Cooking with wood is an exciting, fun and rewarding experience. Nothing delights the senses quite like sizzling meat over a crackling flame. And you can’t beat the thrill of using just the right type of wood for a tastebud-tingling flavor sensation.

The key is not to be afraid to play around when using wood for cooking. It’s an art, not a science—meaning there’s no one-size-fits-all answer for what will give you the best results. Instead, by trying new things, you’ll no doubt stumble on something unique and surprisingly delicious.

Think of this guide as an orientation for your journey with using wood for cooking. The guidelines we lay out below are like guardrails to keep you in the right creative space for an enjoyable wood-fired cooking experience. Whether you want to fire up your pizza oven, smoker or grill, you’ll find the info and tips you need to get started on the right foot.

Here’s a rundown of the topics we’ll be covering:

  1. The Essential Qualities of the Best Cooking Wood
  2. Types of Wood to Avoid When Cooking
  3. Getting to Know the Best Species of Cooking Wood
  4. A Brief Guide to Mixing Cooking Wood Species
  5. How to Use Wood to Cook in Pizza Ovens
  6. Wood-Size Guidelines for Grilling or Smoking Meat
  7. Choosing the Best Type of Wood for Whatever You’re Smoking
  8. Expert Tips for Smoking or Grilling with Wood
Ignited wood for cooking

This guide will get you on your way to wood-fired excellence. If you need some supplies for your journey, we can help you with that. You can get single-species boxes of perfectly sized wood with free two-day shipping at the link below.

The Essential Qualities of the Best Cooking Wood

So, you want to have an enjoyable time cooking with wood. Here’s the thing: you’re probably not going to have as much fun or get the delicious results you’re looking for if you’re not using the best wood.

We know what you might be thinking: “Why does it need to be the best cooking wood? Isn’t wood just the heat source? Shouldn’t I focus my energy on cooking with the best ingredients?”

If that’s you, then we’ve got news for you: The wood you use is just as important as the rest of the ingredients. In fact, we consider high-quality wood an essential ingredient for excellent cooking.

Why do we place such a high value on wood for cooking? It’s because the best cooking wood has three qualities that will elevate any dish you create with it. These three crucial characteristics are:

  1. Kiln-dried to the Ideal moisture content
  2. Strategically sized for your oven, grill or smoker
  3. Sourced from hardwood trees

Below we’ll explore why each of these qualities is so important.

Kiln-Dried to the Ideal Moisture Content

One of the most common roadblocks to having a great time while cooking on wood is struggling to start and maintain a good fire. This struggle occurs when the wood contains too much moisture.

The ideal moisture content for top cooking wood performance is below 20%. Above this threshold, the wood is much more difficult and frustrating to ignite. But the struggle doesn’t end once you get it going. Instead, the excess moisture in the wood keeps it from fully combusting, which leads to less heat and more dirty smoke and creosote emissions. So, it’s definitely not wood you want to cook your food over!

Kiln-dried cooking wood does not have these problems. Rather, the process of drying the wood in a kiln guarantees the wood will always have a moisture content below 20%. As a result, it lights easier and burns hotter and cleaner for a superior cooking experience. Plus, the kiln-drying process kills off any bugs, mold or pests that may have been lurking in the wood. So, you can rest assured that you’re cooking over the driest, cleanest wood possible.

Because of this, we have no doubt that kiln-drying is the best drying method available for producing gourmet-quality wood.

Strategically Sized for Your Oven, Grill or Smoker

As an aspiring wood-fired chef, you have a lot of work to do when preparing to cook. Chopping up ingredients can take it out of you. So, the last thing you want is to have to chop up your wood, too. But that’s probably what you’ll end up doing if you get standard-sized, 12-16-inch firewood for your cooking.

The problem with full-sized firewood is it rarely fits in the portable pizza ovens, grills and smokers that people typically use in their backyards. For example, if you have an Ooni Karu 12 pizza oven, then you know that the opening is far too small for even a 12-inch log to fit along with your pizza.

So, what’s a home chef with a small grill to do? The good news is you don’t have to break out the ax. Instead, you can find the right size wood for your needs!

