Hickory wood is arguably the most popular wood used to smoke foods in the US. While its use is hardly a new phenomenon, it has become an even more popular smoking wood with the advent of barbecue competitions. When properly dried, hickory wood is without the resins found in softwoods. Those resins make softwoods unfit for smoking due to the potential for creosote buildup and carcinogen-filled smoke. Hickory wood gives off a light blue smoke and can burn for a long time, which are just two of the factors that make it the perfect smoking wood.
Maple is most commonly associated with the production of syrup, not primarily with smoking food. Sugar maple trees are tapped for their sap, which is reduced to make maple syrup and reduced even further to make maple sugar. The sugar contained in the wood is thought to enhance its value as a smoking wood.
Mesquite is a controversial wood. You will most likely either really love its intense flavor and extremely hot flame or you will dislike the way it tends to overpower other flavors. As a hardwood, mesquite wood chips offer the density and dryness that you want from your smoking wood. The resin in woods can cause creosote to accumulate on food, which is why you want to smoke with seasoned hardwoods rather than green wood or softwoods.
Grilling with mesquite originally became popular in areas of Texas, where it was the most common hardwood option for smoking. In addition, it is able to burn hotter and last for longer than other smoking woods.
Cherry wood is an American wood that is classified as a hardwood. Hardwoods are dense and dry when compared to softwoods like fir. As a dry wood, cherry wood lacks the resin that can be a problem when softwoods are used to smoke foods. Resin can cause creosote to build up and can release carcinogens when burned. Creosote gives food an unpleasant taste. Cherry wood is dense and dry, but still burns quickly relative to other hardwoods. When it burns, it gives off the clean blue smoke that is characteristic of hardwoods.
Oak wood is a hardwood and as such, it offers a density and lack of moisture not found in softwoods. That density and dryness are what makes it sought after for construction. Because it is so dense and dry, it is also perfect for smoking meats. The fact that it has less resin allows it to produce a cleaner, dryer smoke when compared to softwoods like pine wood. Pine and other softwoods can cause creosote to build up on meat, giving it a bad taste. In addition, the smoke from softwoods may contain carcinogens.
Oak is one of the main woods used in various regional barbecue styles including barbecue from the Carolinas, Kentucky, and California.