Best Wood for Smoking Turkey

Best Wood for Smoking Turkey

Best Wood for Smoking Turkey

When the right wood is chosen to smoke poultry like turkey, the benefits go beyond merely cooking and preserving the meat. A wide array of flavors, scents, and colors can be achieved. Meat smokers on a quest for the perfect bite may experiment with different spice rubs, cook times, and temperatures, but they start by choosing the perfect wood.

Smoking turkey with heavy hardwoods like hickory and mesquite allows a thorough cook with rich, smoky taste. For a subtle sweet taste, use lighter hardwoods such as apple and maple. Always avoid soft woods such as pine and cedar when smoking meat.

Turkey is a staple at traditional meals, and its color, aroma, and flavor is highly influenced by the method of cooking. The average campfire may get the job done, but a sophisticated smoker allows for a more controlled burn with varying temperatures and times. Choosing the best wood is also important for determining how flavorful the turkey will be. Keep reading to learn more about the best wood for smoking turkey. 

Best Wood for Smoking Turkey: Heavy Hardwoods

Best Wood for Smoking Turkey: Heavy Hardwoods

Heavier hardwoods are traditional fuel for grills or smokers, providing a thorough, reliable cook and adding a rich, smoky taste. The smoke emitted from burning hardwood gives all meat a hearty flavor, but it must be tempered to avoid overpowering the flavor of delicate poultry like turkey. Heavy hardwoods ideal for smoking turkey include the following:

  • Oak
  • Hickory
  • Mesquite
  • Pecan 

Oak burns slowly and evenly, adding a mild flavor to turkey as it cooks. Hickory burns just as well and provides a slightly stronger smoky flavor than oak. Mesquite is the ultimate hardwood for smoking meats because it burns hot and fast, but added heat and speed is not always best if you want to bring out the flavor of poultry like turkey. For turkey with a slightly sweet and nutty flavor, pecan is an ideal heavy hardwood.

Best Wood for Smoking Turkey: Light Hardwoods

Best Wood for Smoking Turkey: Light Hardwoods

Because poultry such as turkey has less connective tissue and a lower fat content than some other meats, it can dry out rather quickly when heat is applied, which causes the flavor trapped in the meat’s juices to be lost. A good grill master can avoid dry turkey by smoking it more slowly and at lower temperatures. Often that means using hardwoods that are lighter, such as that of fruit trees, such as the following:

  • Apple
  • Cherry
  • Maple
  • Citrus

Smoke from lighter hardwood—especially fruit woods such as apple and cherry—can add subtle, sweeter flavors to meat and may even result in a more beautiful hue on the finished cut. Maple wood can add a hint of honey flavor to turkey.

Citrus trees may not seem like hardwood trees, but they are. Their somewhat flexible wood can add an interesting note of citrus flavor to turkey. Sourcing citrus wood for smoking meat is not common, but such a unique ingredient could elevate an ordinary turkey drumstick to a culinary delicacy.

Less commonly used for smoking turkey are light hardwoods such as mulberry, peach, plum, and olive, although a discerning chef may want to experiment with different woods to produce varied flavors and colors.

Tips for Choosing Wood for Smoking Turkey

Tips for Choosing Wood for Smoking Turkey

A mixture of two or more hardwoods under a grill or in a smoker can result in unique flavors, colors, and aromas, so some level of experimentation is encouraged as long as one experiments with hardwoods only.

  • Experiment with a Mixture of Heavy & Light Hardwoods
  • Avoid Softwoods

Mixing heavy and light hardwoods can be advantageous when smoking meats, especially those meats with a reputation for blandness like turkey. Heavier woods provide a strong steady burn, and lighter woods add subtle aromas, flavors, and colors to the meat. It is common to experiment with a mixture of hardwoods to suit personal preference, such as using a 3:1 ratio to mix applewood chips with hickory logs.  

In nearly all circumstances, softwoods should be avoided when smoking meat. Conifers like pine and cedar may be in abundance, but burning those soft logs for cooking releases the sap and terpenes contained within them, which can ruin the flavor of turkey. In addition, burning some types of trees releases chemicals into the air or food that can irritate—or even poison—someone. Such is the case with soft woods like mangrove and sassafras.

Procuring Wood for Smoking Turkey

Procuring Wood for Smoking Turkey

Whether carried from the forest, from a store shelf, or from a delivery truck, nearly every type of wood is available for purchase in some form. For the best-tasting turkey, follow a few simple rules when procuring either of these two types of wood for smoking meat:

  • Newly Cut
  • Pre-Cut or Store-Bought

One’s own backyard is often a good place to find wood to burn for smoking meats. All it takes is a chainsaw or axe, some hard work, and the knowledge to differentiate between hardwoods and softwoods. The size to cut the chips or logs will depend on the size of the grill or smoker to be used. Remember that freshly cut wood needs at least one to six months of time to dry out thoroughly enough to be used for smoking meat.

Non-lumberjacks need not fear, however, because a wide variety of wood pellets and chips is available for purchase from both brick-and-mortar stores and online retailers. When purchasing wood for meat smoking, remember that it has likely been dried using a kiln, which removes nearly all moisture from the wood. 

Dried wood burns faster and hotter than most locally procured wood, and that must be considered when planning to smoke meat with it. 

If you are using pre-cut wood, take every precaution to be sure it is untreated and unpainted. When burned, the chemicals released from treated or finished wood can be highly toxic.

Other Considerations when Choosing Wood 

Other Considerations when Choosing Wood 

The process of smoking turkey involves more than simply burning logs and heating the meat. Consider the following factors:

  • Amount of Smoke
  • Barked or Bare
  • Origin of Wood

To effectively bring out the flavor of turkey, one must allow the right type and amount of smoke to envelop the meat as it cooks. Try to avoid using wood that is too wet (which produces too much smoke) or too dry (which produces not enough smoke). A low level of moisture in the wood allows for a long, slow cook that can enhance the flavor of any meat.

Bark left on a log used to smoke meat may alter the flavor of that meat in good ways or bad ways, so the decision of whether to remove it boils down to personal preference. If choosing to leave bark on wood, one must consider that burning bark may create a high flame that could damage the meat, and caution should be taken to avoid charred food.

Debate rages among grill chefs as to the level of impact that different woods have on the flavor of meat. Some feel a choice between hickory and mesquite, for example, can make or break the taste of turkey, and others seem not to notice any difference. 

This could be attributable to the fact that the same types of wood can vary in resulting flavors depending on the climate and soil type where the tree was cut. In fact, the origin of the wood used for smoking meat may impact the final flavor even more than the type of wood used.


Smoking meats for the purpose of preserving them is a cooking technique that has been used for ages. The right wood burned at the optimal heat can bring out the rich, natural flavor of turkey without overpowering it with too smoky a taste.

The type of wood, the level of smoke and heat produced, and the cook time are all variables that can dramatically impact the scent, flavor, and color of meat. Only hardwoods like cherry, apple, oak, and hickory should be used for smoking turkey; soft woods such as pine and cedar should be avoided. Smoking turkey at a lower temperature for a longer period of time usually results in the best flavor.

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