Best Wood for Smoking Brisket
One of the key elements of Central Texas Style BBQ is that the smokers are fired with wood...not gas or charcoal. And, just as fine wines, bourbons and whiskeys owe some of their flavor profile to the wood barrels in which they age, great barbecue relies heavily on its smoke for much of its flavor. Which of course, begs the question...
BBQ Student: What kind of wood is used to create a Texas-style smoked brisket?
Tim: Texas is a big state and we actually have 4 distinct styles of Texas BBQ: Central, South, East and West.
The most popular woods are post oak, mesquite, hickory and pecan…and pitmasters from across the state use combinations of all of these woods to achieve the flavors that they want for their BBQ. If you study the history of Texas BBQ, you’ll find that most pitmasters just used what wood was available in their area and often switched woods based on what was the cheapest and easiest to obtain.
Today, the choice of what wood to use when smoking a brisket is a topic that requires much more discussion. At Crossbuck BBQ, we use a blend consisting of primarily aged post oak from Central Texas with a bit of North Texas hickory and a splash of fruit or pecan wood. Ultimately, we designed Crossbuck’s smoke to complement our Guapo Rub and create a brisket with the layered flavors that represent the best of Texas style smoked brisket.
BBQ Student: What characteristics do you look for in your woods?
Tim: There are many aged hardwoods that will generate the smoke you need for good barbecue. So, your choice will depend more on the flavor you want. Here are some of the most common.
Mild – Fruit Woods
Somewhat Mild – Post Oak, Hickory & Pecan
Strong – Mesquite
BBQ Student: Well, I've done my share of wine and bourbon tastings and I know that the wood used for the barrels typically plays a big role in the development of these spirits. The wine makers in Napa will tell you that it's the alluvial fans of the Napa Valley that allow them to make the world's best Cabernets while the Kentucky distilleries will brag about the iron-filtering qualities of Kentucky limestone and its role in yielding the water used in the world’s best bourbons.
So, what is the wood in Texas that makes Central Texas style BBQ so good.
Tim: Well, the reality is that factors ranging from soil conditions and species to how long the wood has aged and whether it still includes its bark can affect the taste.
In general, you'll find that Central Texas uses post oak, East Texas uses hickory and South and West Texas use more mesquite. Fruit, pecan and other nut woods are used throughout Texas as well as they are very mild woods.
BBQ Student: Thanks Tim. Here is what I found in my research
Post Oak - Central Texas
If you visit Lockhart, Texas (the official Capital of Texas BBQ) or study the techniques of brisket master Aaron Franklin, you’ll hear all about post oak. Aaron will even go into extreme detail about how he stacks his wood to maximize airflow and such. However, most of post oak’s popularity can really be tied to the following qualities that make it ideal for smoking just about any kind of meat…especially brisket.
- Mild smoky flavor that does not overpower the meat
- Sweeter flavor than other oaks
- Great for building bark on brisket
- Rich, mahogany color on the meat
- Consistent heat
According to the U.S. Forest Service, post oak grows throughout most of Southeast – stretching into eastern Texas and as far north as southeastern Massachusetts so it should be available to most people.
Hickory – East Texas
While used throughout Texas, hickory wood is most prevalent in eastern Texas and many of the region's pitmasters use it as their main fuel. For the most part, it shares many characteristics with post oak, but it has a slightly more powerful flavor that is a bit sweet and nutty along with a smell that many people associate (either consciously or subconsciously) with bacon and pork. This seems to be fine with east Texas pitmasters as they tend to focus more on pork ribs and pulled pork while their brisket is often chopped and marinated in sauce for sandwiches.
For Crossbuck BBQ’s smoke, Tim and Damian blend in a small amount hickory (which is all it takes) to give it that little extra flavor while not overwhelming the meat.
Mesquite – West & South Texas
Due to the fact that it’s about the only hardwood that will grow in the desert-like conditions of western and southern Texas, mesquite wood is the choice of many pitmasters in those regions. It generates one of the most potent flavor profiles of any wood, but can often make the meat taste bitter when smoked too long. Plus, it’s a fast-burning wood that can discolor the meat. Realistically, mesquite wood should be used in moderation (both in quantity and time) and this is hard to do if you are smoking a brisket for 12-20 hours.
All things considered, most pitmasters outside of western and southern Texas shy away from using mesquite wood, but for those who like the taste, it can be used when smoking a brisket or other gamier meats.
Fruit, Pecan & Nut Woods – Throughout Texas
These woods are typically used to give one’s smoke a little extra kick. Tim and Damian add a splash of fruit wood to the brisket smoker just to give it a bit more flavor. When experimenting with other meats and their weekly specials they may use a bit more.
Basically, these woods are fun to play with and see how they react to the meat and rubs.
If you want to experience authentic Central Texas style brisket, it’s best to use mostly aged post oak and then blend in moderate amounts of other hard woods to complement your rubs and achieve the flavor you desire. Stay away from any soft woods as they will ruin your brisket.
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