time.
The flavors imparted from hickory smoke do an excellent job of toeing the line between sweet and savory. You get the savory punch we all expect from a brisket, yet there are still sweet undertones that aren’t drowned out as they would be with mesquite.
Using oak for smoking brisket and almost any other meat is the go-to for many pitmasters. Whether you are a weekend warrior firing up the smoker in the backyard or a competition smoker, oak is a solid choice.
Oak fires burn long and clean and impart a very middle-of-the-road flavor to the meat. Not overpowering yet still bold. Oak is probably the most common wood used at barbecue restaurants as it is a great medium for smoking brisket and sausage, pork, chicken, etc.
Oak is also extremely prevalent across the entire United States so getting your hands on a batch of seasoned oak to keep your fire fed is easy whether you are cooking in Washington or Florida or anywhere in between.
Pecan isn’t going to make the list for the preferred wood at many Texas barbecue restaurants but once you head further east you’ll start to see it show up more and more.
Pecan imparts a fairly sweet, nutty flavor to the wood that lends itself perfect for cuts of meat like fish, poultry, or pork.
With that said I think it adds a really interesting variation to the deep, smokey brisket flavor we have all grown accustomed to.
I personally think that pecan works best with brisket when mixed with oak or hickory to balance out some of the sweetness and provide some of the deeper flavors we’re used to.
One nice thing about pecan smoke, along with many of the fruit woods, is you can give the meat a lot more smoke without it ending up tasting burnt or ashy.
Apple & Cherry
Apple and cherry both have sweet and mild flavor profiles. Cooking a brisket with cherry or applewood means you can add smoke to the meat for a large portion of the cook without adding an overpowering flavor.
Like pecan, apple and cherry are often combined with a more traditional brisket smoking wood like hickory or oak to balance the sweetness with the more traditional, bolder flavors.
If you’ll be smoking multiple types of meat simultaneously, adding heavier woods near the beginning when the brisket is over the fire, followed by milder fruitwoods, is a good compromise. This way, you don’t overpower the later meats yet still get a good flavor on the brisket.
Maple & Alder
These will be the mildest woods used for smoking, and it may be tough to get a good smoke flavor on brisket with these choices. With that said, they can be a good beginner wood as you can slowly add other woods in during the cook and don’t have to worry about over smoking your brisket.
The type of fire you’ll be barbecuing with will also play a huge factor in the best wood for smoking brisket.
Pellet smokers make it easy to control both the temperature and smoke levels no matter which wood type you choose. Adding in a little mesquite or fruit woods is a simple process that won’t change the quality of the heat.
Gas grills with a smoker box or charcoal grills, where you can directly add wood chunks to the heat, allow you to add wood at the beginning of the smoke easily but can make it difficult to add wood later without removing grates and letting a lot of heat out. With that said, hardwood chunks in almost any hardwood are readily available from hardware stores or even Amazon.
Beware of buying hardwood chunks online, though, as some brands are known to include many more chips than chunks in their bags of wood. Usually, reviewers are quick to call these brands out, so do a little research before committing.
Wood-fired barbecues give you the most authentic barbecue experience, but you will probably be limited to the hardwoods available in your area. It can quickly get expensive if you need to make long drives to pick up enough wood to fire a barbecue for the longer cook times that brisket requires.
The quality of the wood available to your will also play a large role in choosing the best wood for smoking brisket. For wood fired barbecues you should use wood that has been seasoned (dried) for at least 9 – 12 months.
Using green (wet) wood on a barbecue leads to a more inefficient fire and more dirty smoke which will impart a dirty smoke flavor on your brisket.
Luckily, this issue doesn’t matter much if you’re using a pellet or charcoal grill as hardwood chunks are readily available and ready to use immediately.
What Woods do the Best Barbecue Restaurants Use to Smoke Their Brisket?
Most of the top barbecue restaurants will lean on a single species of tree for cooking. If you want to take a stab at nailing their flavors, here are the woods they use for smoking brisket.
Joe’s KC uses 100% Missouri white oak to make their barbecue. As someone who has made a few visits to Joe’s over the years, I can say they have it dialed in with their wood choice!
Frankling BBQ is one of the most popular barbecue restaurants in the country and is known for their mouth watering brisket. Pitmaster Aaron Franklin has mastered the art of barbecue and uses only seasoned post oak for smoking his award winning brisket.
As an aside – I highly recommend checking out a copy of Aaron Franklin’s book, Franklin Barbecue: A Meat Smoking Manifesto. Reading it gave me a whole new perspective on the level of detail that goes into making award-winning barbecue.
Acclaimed Memphis barbecue restaurant, Central BBQ, is a bit outside the brisket belt but still serves up an incredible meal. At Central BBQ, they use a combination of hickory and pecan to smoke all of their meat.
Just outside of Dallas, in Deep Ellum, you’ll find Pecan Lodge BBQ. Named one of the world’s best BBQ restaurants by Texas Monthly, Pecan Lodge uses a mix of mesquite and oak to keep their 24-hour-a-day pits burning.
Final Thoughts on the Best Wood for Smoking Brisket
Mastering the process of smoking brisket can be a life long challenge for even the most experience pitmasters. But, by nailing the wood choice from day one, you’ll know you’re adding the best flavors to your brisket.
What are your favorite wood choices for smoking brisket? Drop us a line or send a photo of your latest brisket and we’ll add it to the site!