When it comes to choosing the best wood for smoking brisket we need to first figure out what type of smoker you are using and then what type of flavor profile you are looking for. For some that are an easy question as beef brisket in Texas is practically a religion so the guidelines are pretty strict.
If this is your first time smoking brisket plan on it taking a long time. Depending on the size of your trimmed brisket and the internal marbling it can take anywhere from 8 to 12 hours if you maintain proper temperature control. Brisket is a low and slow game that tenderizes a rather tough cut of meat.
Look into these books about smoking if this is a new hobby for you. Franklin Barbecue, a meat smoking manifesto is a must own if you want to produce great Texas beef brisket. He explores the smoking process in depth and I have found it to be a great resource.
Let’s look at the different types of wood commonly available and how their different flavors create great barbecue. When choosing the best wood for smoking brisket I would avoid using fruit woods that produce a fruity flavor. They will be lost on the brisket and any sweet flavor should come from your bbq sauce rather than your smoke.
Wood Chips or Wood Chunks?
When you are at your local grocery store or hardware store you can find both wood chips and wood chunks. Depending on your region you can also find wood logs specific to cooking, not your fireplace.
Smaller wood chunks and logs are the ideal choices when smoking brisket as they produce a long slow heat and smoke.
Wood chips will add a mild smoke flavor and are best used in electric smokers or thrown onto your charcoal grills for a little extra smoky flavor.
So which fuel source is right for you depends on what you are smoking. If you are smoking a brisket I would suggest doing so on an offset smoker, pellet smoker, or a kamado grill like a big green egg.
You are going to need wood logs as they require a fair amount of energy to produce heat and the proper smoke. This type of smoker, such as these Oklahoma Joes, are the best choice for long and slow smoking and is the method used in Texas BBQ.
If you are using a pellet smoker like Traegers then you are using wood pellets. The best wood pellets are made from 100% natural hardwoods while the cheaper brands will add filler like bark or chemical binding agents. The woods you use for pellet grills will give you similar results as if you were using an offset smoker.
If you are using your Big Green Egg or Kamado Joe to smoke the brisket then wood chunks are perfect for you. They are sized just right for these types of grills.
While an option for smoking a whole beef brisket this would not be my first choice to use. That is because electric smokers use wood chips which produce small amounts of heat and smoke. An electric smoker such as the popular Masterbuilt 30 are great choices for some foods like ribs and pork belly. A brisket in your electric smoker has a higher chance of tasting like a pot roast than a true Texas brisket.
Reading the Smoke
Not all smoke is created equal. When learning to smoke any type of meat it is best to first learn about fire management and how to read the smoke. Aaron Franklin does a great job helping to explain this in his book.
A quick summary and refresher for some. When you first add wood it burns off the undesirable oils first and produces a dense white smoke. Then once the log turns completely black its smoke will change to a thin light blue smoke. This is the perfect spot to maintain.
If you are using green or wet wood you can also produce brown or grey smoke which will coat your food in heavy creosote. It’s the type of smoke that is so intense on the finished food that you will choke on it and your mouth will have an oily coating. So a lot of smoke does not mean good smoke. Proper wood smoke is thin blue smoke that comes only after the wood has burned down quite a bit.
Proper fire management means slowly adding wood to your coal base at regular intervals so that you are always producing the perfect smoke.
What is the right wood?
If your goal is Texas style brisket then you have a few options. The first option is using post oak, a member of the white oak family but not as dense. Your second option is to use a blend of mesquite and hickory woods. Mesquite can be quite aggressive so I always recommend blending it with at least 25% of another wood like hickory or even oak. You will not find any fruit woods in Texas bbq.
Types of smoking wood
Fruity wood is great for adding a sweet taste to white meats like poultry and pork. I would not try to smoke an entire pork butt with cherry wood but pork belly or even pork ribs if it was blended with another non-fruit wood. I feel that using fruit woods exclusively without blending can be overpowering.
Very similar to cherry wood in its uses and applications although not quite as sweet. Applewood is a great choice for cold smoking.
While this is a good wood for smoking it is best left to poultry and pork. For your next Thanksgiving if you plan to smoke a turkey then this is the perfect wood to use. Add a little pecan to it for a little extra punch that will not overpower the maple smoke. Similar to apple wood, maple is also a great wood for cold smoking.
This wood which is in the same family as hickory burns quite slowly and produces a mild sweet nutty flavor. When used in moderation it has a great flavor but can be very pungent if used as the primary smoke source. Pecan is a good choice as a secondary wood flavor but not as your primary.
White Oak Wood
This is the popular choice among many pitmasters in Texas. Of all the Texas woods this is a mild wood when compared to hickory and mesquite. It burns slowly and creates a mild yet distinctive smoke flavor.
Texas has a lot of mesquite, especially in West Texas. Because of this, it is used quite a bit in both grilling and smoking in the area. Mesquite burns hot and fast and produces a pretty strong flavor. It is no doubt a unique flavor and some of the best pitmasters use it in the state exclusively over oak. This is not a wood for the novice to use as it can cause your heat to fluctuate quickly if you are not experienced with this wood. Use mesquite charcoal for authentic west Texas fajitas or even when grilling some ribeyes. The highly intense heat is great for grilling.
This slow burner produces a strong and distinctive flavor. Hickory is another popular wood choice for smoking brisket.
This is among the mildest woods you can find for smoking. Hard pass on using it for brisket. Alder is used in the north mainly for smoking fish as its extremely subtle flavor will not overpower the seafood.
Plum and Almond Woods
These are newer on the market and to my knowledge are only available in pellet form. I have used these woods, mixed 50/50 to make some crazy good beef jerky. I usually keep my pellet grill stocked with this blend for everyday items like burgers, pork tenderloins, or chicken thighs. They produce a light smokey flavor that is not too overpowering and not too sweet like other fruit woods.
Opinions, Thoughts & Ramblings on Smoked Brisket
Lastly, whatever wood you choose for your brisket this time. Change it up on your next smoke and the one after that. Experiment until you find what you like and then make that your blend. A perfect smoked brisket is just as much about the journey and the community that came together to make it happen. I say community as long low temperature cooks usually start overnight and involve a lot of friends hanging around the pit drinking beers until the early parts of the morning.
Also, save the aluminum foil for your ribs, and do not wrap the brisket in it. If you insist on wrapping your brisket in foil then just cook it in the oven with some liquid smoke because pot roast tastes the same whether you spend hours tending a fire or just baking it in the oven. I know that may seem aggressive and slightly controversial to some in the brisket world but it’s the truth. Wrapping your brisket will not help it tenderize any faster than when you take the time to smoke it on your pit. The only thing it does is cause it to steam which is not what you want. All the work to develop the bark and render the fat will be completely lost once you steam it.
You can also mess up a perfect brisket by not letting it rest properly as well. I steamed a few briskets once when I put them into my yeti to keep them warm too soon. They do need to sit out for at least an hour before cutting into them or storing them until later.