Softwoods like pine and cedar are not suitable for smoking food because they’re too resinous which can cause flare-ups and infuse odd flavors that don’t pair well with food. Higher sap content can not only ruin your food, it can ruin your smoker. They also burn too quickly.
Here are some of the most popular wood flavors and their flavor characteristics:
Alder: Alder wood imparts flavor similar to fruit woods with a more delicate sweetness. It works well for smoking seafood and other delicate foods.
Apple: Apple wood has a mild, sweet & fruity profile. Although it can be used to smoke virtually anything, it imparts a milder smoke flavor that’s a better choice for pork, poultry and fish. However, it can overwhelm poultry if smoked for too long.
Cherry: Cherry wood delivers a mild to medium smoke that is sweet, slightly fruity and blends well with oak wood. Cherry is an excellent wood for smoking pork, lamb, beef, dark poultry like duck and other gamey meat.
Hickory: Hickory is probably the most popular smoking wood. More intense than the fruit woods, it has a smoky, spicy flavor and is great on beef and pork but can be too heavy for chicken.
Maple: Maple wood gives a more subtle, mild and sweet smoky flavor that blends well with woods like alder, oak and apple. It’s ideal for smoking pork and poultry. Sugar-maple is exceptionally good for smoking turkey.
Mesquite: Mesquite is the most intense and concentrated, earthy smoke flavor you will find. It should only be used when you want a really bold smoky flavor. It’s best when used to smoke large cuts of beef and pork.
Oak: One of the most popular smoking woods, oak is less intense than hickory with a medium earthy smoke profile. It’s great on pork, beef, poultry and virtually anything, depending on how much smoke flavor you want.
Pecan: Similar to hickory with a nutty aroma that mixes well with fruit woods, pecan wood is primarily used for smoking poultry.