Grill Gourmet: Pairing Wood Chips with Protein

Brooke Newberry
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Wood chips toss in smoky personality under your grill fire.  For proteins, pick out the right wood for some heavy flavor layering.  Just like when pairing sauces with meats, different types of wood will infuse distinctive flavor hints into the grill piece. Choosing chips is about understanding the flavors of the initial protein and deciding how it’s going to be served (think other ingredients and sides).  At this point it’s just about pairing.  Below is a wood chip character breakdown to pick out the best chip to partner with your protein.

Before using, soak your chips in water prior being added to the grill. This will ensure and maintain a steady smolder rather than a quick burn, which can give your meat a bitter taste.  To soak wood chips, place the amount of chips you’ll be using in a bowl and cover fully with water.  Soak for an hour before placing them over the coals.  Shake off excess water before tossing them into the fire.

Apple wood

These chips are mild enough for fish but will also stand up to poultry and pork.  Think chicken, salmon, and ham.  Seen in stores all over, apple wood smoked bacon is really just a marketed buzzword – apple wood is really a superb choice for milder cuts of protein as well.  

Pecan wood

Nuttier and less aggressive than hickory wood.  Use it for chicken, duck and turkey.  Any dish in which proteins are paired with nuts – use the pecan wood chips to fire it.

Cherry wood

Another mild chip that’s great on poultry.  Cherry adds a fruity flavor and a slight tartness to meats.  Poultry and gamier meats (think duck, game hen, venison) work great with this fruity wood.  Think about how often fruit sides and sauces are served with gamey meats – cherry wood will give the same sweet contrast to the depth of game.

Oak wood

Use oak on any protein – it is many grillers’ go-to wood.  Oak can smoke for a long time, just like hickory, but will impart a more neutral flavor.  These chips are great for experimenting – try soaking them in bourbon or a deep red wine.

Hickory wood

A robust, smoky wood that’s a bit stronger than oak.  It’s compatible with practically any protein and has been used for just about everything, but it especially lends itself to pork and larger cuts of meat.  A classic for ribs, hickory is also great for burgers, beef, chicken, pork, and some seafood.  Hickory is dependable and perfect a wood to use for longer smoking times.

Mesquite wood

Mesquite lends a super strong, definitive taste to your grill item.  It should primarily be used with beef, but can also work for chicken, pork, and lamb, depending on the intensity desired.  It’s the wood of choice for Texas brisket barbecue – tough cuts like brisket can totally stand up to the intensity of mesquite.  Mesquite can quickly overwhelm the meat’s natural flavor, so the piece on the grill will need close watch.  Think bold beef and pork dishes – and definitely chicken wings.


Mild flavor: Apple, Cherry, Pecan

Medium flavor: Hickory and Oak

Strongest flavor: Mesquite

* Never grill with pine or cedar woods – you do not want to smell or inhale their sooty burn.

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