A pitmaster once told me, “You choose your wood like you choose your seasoning for the rub. People think it don’t make a difference after 10-12 hours of smoking, but, I tell ya, it do.” I took him up on the advice, and it hurled my meat smoking to a whole new level.
The novice meat smoker places a lot of emphasis on the cut of the meat. Don’t get me wrong; there ain’t no doubt the cut of meat is mission-critical. That said, the seasoned smoker also knows that the wood he or she throws in the firebox are just as crucial to the outcome.
So let’s talk about one of my all-time favorite fruitwoods for smoking meat: cherry.
Is Cherry a Good Wood for Smoking Meat?
The smoke of cherry wood is mild and merciful. Used alone, cherry wood imparts a fruity sweetness to the meat. Combined with a stronger and more bitter wood, it mellows out the smoke for a gentler cook.
Cherry is a fruit wood that smolders with mild, sweet, somewhat fruity smoke, especially when the wood has been aged properly. It’s safe to use for smoking, and it works very well with ham, birds, fish, and cheeses.
When it comes to strong-flavored meat, cherry is too mild to use on its own. However, it can be a good team player: accompanied by a heavier hardwood, cherry can also be used for smoking pork, beef, and lamb.
We talk about the best woods to mix cherry with below.
Mixing Cherry With Other Woods
Hickory and cherry are a good combo, but both of these woods burn hot and fast. Unless you use soaked chips or chunks to smoke meat in your kettle or gas grill, in which case they’re easier to replenish, these woods don’t make for good fuel in a large smoker.
This is the main reason why I like to pair my cherry wood with red or white oak. Oak burns slowly, steadily, and for a long time. Its aroma and flavor are strong enough to stand up to beef, pork, and lamb, and yet mellow enough to pair with cherry and not overpower the meat.
When in doubt, try a ratio of 1 piece of cherry wood to 1 piece of oak wood (red or white). Once you’ve tasted the result, you can adjust the ratio to your preferences.
In case you’re wondering, you can apply the same ratio to other combinations. For example, I’ve found cherry and mesquite to be a particularly good pairing for smoking dark meats, such as brisket, lamb legs, and wild game.
Should You Soak Cherry Wood for Smoking Meat?
Should you, or should you not, soak cherry wood before tossing it into the firebox of your smoker?
For a nation bound by unity, this debate has divided Americans—or at least the portion who are serious about smoking meat—writ large.
Soaking is particularly beneficial for wood chips, as it prevents them from burning up all too quickly. For the same reasons, the larger the wood, the less useful soaking becomes. (Larger wood also makes heat control more difficult, and it isn’t a good choice for beginners in meat smoking.)
Armed with this knowledge, you have three ways to approach the use of cherry wood for smoking meat. Others will try to convince you otherwise, but I reckon that neither of them is wrong or right:
- Soak cherry wood chips in water for 1-2 hours before throwing them in the smoker for a shorter cook in a kettle or gas grill;
- Soak cherry wood chunks in water for 24-48 hours before throwing them in the smoker for a longer cook in a cabinet smoker.
- Use well-seasoned or kiln-dried cherry logs. Split them up and don’t soak them at all for a longer cook in an offset smoker;
At the end of the day, it comes down to your experience with (and level of confidence in) smoking. What I encourage you to do is to try each technique, starting with the first and easiest, until you find your favorite, and then stick to it. I guarantee you will learn a lot in the process.