One stands out as the best wood for smoking meat between Hickory and Mesquite.
If you’ve ever had smoked meat, whether it was beef, turkey, chicken, pork, or even wild game, chances are it was smoked with Hickory or Mesquite.
But is one of them truly superior to the other? Will your smoked meat taste significantly different?
Continue reading to find out!
A quick guide to smoking wood
Hardwoods and softwoods are the two types of wood. Hardwoods produce seeds with a covering, similar to a fruit or a nut, which distinguishes them. Softwoods, on the other hand, have their seeds exposed.
Softwoods cannot be used to smoke food. This is because they are airy woods with a lot more sap and resin, which causes them to burn quickly and emit an acrid odor when combusted.
Hardwoods are denser and burn more slowly. They also have a higher lignin content than softwoods. Lignin is a naturally occurring organic material found in plants. It is what offers you that BBQ smokey flavor when it is burned.
You will now prefer the flavor of some hardwoods while resenting the flavor of others. Furthermore, some will complement the food you’re preparing, while others will not. In reality, there is a spectrum within the smoking hardwoods classified by the intensity of their flavor.
- Like cherry, apple, and peach, Fruitwoods are on the lighter end of the spectrum. These have a mild but sweet scent. Again, they’re best for lighter protein sources like poultry, fish, and occasionally pork.
- Your oak and Hickory are in the middle. These guys have a stronger flavor than fruitwoods. As a result, they’re a great choice for pork, but they’re also tough enough to handle beef and other game meats.
- What’s left is the strongest of them all: Mesquite. In general, this wood burns quickly and has an aggressive flavor, especially if it still contains some sugar. Mesquite is best for dark red meats because of its strong flavor.
Spices are similar to wood smoke. Each adds a distinct flavor to a dish, either enhancing or ruining it. Not to mention that wood smoke can add color to your meat. Some are a dark, vivid crimson color, while others are lighter.
As a result, selecting the best smoking wood is important. Nothing ruins BBQ faster than choosing the wrong one. You can use only one type of wood or a combination of them. Don’t forget to think about other ingredients like seasonings and the meat itself.
What is the best smoking wood?
“…it depends,” is the answer to these questions.
After all, tastes are a matter of personal preference. It’s impossible to know which wood produces the most productive smoke until you try it yourself.
Because there are hundreds of different types of wood on the market, it is impossible to say that one type of tree is superior to another.
But if I had to pick a favorite smoking wood, it would have to be Hickory. I’ll also explain why, despite widespread praise, Mesquite isn’t as good as many people believe.
I’m sure you’re wondering what I mean when I say Mesquite.
If you’ve ever read anything about grilling or smoking meat on the internet, you’ll know that Mesquite is all the rage right now.
It’s not a common wood for smoking meats in the United States because it’s bitter and overpowering. However, in South America, where Mesquites grow naturally, this wood is frequently used for cooking.
Mesquite chips are frequently used as the main ingredient for grilling steaks in South America, but this does not imply that all Mesquite wood is suitable for barbecuing meat in an American smoker.
Hickory is a medium-strength wood that imparts a generous smoky flavor. Although it does not have its distinct flavor profile in the same way certain woods, such as maple and apple, do, it is known for leaving its imprint on smoked meats such as bacon.
Hickory emits a vaguely sweet, intensely fragrant smoke that’s easy to identify after a while of cooking with it. However, if you’re preparing a meal for guests who aren’t familiar with smoked food, the taste may be a little overpowering.
Tip: Don’t go overboard if you choose to smoke with Hickory. When food is exposed to hickory smoke for an extended period, it can develop a bitter aftertaste.
History of hickory wood
Hickory is popular in the southern United States as well as the Midwest. This wood is unique in that it is versatile and works well for longer periods of smoking and grilling.
Hickory is a clean-burning wood that gives pitmasters many options when it comes to smoking meats. Hickory is a popular choice for first-time BBQ smoker owners because it pairs well with a wide range of foods and sauces.
Best food pairings
What foods go well with Hickory? As previously stated, it is a natural partner for bacon, so it goes well with most cuts of pork. It also enhances the natural sweetness of beef and adds a nice intensity to chicken, especially dark meat cuts like thighs and drumsticks. Some pitmasters have even tried smoking fish and cheese with Hickory, but we believe it overpowers the subtle flavors of these ingredients.
