How to: Pairing Wood Pellet Flavors with Food
Some would say that choosing a smoke flavor pairing to accompany your food is a little pretentious, but I say it's just one more reason people love my BBQ so much! In this article, I’m going to go over the different types of wood pellet flavors that are available, as well as their perfect food pairings. Your family and guests will thank you when they’re not wandering around with a worried, slightly peckish, far-off look in their eyes while you research the best pairing for your Texas Style Brisket. Now, it’s time to take you from backyard hobbyist to BBQ pit master scientist!
The Three Categories Of Flavors
There are quite a few options to choose from when it comes to wood grade pellets. Some bags of pellets like the popular ‘Traeger Texas Beef Blend’ are a combination of oak, mesquite, and pecan hardwoods, whereas other bags contain only one type of wood. When you get down to brass tax, there are eight species of wood to choose from: Alder, Cherry, Apple, Pecan, Maple, Oak, Hickory, and Mesquite. An extensive search on the internet will reveal roughly 12-15 more specialty species, such as Sassafras, Peach, Peach, Orange, and Peet, but these flavor options are often for very specific food pairings so I won’t be covering them.
If we condense our basic list of eight flavors down even further, you’ll find that they fall into one of three categories:
- Mild, neutral smoke flavor: These pellets offer a mild smoke flavor, but leave no smoky aftertaste in your mouth. Flavors include Maple, Ash, and Alder
- Sweet or “fruity” smoke flavor: Food will be flavored with a slightly sweet or nutty taste. Flavors include Cherry, Pecan, Apple, Pear, Fruitwood Blends, and Sugar Maple
- Robust smoke flavor: Adds a “spice” flavoring, creates a strong barky smoke aftertaste. These woods tend to be the best at coloring meats and creating "smoke rings". Flavors include Mesquite, Hickory, and Oak
When adding smoke flavoring to your food, the rule of thumb is the lower and slower, the more smoke flavor. The “Low and Slow” approach provides a louder, smokier flavor for two reasons: the longer the food is exposed to smoke, the more time it has to absorb the flavoring, and lower temperatures allow the wood to smolder without a large flame. On the other hand, if you’re looking to get that hint of smoke flavoring to your food, grilling would be your best option. Grilling involves much more heat, which will cook the food faster, which in turn provides it with less exposure time. Both are excellent options and really boil down to your taste preference.
A Quick Overview Of The 8 Wood Species Flavorings
Alder is a very aromatic wood that gives a sweet and mild flavor similar to the smell of cedar. If you’ve ever had smoked salmon, you’ve experienced the taste of alder. Because of its mild nature, the smoke will be absorbed best by foods that have some fattiness to them. This flavoring is best paired with seafood, pork, poultry, and game birds.
Apple pellets have the strongest flavor and produce the most smoke of all of the fruit woods, but are mild compared to more robust woods like hickory. Unlike orange and other citrus blends, apple pellets have a sweeter, more rounded savory flavor. Applewood pellets also add flavor at any grill temperature, making it ideal for both smoking and grilling. Try cooking your next Thanksgiving Turkey or Easter Ham with applewood pellets–– you’ll never make them in the oven again! I’m also a big fan of smoking hotdogs and bacon with applewood; you’ll see this type of bacon in grocery stores everywhere, and for a good reason. Applewood pairs best with pork, poultry, and lamb.
Cherry is another wood that provides a sweet and mild taste. Cherry wood produces a more relaxed flavor with a mild note of tartness. Cherry wood is very versatile and pairs well with almost any type of meat, including pork, beef, duck, poultry, and venison. Cherry can also be used to smoke veggies that will pair with your meat (think cranberry sauce on a Thanksgiving turkey sandwich). If you really want to impress, use cherry wood with red meats using the reverse sear method, where the meat is cooked slowly to a pink center and then seared at high temperature. We’re talking gourmet-style ribeye steaks!
Cherry is also commonly found in pellet blends with mesquite, hickory, and oak to tone down the smoky aftertaste. You’ll find cherry wood as a staple in any “signature blend” of pellets. Think of cherry as the most versatile of all the woods due to its ability to flavor and color meat without being overpowering.
A note about cherry: There is a myth that exists that cooking with Cherry produces Hydrogen Cyanide, a toxin that is found in the pits of cherries and in apple seeds. This myth is proven to be false and intentionally misleading by the Food Safety Hazard Guidebook. Cooking with cherries is absolutely safe.
