Best Wood for Smoking Chicken: Options Explained

By Dylan Clay
Last Updated 
January 24, 2023

Personally, I'm not a big fan of lots of smoke with chicken/turkey/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.

I've found that the best wood for smoking chicken is maple. Aside from that, fruit-woods like apple or peach also tend to work quite well.

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 Quick Word About Hardwood "Flavors"

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, hard wood smoke doesn't really work like that. More or less, it exists on a spectrum from mild to strong.

Fruit-woods are considered mild - 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 "flavor" can change based on where the tree was grown.

The Best Wood for Smoking Chicken

best wood for smoking chicken
Pictured left to right: Maple, Post Oak, Apple

In my opinion, the best wood for smoking chicken is either maple or apple, in that order.

However, all the fruit-woods will pair well with chicken and poultry - like peach.

1. Maple Wood

maple is the best wood for smoking chicken

Chicken is a cut of meat that is very neutral in taste. Meaning, it can take well to flavorings, seasonings, and marinades.

It's sort of the same story with smoke. For this reason, I prefer a light smoke flavor that's in the background as apposed to being upfront.

I'd rather taste the seasonings/marinade and then the smoke as apposed to the other way around.

If your preference is the other way around, i.e.. you like lots of smoke with your chicken, simply flip this list.

Of the different types of wood people use to smoke with, 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 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.

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 and it's what I'd deem the best wood for smoking chicken.

2. Apple Wood

apple smoking wood chunks

Apple is a wood that I'm not a big fan of using - however it works well with chicken.

The same reason I prefer Cherry wood over apple for pork ribs is the same reason I don't recommend people use cherry for chicken - the color it imparts on meat.

A lot of people are put off by the red hue it offers the chicken skin.

With that said, most fruit woods pair well with chicken.

I personally prefer peach with chicken but it's really hard to source where I'm from and I almost always will resort to using apple instead.

I also cold smoke exclusively with apple just because it's cheap and you can find it at pretty much every home improvement store.

3. Post Oak

post oak smoking wood chunks

Post oak is a smoking wood that goes well with pretty much all types of meat, including chicken.

I'm personally a huge fan of using Post oak with beef cuts like brisket as well as chuck roast and beef ribs.

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.

What About Cherry Wood?

cherry wood for smoking chicken

The same reason I think cherry works best with ribs is the same reason I don't use it for chicken - the color it imparts on meat.

Cherry 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 color.

Fruit woods tend to be rather light in terms of smoke; Many people will opt to mix it with something like post-oak or hickory.

Thick White Smoke (Dirty Smoke) and Smoking Chicken

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.

thick white smoke

Smoking chicken isn't a long or involved process, especially if the parts are separated from the whole chicken. Not to mention, whole chicken is one of the cheapest meats you can smoke.

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 hardwood 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) for heat and then you're 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.

What Woods Do Pitmasters Use to Smoke Chicken

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/splits 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 - whether it be the smoking wood or the sauce that's used.

In Texas, post-oak and mesquite are popular. In the south, you'll likely see hickory and pecan. In the Midwest, hickory and apple wood are popular.

Pitmaster Type of Hardwood
Eric Lee Peach
Aaron Franklin Post Oak or Pecan
Harry Soo None*
Malcolm Reed Cherry

Eric Lee of Fire Dancer BBQ is well known for smoked chicken; 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.

Smoking Wood Pellets, Chips, Chunks and More

If you're someone who is smoking chicken on a pellet smoker, the "type" of pellets you use won't tend to matter much.

spatchcocked chicken on a pellet grill
Spatchcocked chicken on my pellet smoker

The pellets burn so cleanly that regardless of the hardwood species you use it'll be a subtle smoke (which is what I'm personally after).

This is the main reason most of my chicken - whether it's spatchcocked, whole, wings, drums, etc. - is done on my pellet grill.

In most cases though, apple wood pellets are the cheapest variety and are readily available for most people - which is a win/win if you use a pellet grill.

In terms of using wood chips or chunks, the only real difference is how long the smoke lasts. Since chicken is such a short cook time, wood chips are more than adequate.

With that said, I've never seen maple wood chips and I've only ever seen wood chunks; If I'm using my electric smoker, I'll pretty much stick to using apple wood chips.

With chunks though, I can find maple, apple, and post-oak without an issue in New Hampshire.

Dylan Clay
I've grilled and smoked meat for roughly half my life. While i'm not a professional Pitmaster, I've worked with nearly every cut of meat. Not everyone has a hands on guide to teach them BBQ. It's my hope that Barbecue FAQ can be that helping hand.

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