Hickory smoke has a pleasant nutty flavor that some associate with bacon. It’s also sweet and filling. If you grew up in the South or have tried any traditional Southern BBQ, you’ll instantly recognize the taste of hickory smoke.
The majority of people enjoy Hickory. However, if you’re new to smoking or have only used fruitwoods, you should probably start slowly with Hickory. It may be too pungent or strong for you and your family. The best course of action is to keep using your fruitwoods while gradually introducing a small amount of Hickory into the mix.
After you’ve gotten used to it, you can use only Hickory. However, Hickory is still considered a strong-flavored wood, so use caution if you use too much of it. It can cause a bitter taste in your food.
Even those who have never tried mesquite-smoked foods will recognize the flavor when they take their first bite. What makes this possible? Because Mesquite is the most powerful wood used for grilling–so powerful that it should be used sparingly. It’s frequently combined with milder woods, such as apple and pecan, to reduce the intensity.
When experimenting with Mesquite for smoking, novices should exercise extreme caution. Even seasoned grill masters are wary of it because even a small amount can overpower the other ingredients. We would also advise reserving it for low and slow cooking applications.
The origins of mesquite wood
Mesquite wood can be found all the way from South America to Mexico and parts of the United States, including Texas. According to the Texas Almanac, Texas is home to 76 percent of all mesquite trees.
Mesquite trees benefit the environment by adding nitrogen to the soil. Because of the high nitrogen density in wood, spark burns more than Hickory. This wood also burns more quickly than Hickory.
Mesquite wood types
There are three types of mesquite trees, each with its unique flavor:
1. Eastern Mesquite
This is the most popular type for smoking meat, also known as the Honey Mesquite tree.
It has a mildly sweet flavor with medium smoky undertones and can cook anything from fish to beef.
2. Western Mesquite
Because it is so strong and bitter, this is the least appealing type of Mesquite.
The smoke produced by this variety can quickly ruin any dish, so avoid it if you know what’s good for you.
3. Bolivian Mesquite
Bolivian Mesquite delivers a signature smoke that tastes like no other, with the most fragrance of any of the three types mentioned here.
It smells like vanilla beans combined with molasses and enhances food flavor, but its amazing flavor does not last long.
In fact, if you want your meat to stay flavorful throughout the cooking process with this type, you’ll need to add more wood every 20 minutes.
Because it is hearty and versatile, Hickory is another excellent choice for smoking meats.
However, most people would prefer to use a milder wood to leave in their smoker for a few hours, if not all day.
Despite their reputation for being overpowering in some cases, inexpensive hardwoods like Hickory remain very popular.
Still, there isn’t much variation between them and the Hardcore Smoke Woods available.
Best food pairings
Mesquite is almost exclusively used for hearty cuts of beef, particularly in Texas, where the flavor is legendary. Brisket, in particular, is a popular partner for mesquite wood. However, it can also enhance the smoky qualities of pulled pork, particularly when combined with mellower wood.
When burned, mesquite wood produces a distinct taste and flavor. When used in excess, it can be sharp and bitter, but when used sparingly, it can be bold and earthy. Furthermore, mesquite wood flavor is one of those tastes you can detect from the first bite.
The Lone Star State has an abundance of Mesquite. As a result, it can be found in various Texan BBQ dishes. In fact, wood is one of the hottest burning trees. Unfortunately, it also burns quickly, producing a lot of smoke and sparks as it does so.
If this is your first time using Mesquite, use it sparingly with beef. Unlike other lighter protein sources, red meat can withstand smoke without becoming overpowering. Another option is to mix it with other fruitwoods. Do this until you’ve gotten a taste for mesquite smoke. Also, please don’t use it if you’re having guests over for dinner. The mesquite flavor will not appeal to everyone.
What’s the difference between Hickory and Mesquite, and where should you use it?
So, what’s the big deal about Mesquite?
Is it because this is a traditional South American smoking wood, and they’re just trying to cash in on a good thing? It’s possible.
But here’s the thing: after a few hours of cooking with Mesquite, the meat becomes too bitter.
Even if your smoker gets hot, you’ll need to keep adding more chips every 20 minutes to keep the smoke going.