Here at Hot Box Cooking Wood, we sell cooking wood in a few different optimal sizes for cooking. We have 6-inch extra split wood that fits perfectly in portable pizza ovens, 8-inch logs that work great in smokers and 4-inch chunks to add some flavor to your grill. You can learn more about each of these sizes and how to best use them in the sections below.

Sourced From Hardwood Trees

People often ask us what type of wood is best for cooking, and we can understand why. After all, there are many wood species out there, from oak to ash to pine to spruce—the sheer number of choices can be overwhelming!

So, we want to simplify things for you. An easy way to determine whether a type of wood is good for cooking or not is to find the answer to this question: Did the wood come from a tree that loses its leaves in the winter? If it did, then that wood is going to give you a great cooking experience because it’s a type of hardwood.

What’s great about hardwood species is that they’re very dense and contain minimal sap or resin. The high density provides more material for the fire to consume, which makes for prolonged burns that produce a lot of heat. And because the wood contains minimal sap and resin, it burns efficiently with clean smoke that won’t sour your food.

Some of our favorite hardwood species for cooking include ash, cherry, hickory, oak and sugar maple. You can learn more about the best uses for each of these types in the “Getting to Know the Best Species of Cooking Wood” section below.

Types of Wood to Avoid When Cooking

The best wood-fired chefs are very picky when it comes to the wood they use, and for good reason! Some types of wood will compromise the cooking experience. Other kinds are just plain dangerous. Let’s briefly look at each of these types and why you should avoid them.

Green or Traditionally Seasoned Wood

As we mentioned above, any cooking wood with a moisture level above 20% doesn’t perform well. Both green and traditionally seasoned wood are in this category.

The term “green wood” refers to freshly cut and split wood that hasn’t had a chance to dry out yet. It usually contains over 60% moisture, making it incredibly difficult to light and very smoky when it burns. So, beware of firewood dealers trying to push green wood on you. You can identify green wood because it feels heavy and makes a dull thud when you clap two pieces together.

Traditionally seasoned wood is wood that has been left out to air dry for months. While this method does make the wood better to burn than green wood, it rarely gets the moisture content below the 20% threshold. Unlike kiln-dried wood, seasoned wood may also contain mold and insects.

Softwood Species

While hardwood trees produce great cooking wood, you should steer clear of the wood from softwood trees. Softwood trees are evergreen, meaning they don’t lose their leaves in the winter.

Softwood species are less dense and have a higher resin content than their hardwood counterparts. Because of this, they don’t generate as much heat and produce more smoke that can add a bitter taste to whatever you cook over it.

Some of the most popular softwood species are cedar, pine, spruce and piñon. People often enjoy burning them as firewood for the great smell they produce. But we wouldn’t recommend cooking over them.

Processed and Pressure-Treated Wood

While cooking with seasoned softwood species won’t kill you, burning processed or pressure-treated wood just might! The wood contains chemical solutions that release into the air when burned and can cause long-term poisoning when inhaled.

This wood was never intended to be used as firewood or cooking wood. Instead, people add chemicals to it so that it will last longer and be more durable for construction projects.

You typically find processed and pressure-treated wood in pallets, furniture and other wood used for construction. So, don’t use any such items for firewood, and especially don’t cook over them!

Getting to Know the Best Species of Cooking Wood

Now that you know what makes the best wood for cooking, it’s time for the fun part: choosing a cooking wood species.

Unfortunately, many aspiring wood-fired chefs don’t find this part fun because they put too much pressure on the decision. They think picking the wrong species will destroy whatever they’re cooking.

Here’s the good news: You really can’t go wrong with any of the species listed below. All of them are exceptional for cooking because they produce clean, delicious smoke. So, don’t be afraid to experiment with them. Some of the best and most unexpected flavor combinations have come from trying new food-wood pairings.

Here are the hardwood species we’d recommend trying for your next cookout:

Graphic overviewing the different types of cooking wood

Ash – Great for Wood-Fired Pizzas

This clean-burning hardwood produces moderate heat and a neutral, slightly smoky flavor. We love it as a cooking wood because you can’t overuse it since its mild smoke won’t overpower your food.

But where ash really shines is in a pizza oven. Italian pizza oven manufacturers recommend it as the best wood for cooking pizzas. So, the next time you break out your portable oven, consider heating it with some ash.

