If you’re into smoking meat and grilling over wood, you know that at least a dozen types of wood can be used for the job.
The flavor of the meat varies, if only slightly, depending on the type of wood used, so the choice of wood is a matter of both personal taste and good old practicality.
Conventional wisdom says that you should always roast over hardwood, and for good reason. The smoke from softwoods imparts an unpleasant flavor to the meat, much like burnt menthol cigarettes. In some cases, this smoke can be toxic—and inhaling it can make you sick.
Armed with that knowledge, you’d think that eucalyptus, a hardwood native to Australia that is found in abundance in California, would be well-suited for the pit.
But you’d be wrong, and I’ll tell you why in a moment.
Eucalyptus, a sappy tree, isn’t a good choice for grilling or smoking meat. Its bark gives off a sap known as “kino,” which imparts a bad flavor to your meat, which is why it is not suitable as firewood for cooking.
So here comes my two cents for you all, if you have not had enough of it yet:
Even if you have access to a lot of eucalyptus wood, do not try to grill or smoke meat with it.
Gummy and sappy, eucalyptus trees are not intended for grilling and smoking. The kino is great for chasing critters away—and the fragrant oils in them smell good when added to shampoo and such. Eucalyptus is also used a lot in the paper industry.
More often than not, it’s just not a wood for cookery.
At best, it will give that thick-cut steak of yours on the grill or that brisket in your smoker a funny taste, and that’s not “funky” funny, but “repulsive” funny.
Still, there is an exception to every rule, and this rule is no exception: in Australia, ironbark, messmate, red box, red gum, and yellow box, all species of trees within the Eucalyptus genus, are commonly used for smoking meat.
Together with the right kind of meat and/or mixed with another hardwood, they yield dishes that taste pretty good. (Some find that taste just right; others consider it a little too bitter.)
As long as you’re smoking meat with hardwood, which type of hardwood to use comes down to your personal preferences.
I am being honest with you all when I call myself a self-proclaimed master of the grill.
I have been grilling and smoking meat for as long as I can remember, and I am the editor of Barbehow—an online publication for BBQ enthusiasts—but I am no expert.
So my job is to vet our opinions and give you as credible advice as I and my editorial team can, based on sources you and I believe are reliable and trustworthy.
However, as hard as I have tried to find references, and for reasons I cannot pinpoint, not much seems to have been written by the professionals on the subject of using eucalyptus as firewood.
Almost all of the barbecue books in my library, which tend to have a lot to say on most issues, make little to no mention of eucalyptus.
Finally, I came across a word or two in the table of contents of book number seven, which I will quote to you below.
“Elm, eucalyptus, and sycamore,” wrote New Jersey-based charcoal barbecue restaurateur Joe Carroll in his 2015 book Feeding the Fire: Recipes and Strategies for Better Barbecue and Grilling, “are not fit for smoking.”
Which Woods Are Good for Smoking Meat?
So far, we have established that you should always smoke over hardwood and never softwood. Softwoods will ruin your food and can be downright toxic. We have also learned that not every hardwood is suitable for cooking meat.
If you were standing here next to me right now, you would probably ask, “So, Sammy, what woods are suitable for smoking meat?”
Most pitmasters smoke meat with oak (for beef), maple (for poultry and seafood), and hickory (for pork). Other woods often used for smoking meat are, in alphabetical order, alder, apple, cherry, fig, grapevine trimmings, mesquite, and pecan.
Another question I am often asked when talking to my buddies about this topic is, “What’s the difference between wood French fries and wood chunks?”
Wood chips and wood chunks come from the same hardwoods, so they impart the same flavor to your meat. Since they’re sized differently, you can’t necessarily use them interchangeably.
Wood chips are smaller, which makes them a good option for charcoal grills and for putting inside the smoker boxes on gas grills. Wood chunks are bigger—and they can burn and smolder for a whole day—which is why they’re ideal for barrel smokers.