When people think of barbecue, beef brisket is likely at the forefront of their mind. Aside from being one of the most time consuming and hardest meats to smoke - it's also the most rewarding.
While picking a good brisket is the most important part of the process. The hardwood you use also plays an important role in the overall taste profile.
In my opinion, the best woods for smoking brisket are post oak, pecan, or hickory. If you're someone who doesn't like lots of smoke, using a fruitwood like cherry or apple are also great options.
Almost all of the resources you'll find on the internet for smoking meat will lead beginners in the wrong direction. Often, you'll read resources - similar to this article - that will tell the reader to use X species of wood with Y type of meat.
However, things don't really work like that with smoke. More or less, hardwood smoke exists on a spectrum from mild to strong.
The mild woods include fruit-woods like apple, cherry, and peach. In the middle of the spectrum is oak, pecan, and hickory. At the end of the spectrum is mesquite, which most folks would consider strong.
At this point, the other articles on the web will then become super nuanced and start describing the different wood smoke "notes" like they're a Sommelier describing wine.
This concept is even further complicated by the fact that the chemical byproducts of wood combustion are not universal. They depend on the species of wood, age, and mineral composition of the soil. Meaning, the hardwood grown in New England will taste different than the hardwood grown in California.
There are also several different species of hardwood, like oak. Meaning, when someone says to use "oak", they could be referring to any number of different species.
The best wood for smoking brisket is post oak - closely followed by pecan or hickory. However, fruit-woods can work just as well for people who aren't huge fans of super forward "smokey" aroma/flavor on food.
In my opinion post-oak is the best wood for smoking brisket.
The region most popular for smoked brisket is Central Texas and in Central Texas they smoke with Oak. Meaning, if you're smoking food for guests or family and you don't know how much smoke they like, your safest bet is also Oak.
Post-oak goes well with pretty much any meat - especially beef. It offers a mild smoke flavor that's noticeable without overpowering the food.
Personally, I'm a big fan of actually tasting the meat I'm smoking. Meaning, the dry rubs/spices as well as the smoke only exist to compliment the food and to create layers of flavor as you chew - nobody wants to just eat a mouth full of smoke.
I would consider oak stronger than fruit-woods like cherry, apple, or peach. However, it's lighter than hickory or pecan.
This is the reason people who make wood pellets for smoking will use Oak as a "filler" wood. Oak offers a consistent heat source/burn rate (stable BTUs) for the pellets and the other hardwood is more-so used for flavor (they also typically leave the bark on the flavor wood so that flavor comes through).
If you're someone who likes a pronounced smokey flavor, hickory is a great choice. Woods like hickory and oak are also often used together because they burn similarly.
A major benefit of hickory is that you don't really need a lot of it to impart a smokey flavor. If you're someone who smokes with wood chunks or chips on a charcoal smoker, this is beneficial as won't need to replace the wood often.
Pecan is a mild wood that is often said to have a sweet flavor - sometimes described as spicy/nutty.
It doesn't tend to burn as long as oak or other species of hickory (pecan is a species of hickory). For this reason, it's usually used for shorter cooks like pork ribs or combined with other hardwoods like Oak.
Pecan smoke is also rather unassuming, much like Oak.
For some reason, a lot of the websites like to say that pretty much all fruit woods will impart a "fruity" flavor onto food. While I can certainly tell you that the smoke smells sweet, I wouldn't necessarily say the smoke tastes sweet.
Maybe it's more so your brain relating something like cherries to be sweet so the wood smoke must be sweet. I personally can tend to pick on a slight sweetness with cherry wood - again this could just be my brain playing tricks on me.
You could argue that since flavor is linked to both taste and odor that when the smoke particles enter your nose, they're also perceived in the mouth.
Nevertheless, fruitwoods like Cherry, Apple, and peach are popular for smoking brisket.
Cherry wood is also known for imparting a deep mahogany color onto meat. However, if you're smoking meat for 12+ hours, the meat is going to take on a dark color regardless of the type of wood you choose to smoke with (see picture above).
Just for the sake of comparison, some people might find it useful to know what professional Pitmasters use to smoke brisket.
Keep in mind - most of these folks use offset smokers. On an offset smoker you use logs or "sticks" as your fuel source - where-as the rest of us likely use charcoal as the fuel source and wood chunks/chips for smoke flavor.
Simply put, they're apt to use whatever is local - both from a sales perspective (customer expectations) and because it's cheaper (to buy/have delivered).
This is another reason different regions have their own style of barbecue.
In Texas, Post-oak and mesquite are quite popular. In the South you're apt to see Hickory and Pecan. In the Midwest you're likely to see hickory or apple; You get the gist.
|Pitmaster||Type of Hardwood|
|Aaron Franklin||Post Oak|
|Jonny White||Post Oak|
|Harry Soo||Apple and Hickory|
|Myron Mixon||Oak and Hickory|
Aaron Franklin is the person most people look to for Brisket information.
Jonny White used to work for Franklin Barbecue and currently runs Goldees Barbecue with four other Pitmasters - they recently received the number one rating in Texas Monthly.
While I think wood for smoking brisket entirely comes down to personal preference, there's a reason why some of the best brisket is smoked with Post Oak.
As someone who has used a number of different types of wood to smoke brisket, my preference is almost always Post Oak or Hickory.