I don’t see any benefit to using this wood over Hickory unless you intend to use it as an additional flavor along with another type of lighter smoke, which isn’t practical or necessary for most home smokers.
However, if you use Hickory, you’ll get the same hearty, smoky flavor without having to add chips every few minutes.
Many competition cooks prefer it because it has a great flavor that compliments all types of meat. However, you do not have to be concerned about your food tasting bitter near the end of your cooking or grilling session.
Dark red meats
Hickory pairs well with dark red meat cuts like drumsticks, thighs, and the like. However, Mesquite pairs better with these dark red meats. This is because it has a strong flavor.
The most common meat with which Hickory is used is pork. Bacon and Hickory complement each other beautifully. If you’re new to smoking food, starting with pork and Hickory is a good place to start.
When combined with pork, it enhances the flavor and gives the meat a darker color. However, the Hickory’s sweet aroma penetrates the meat well and will taste great in the end.
Mesquite, on the other hand, may be too strong for pork.
Check out this article to learn about the best wood for pulled pork.
Hickory pairs well with beef, just as it does with pork. It enhances the natural flavor and sweetness of beef. It is highly recommended that you use Mesquite sparingly if you want to use it. You could also combine it with other fruitwoods to dampen the flavor.
The best woods for smoking ribs can be found here.
Are they suitable for fish and poultry?
Hickory is a very versatile wood, and it is widely thought to be more versatile than Mesquite. As we’ve seen, it goes well with pork and beef.
Hickory can also be used to cook fish and poultry. It burns cleanly and slowly, making it ideal for this type of food.
However, Mesquite is likely to be too strong for your fish and poultry. It can add color to your food while also overpowering the flavor of poultry and fish.
So, which is preferable for wood smoking?
When it comes to these two types of wood, there isn’t, in my opinion, a clear winner.
They both produce excellent smoke and provide distinct flavors for various dishes, so let your taste buds be the judge when deciding between Hickory and Mesquite.
You may prefer one flavor over another based on what you’re cooking at home, but keep in mind that new smokers should start with lighter woods.
Is it possible to combine Hickory and Mesquite?
The short answer is yes, with a few caveats.
First and foremost, we recommend experimenting with both Hickory and Mesquite on their own to understand the differences between the two better. If you decide to combine them, use only a small amount of Hickory and even less Mesquite.
You should also use the wood chips for a shorter period–for example, one-third of the total cooking time rather than half. This way, the food will have a strong dose of that sought-after smoky flavor without being overpowering.
What is the cost of Hickory and Mesquite wood?
Mesquite wood is significantly more expensive than Hickory wood.
It costs nearly $20 for a small bag, but expect the price to rise even higher if you buy it at a restaurant.
Every time you need more wood for your smoker, you’ll most likely end up spending at least $25.
One way around this is to spend a few bucks on each type of wood you want to use, but keep in mind that the flavor will be very different, so combining them in your smoker is not always recommended.
If you mix them, make one of them lighter in flavor to add chips every 20 minutes rather than waiting an hour or two before adding more smoke.
Hickory costs roughly $1 per pound, making it one of the most affordable woods for barbecuing meat at home, especially when compared to Mesquite, Maplewood, and other Hardcore Smoke Woods known for their strong scents.
Tips for smoking with wood
Here are some pointers to keep in mind if you’re smoking with wood:
- Start smoking your food as soon as possible.
- Cook on low and slow for the majority of the time.
- To control the temperature, use a water pan.
- Take care not to overdo it with smoking.
- White smoke adds flavor, whereas black smoke can taint your food.
- Allow the meat’s bark to darken.
- Choose the shape of the wood to be used. Chips, chunks, pellets, and logs are some of the shapes you can use.
Mesquite is an expensive type of wood that needs to be adjusted frequently to keep the smoke going throughout your cooking time.
Because it has a strong and bitter flavor, most people pair it with lighter wood, such as applewood or pecan wood.
On the other hand, Hickory is extremely versatile and can be used without the need to add chips every 20 minutes because its flavor isn’t as strong.
It’s a popular choice for smoked meats, particularly when combined with heavier woods like oakwood.
There isn’t a clear winner here because they both produce excellent smoke and provide distinct flavors depending on what you’re cooking. However, as I stated at the outset, my preference is for Mesquite.
I recommend that you try both and decide which tastes better for you!