Cherry – Enjoy Enhanced Fruity Smoke

Want to go beyond the standard smoky flavor of oak or ash? Cherry cooking wood adds some fruity sweetness to the smoke. Sourced from cherry trees, the beautiful, reddish-colored wood burns with a mild heat and imbues whatever it cooks with a subtle hint of cherry flavor.

There isn’t much that won’t pair well with this delightful fruitwood. It’s a great choice for wood-fired pizzas and a friend to basically every meat. It also goes well with some seafood, veggies and cheeses. And it adds an attractive dark red color to whatever it cooks.

Hickory – A Flaming Hot Barbeque Staple

Hickory is a must-have for barbeque aficionados. Not only is it one of the hottest burning hardwood species, but it also produces a strong, bacon-y taste that’s perfect for meat smoking.

We especially love using hickory for cooking bacon, pork or ribs. But you really can’t go wrong with pairing it with any meat that you want to infuse with an extra barbeque kick.

Oak – Versatile Wood for Any Occasion

Maybe all these different flavored smokes sound a little too fancy for you. If you’re going for more of a classic smoky taste, then you need some oak cooking wood.

Oak is one of the most reliable hardwood species for cooking because it pairs well with basically anything. It has the highest heat content of any of the species on this list, so it’s great for long, thorough and even cooking. And its neutrally flavored smoke won’t overpower whatever you cook with it.

Oak – Versatile Wood for Any Occasion

Maybe all these different flavored smokes sound a little too fancy for you. If you’re going for more of a classic smoky taste, then you need some oak cooking wood.

Oak is one of the most reliable hardwood species for cooking because it pairs well with basically anything. It has the highest heat content of any of the species on this list, so it’s great for long, thorough and even cooking. And its neutrally flavored smoke won’t overpower whatever you cook with it.

A Brief Guide to Mixing Cooking Wood Species

Another great thing about all the hardwood species listed above is none of them have to be used on their own. Instead, they all mix well together to produce remarkable flavor combinations. So, don’t be afraid to think outside the box and get creative with your wood usage.

Looking for an interesting wood combination to try first? We recommend mixing oak, cherry and sugar maple. This mix works well because oak’s neutral flavor doesn’t clash with the sweetness provided by cherry and sugar maple. Instead, this combo gives you the superior heat of oak along with the tastebud-tingling sweetness of the other two species.

We especially love this mix for wood-fired pizzas, which is why we sell boxes of it in our 6-inch size for portable pizza ovens.

We also recommend mixing hickory with milder species to balance out its powerful flavor. While we love the barbeque kick hickory provides, it can be a little much sometimes if it’s the only wood you use. So, instead, you might want to use a little hickory along with a mellower-tasting wood like cherry or oak to produce a subtler hickory kick. Keep in mind that a small amount of hickory goes a long way.

One final thing to note about mixing wood is it can make sense to add in species that aren’t on our list to improve the wood’s performance. For example, some types of wood, such as birch or cedar, make great fire starters. While we wouldn’t recommend using these species as your primary cooking wood, you can use a little along with your main cooking wood to get the flames going.

How to Use Wood to Cook in Pizza Ovens

There’s nothing like making a wood-fired pizza in your own portable pizza oven. But what makes this experience truly special is using the best wood.

Many of the most popular ovens have tiny openings that are too small for full-sized cooking wood. So, you’re going to want to use extra split wood at a 6-inch or 8-inch length and 1-2-inch diameter.

The 6-inch length is ideal for popular smaller outdoor ovens like the Ooni Karu 12, Bertello, Cru 30 and Gozney Roccbox. We also recommend 6-inch extra split wood for the new Solo Stove Pi oven.

Larger ovens like the Cru Champion or the Ooni Karu 16 have more space to fit larger 8-inch wood. The Cru Champion is even large enough to fit full-size 16-inch firewood.

As for the species of wood you should use, we’d recommend ash, oak, cherry or sugar maple. Ash and oak will provide crisp smokiness to the crust. Cherry and sugar maple will add some extra sweetness to the cheese and toppings.

