Personally, I'm not a big fan of lots of smoke with chicken/poultry. Chicken is already a fairly neutral cut of meat and will take well to rubs and marinades. If anything, I find that you can quickly overpower any sort of flavor with certain hardwood species - like hickory.
The best wood for smoking chicken are fruit-woods like apple, peach, or cherry. I'm also a big fan of using maple with chicken as it's what I'd deem the lightest of the common hardwoods.
With that said, I'm from New Hampshire and it's fairly easy to source Maple. If you're from a part of the world where maple is inaccessible, I'd suggest Apple instead.
A lot of the websites and resources on the internet will tend to lead beginners in the wrong direction when it comes to hardwood smoke. You'll likely find articles, much like this one, that will essentially tell the reader to use X type of wood with Y type of meat.
The truth is, hardwood smoke doesn't really work like that. More or less, hardwood smoke exists on a spectrum from mild to strong.
The mild woods include the fruit-woods like apple, cherry, and peach. In the middle lies oak, pecan, and hickory. At the end is mesquite, which most folks would consider strong.
After this, the websites will then become very nuanced. They'll start describing the smoke like they're a Sommelier who's describing wine.
This is further complicated by the fact that the chemical byproducts of wood combustion are not universal and will depend on the species, age, and mineral composition of the soil.
Meaning, the smoke "flavor" can change based on where the tree was grown.
In my opinion, the best wood for smoking chicken is maple or apple. However, all the fruit-woods will pair well with chicken and poultry - like cherry or peach.
Of the different types of hardwood used for smoking, maple is one of the lightest. It's commonly used for delicate foods like vegetables and cheese, however it goes well with chicken and poultry.
Something a lot of websites like to say is that the maple wood smoke is "sweet." This is because sugar maple, red maple, silver maple, and black maple are all used in the production of maple syrup.
However, I personally don't pick up on any "sweetness." There is definitely a "sweet" aroma - in a similar vein to other fruitwoods. In my opinion, it's more or less your brain playing tricks on you - i.e. syrup is sweet so the smoke is sweet. It's the same as cherries being sweet so cherry smoke must be sweet.
You could definitely argue that since "aroma" contributes to taste as it's perceived in the mouth. As you smell the sweet smoke, you also taste it.
In any case, maple offers a mild smoke that won't overpower the chicken.
Apple is a wood that I'm not a big fan of using - however it works well with chicken. For instance, a lot of people like to use apple with pork ribs where-as I'd rather use Cherry for both the smoke flavor and color it offers.
With that said, I almost cold smoke exclusively with apple just because it's cheap and you can find it at pretty much every home improvement store; I also like cold smoking with maple too.
My reasoning for using cherry over apple with pork ribs is because cherry tends to offer a mahogany hue to smoked meat. As you can imagine, some folks may not find this color appetizing on chicken.
In my opinion, the color it lends to the chicken skin is brilliant. However, I know most folks may not like it, in which case, apple is a great option for chicken; I also quite like Peach but it's relatively hard to source where I'm from.
Post oak is a type of wood that goes well with pretty much all types of meat, including chicken.
In terms of "smokey" flavor, Oak is about as far as I'd go with chicken. The members of my family, and even my friends, aren't big on eating a mouth full of smoke - which chicken will take on easily.
Your goal with smoking meat should be to create layers of flavor. In my opinion, the smoke is secondary or even tertiary. You should be able to taste the chicken, the rub, and the smoke.
This section is based on my personal experience and my opinions on dirty smoke. As I always say on Barbecue FAQ, what I may like, you may not and vice versa.
Often you'll hear about only using "thin blue smoke." However, this really isn't a big issue with shorter cooks like chicken, turkey, or ribs.
Truth be told, if you're not using an offset smoker with only wood as the fuel source, you shouldn't even worry about the smoke color - like if you're smoking on a charcoal grill - as you're getting flavor from chunks and heat from charcoal.
On a charcoal grill, you're using either lump charcoal or briquettes (the carbonized version of the wood chunks you add to the fuel) to smoke with and then adding a singular wood chunk for flavor.
There is minimal if any risk that you're going to impart enough "bitter" compounds onto the meat from 1-3 chunks of wood.
With chicken, you're smoking the meat for maybe 1 hour and then the rest of the cook takes 3 hours with charcoal as your heat source.
In contrast, a brisket smokes for 5-6 hours and takes 12+ hours to finish - which is a huge difference - even then, when smoked on a charcoal grill, you have minimal risk of bitter compounds from white hardwood smoke.
For the sake of comparison, some folks might find it useful to know what professional Pitmasters use to smoke chicken.
Keep in mind, a lot of these folks use offset smokers. Meaning, they use logs or "sticks." For this reason, they're apt to use whatever is local.
This is also a reason why different regions of the country have their own style of barbecue.
In Texas, post-oak and mesquite are popular. In the south, you'll likely see hickory and pecan. In the Midwest, hickory and apple are popular.
|Pitmaster||Type of Hardwood|
|Aaron Franklin||Post Oak or Pecan|
Eric Lee of Fire Dancer BBQ is well known for smoking chicken in competition; He has 19 first place calls for KCBS chicken.
*Pitmaster Harry Soo previously won the 2012 KCBS Chicken Champion without even using hardwood. He used Kingsford Blue - a brand of charcoal briquettes - which tends to offer great flavor.
The same reason I think cherry wood is best for smoking ribs is the same reason I don't use it for smoking chicken - the color it imparts on meat.
Cherry wood tends to offer smoked meats a reddish/rosy hue. On meats like Chicken, this can tend be off-putting.
Where-as on red meat like brisket or beef ribs, it helps contribute to a wonderful bark. Cherry wood also tends to be rather light in terms of smoke (like other fruit-woods), so many people will opt to mix it with something like post-oak or hickory.