Pecan is considered a fruitwood that is very similar to hickory but with a milder, sweeter, nutty after-taste. Pecan produces a level of smoke very similar to apple, cherry, and hickory. Pecan can be used with anything and is probably my favorite wood to cook with because it creates a unique taste in fatty meats. If you search around the internet, you’ll find that Pecan is a staple to many brisket recipes; even further, it’s also the wood of choice for just about anyone that is cooking vegetables. Carrots grilled with Pecan have a flavor that is really out of this world. If you add a touch of brown sugar to carrots grilled with Pecan, you may become a strict vegetarian–– they are that good! Pair Pecan flavoring with meats like pork, lamb, beef, chicken, turkey, and duck.
Judging by the name, you’d assume that maple products would provide a sweet, sugary flavor, but that’s actually not true! The species of maple that produces that sweet, sugary flavor is called Sugar Maple, and it’s very hard to achieve that flavor by smoking it. The type of Maple wood that we smoke provides food with a more mild, sweet dash of flavor. When I think of Maple, I think of lighter meats, such as pork, chicken, and other poultry. Maple is mostly used as a filler wood to tone down stronger woods in a blend, such as hickory and apple, or is used to cook with when you really don’t want much smoke flavoring. Because Maple wood fiber is so dense, it can smoke at a very low temperature. This makes it the perfect wood for smoking cheese, which is the most common use of Maple when smoking.
Oak produces a heavy smoke with a neutral after-taste; you can taste the smoke but it’s not going to overpower your palette. Oak gives meat a wonderful smoked color and is the most popular wood to smoke red meats with. Oak is also the most commonly used “filler” wood in smoke wood blends. Usually paired with Mesquite and Hickory, Oak adds a “mildness” to blends without taking away from the smoke generation that is needed for a proper smoke coloring that’s often desired.
Think bacon! Hickory is the most commonly used and recognized smoke there is. Hickory produces a classic BBQ flavor that is really hard to shy away from. Everybody who’s had BBQ knows what hickory tastes like, whether they know it or not. If you’re new to smoking or grilling food with wood, start with Hickory because it’ll give you a familiar baseline to compare the flavor of other woods to. Likewise, if you’re unsure of what to use, or you’re having a bunch of guests over for a cookout, it’s probably the safest bet to go with hickory. Hickory will add flavor to anything and is pretty much universally accepted by everyone. Meat pairings include beef, pork, ribs, chicken, veal, and some seafood.
Mesquite offers a spicy, earthy, and sweet flavor found in Southwestern cooking. Because of its strong flavor, Mesquite flavoring is often added to charcoal to mask the taste of grill lighter fluid (yuck!). If you’ve ever cooked on a charcoal grill with charcoal briquettes, that’s the flavor of Mesquite. Because it has a very strong, distinctive smoke, a little bit of Mesquite goes a long way, so use it in moderation. I often add a cup of mesquite to a hopper full of apple pellets to bump up the flavor when smoking a ham. As far as specifics go, Mesquite is great for making bold, Texas style BBQ like smoked brisket!
Being a very versatile wood, mesquite pairs well with beef, pork, chicken, lamb, and fish. Make sure to keep an eye on your smoker when using this type of wood as the flavor can quickly overpower your food.
Overall, Traeger makes my favorite wood pellets because they make consistently good food time and time again! Not only are their pellets made from the highest quality food grade wood, but it’s also sustainable wood sourced in the United States.
You can find them by clicking here.
Smoking vs. Grilling
The more time food spends exposed to smoke, the more flavor it inherits, which is where smoking shines. For the most smoky flavor, try to keep your grill below 225° Fahrenheit; this is the “low and slow” method. This method is especially common with meats to impart a smoky flavor and create a “fall off the bone” tenderness. You’ll see a red smoke ring on some meats like brisket when using this style.
Grilling foods on a pellet grill requires a much higher temperature. Depending upon your grill, you’re most likely going to want to turn the temperature up to the highest point, especially if you want to create grill marks. Food cooked at a high temperature will absorb the least amount of wood smoke flavor; however, fat is your friend because of how well it absorbs flavor, so be sure to use it! For grilling red meats, I trim less or use an 80% lean burger. With chicken, I’ll use thighs instead of breasts and try to leave the skin on. When cooking fish and vegetables (food that just doesn’t have much fat), brushing them with olive oil or butter can add just enough fat to capture the wood smoke flavor.
If you’ve cooked with wood pellets before, leave us a comment with your favorite food pairing. Just like grilling? Tag us in your latest backyard BBQ creation on Instagram using the hashtag #grillpartsforless