There’s long been some debate about whether Hickory or Mesquite is a better wood for smoking food.
Ultimately, there is no clear winner, as both of these woods offer very different flavor profiles and can be matched with numerous foods.
There are so many choices when it comes to the kinds of wood available to smoke meat, so much so that it can become overwhelming, especially if you’re a newbie.
In this article, we’ll be taking a close look at both of these woods, including their individual flavor profiles, and some suggestions for pairing these woods to different foods. We’ll also discuss the different shapes of wood available, as this should inform your cooking methods.
So, if you want to learn more about Hickory and Mesquite, or are just curious, read on and see what we think of these two types of wood!
A Brief Overview Of Smoking Woods
Softwood logs contain less sap and resin, but they are easier to work with. They make great firewood because they burn slowly and give off a nice smoky flavor.
Softwood logs aren’t really suitable for smoking food, as they’re airy and contain a greater amount of sap and resin. This high sap and resin content means that they burn very fast — too fast for good smoking.
Hardwoods have more dense wood than softwoods, which makes them heavier and harder to split. Hardwoods also tend to be denser in color, making them darker than softwoods.
Hardwood smoke flavors are a spectrum of mild to intense. Apple, cherry, and peach are light-flavored hardwoods. Oak and hickory are medium-flavored hardwoods, and they are used for beef and other game meat.
Mesquite: Flavor Profile
Mesquite is by far the strongest wood used in the barbecue industry, as such is often used sparingly. It is typically combined with other woods, like pecan or apple, to mellow out the intensity.
It has a bold and distinctive flavor profile, so much so that it is instantly recognizable to those who have tasted it before.
The aroma is strong, almost pungent, but not overpowering.
This is an excellent wood to use with seafood, poultry and game meats. It works well with beef, pork, lamb, veal, rabbit, duck, goose, turkey, chicken, venison, elk, and buffalo.
When smoked over mesquite, the meat will take on a deep red color. The flavor is slightly sweet, with hints of caramelized sugar. This wood also lends itself well to desserts, particularly pies and cakes.
Hickory: Flavor Profile
Hickory is one of the more versatile woods around, which makes it perfect for beginners. Its milder flavor is less intense than mesquite, making it easier to pair with a variety of foods.
It has notes of vanilla, chocolate, coffee, and maple syrup.
Cherry wood is another popular choice for smoking fruits, especially if you’re after a rich cherry flavor. Other fruits that go really well with cherries include apples, pears, grapes, blackberries, blueberries, cranberries, plums, apricots, cherries, strawberries, raspberries, and peaches.
Pork, beef, lamb, veal and wild boar all work well with hickory. Pork is probably the best example of how to match hickory with food, as its sweetness complements the smokiness perfectly.
Hickories are good with seafood, poultry, and even vegetables. They work well with fish, shellfish, corn, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, squash, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts.
Hickory is great for desserts, particularly pie crusts and cakes. It pairs well with apples, cherries, strawberries, blueberries, banana bread, pumpkin bread, brownies, cookies, ice cream and cheesecake.
Which Is Better?
As we mentioned earlier, the question of which is better can be misleading, as ultimately it comes down to personal tastes.
Hickory is a more flexible wood for cooking than mesquite. It works well for most kinds of meat, including beef, pork, and poultry. It’s also good for fish and seafood. Hickory adds rich colors to food, while mesquite gives off light tones.
Mesquite is a very hardwood that burns hot and fast. It’s great for smoking low n slow, but not for grilling. Using mesquite charcoal instead of wood makes it last longer. Because of this, you shouldn’t grill with mesquite charcoal. It’s better for smoking.
It’s important to remember that hickory gives a moderate to strong flavor, which makes it quite forgiving if you use a bit too much.
Mesquite, on the other hand, will dominate all flavors if given half a chance.
Which Wood Should I Use?
If you’ve never tried smoking meat before, then you may want to start off with something easy.
A brisket would be a good place to begin, as it’s relatively straightforward to prepare. You could also try a rack of ribs, a whole hog, a leg of lamb or even a whole chicken.
Once you’ve got your feet wet, you can move onto tougher cuts, like shoulder clod, brisket plate or short rib. These are usually quite large pieces of meat, so they require more time to cook through.
You should always remember to keep your smoker temperature low (around 225 °F) while cooking tough cuts. This will help prevent dryness and toughening up of the meat.
If you’re looking to make a dessert, then you might want to consider using hickory. It’s a very versatile wood, so you can easily find recipes online that show you how to smoke everything from fruit to cake.
For starters, you could try smoking some fresh pineapple chunks, bananas, oranges, plums, apricots, figs, dates, peaches, nectarines, kiwis, melons, or watermelon rind.
Another aspect which should inform your decision on whether to cook with Hickory or Mesquite is who you’re cooking for. If you’re cooking for a large group of people, it might be that only you will notice the difference between hickory and mesquite – as long as the cook was successful.
By not overdoing it with the smoke, the flavor of meats cooked with either hickory or mesquite should turn out to be balanced.
The Different Shapes Of Wood
Whilst the flavor both of these woods give the food is vitally important, it’s not the only element of the cooking process you’ll need to consider. The shape of the wood plays a major role in the outcome of the cook.
The decision of which wood shape to use depends on what you’re cooking, as some shapes of wood lend themselves to particular foods. We go into the different shapes of wood below:
Wood chips are used for grilling because they burn down quickly. You shouldn’t use them for larger cuts like brisket or pig shoulder because they won’t last long enough. Instead, use wood chips for smaller pieces of meat, like chicken breasts or ribs.
Wood Pellets are made from compressed hardwoods. The process of making pellets is pretty straightforward. The wood is ground down to sawdust and reshaped into cylinders. You’ll need a pellet grill if using these for smoking.
Wood chunks are a fantastic choice if you own an offset smoker or charcoal grill. They tend to last longer in a smoker as they’re quite large, about the size of a clenched fist.
As you might expect, wood logs are the largest shape of wood in this list. Logs can be used as a main heat source as well as infusing the food with flavor. They’re ideal if you’re cooking large quantities of food at once, as you’ll need the wood to burn for hours.
There is a great deal of crossover between hickory and mesquite, especially in terms of the types of food either of these woods pairs with.
A general rule of thumb is that if you’re planning on cooking a lighter meat, like seafood or poultry, then it is best to use a lighter colored wood. The opposite also applies to darker meats.
Another thing to also bear in mind when smoking food is that less is often more, meaning that it’s best to avoid over-smoking, obviously.
The question of which wood is better ultimately comes down to your experience level. If you’re a novice cook, and are just starting out smoking your food, it might be a good idea to start off with Hickory.
There’s also a lot to be said for mixing the two woods. If done right, you should achieve a nice balance of flavors and colors in the food. It’s best to start off by trying the two woods individually on the same cut of meat, in order to get a solid idea of what they taste like.
There you have it! Experiment with both of these woods and your cooking method and see what happens. Happy Grilling!