Once you have your wood and are ready to go, here are some tips for a safe and successful pizza cooking experience:

Getting the Fire Going

Before you start a fire in your pizza oven, make sure that the oven’s chimney is uncovered and its vent is open. You’ll also want to avoid using your oven under a wooden overhang (such as a deck) because that can be a fire hazard.

Once your oven is ready and safely situated, add 2-4 pieces of pizza-cut wood to the heating tray at the back of the oven and place some kindling between the pieces. Light the kindling with a match or lighter and it shouldn’t be long before the wood gets going. Once it does, you can progressively add more pieces to increase the oven’s temperature.

Monitor the Temperature

You will want to make sure you have a reliable thermometer on your oven. Many ovens come with a built-in thermometer, but we’d caution you against taking the temperature it shows you at face value. Instead, we’d recommend having a second digital thermometer with which you can verify the oven’s temperature.

Let your oven heat until it’s at the ideal temperature to bake your pizza. This can vary depending on the type of dough you’re using. Some types cook well at 500 degrees while others need to be up above 900. It typically takes 15-20 minutes to achieve a high enough temperature in smaller ovens.

Position Your Pizza Strategically

When it’s time to place your pizza in the oven be careful of how close you place it to your heat source. You want to locate it near the flames but not too close so that it burns. A good distance is about 3-6-inches away from the flame.

But don’t just let your pie sit there! You need to rotate it every twenty seconds or so to ensure that it gets evenly cooked. If one side of the pizza sits near the flame for too long the crust will burn. So, make sure that every side gets even exposure to the flame for a nice golden-brown crust.

One final way you can move your pizza while in the oven is by lifting it toward the dome of the oven before bringing it out. Moving it closer to the super-hot dome for a brief time will add extra crispiness to the top of the pizza.

Person rotating a pizza in a portable pizza oven
Make sure you regularly rotate your pizza so that the wood can evenly cook it.

Wood Size Guidelines for Grilling or Smoking Meat

Cooking with wood is also an excellent choice for grilling or smoking meat. No other heat source compares to the pure, delicious smoke that the right kiln-dried hardwood can add to your pork, brisket or ribs.

The first step to getting started with using wood for cooking meat is to choose the size you’ll use. There are quite a few options out there, so here are some guidelines for picking the best option for your next smokeout.

8-Inch Logs – Best Fit for Smokers

If you’re looking to produce a lot of heat and smoke in a vertical, horizontal or offset smoker, then 8-inch smoking logs are the best choice for you. At Hot Box, we split our 8-inch smoking wood down to a 1-2-inch diameter to make them even easier to fit in your smoker.

4-Inch Chunks

These 4-inch cubes of wood are an excellent choice for multi-hour smokes in your kamado-style grill, charcoal grill or smoker. They produce smoke quickly and take a long time to burn down because of their extra density.

Pellets

These tiny, compressed pieces of sawdust are a convenient option if you have a very small smoker or grill. They produce smoke quickly but don’t last for nearly as long as 8-inch logs or 4-inch chunks. So, if you have the space in your smoker, we’d recommend going with the larger options.

Wood Chips

Small chips of wood are a decent option for gas or electric grills. Like pellets, they tend to produce a lot of smoke quickly but do not last very long. You can soak them to make them last a little longer, but that still won’t get you the longevity you’re looking for if you want to do a multi-hour smoke. You’re better off going with chunks in that case.

Choosing the Right Type of Wood for the Meat You’re Smoking

As we mentioned above, there’s not necessarily a right or wrong answer when picking a hardwood species to smoke your meat. Cherry, hickory, oak and sugar maple are all versatile and work with virtually any meat. So, you really can’t go wrong with any of those.

Still, some species work better with some types of meat than others. And we want to help you make the best decision for awesome results. So, we’ve put together a few expert recommendations for the most popular types of meat.

Best Wood for Smoking Brisket

You want your brisket to have a strong, smoky barbeque flavor. The best combination to produce these results is oak and hickory. Oak will provide the ideal prolonged smokiness that a thick piece of meat like a brisket needs. Meanwhile, hickory will enhance the meat with a jolt of hearty barbeque flavor.

We recommend using more oak in the mix than hickory because too much hickory could make the brisket too bitter.

Best Wood for Smoking Chicken

The last thing you want is for the chicken you smoke to come out dry and bland. The best way to enhance its flavor is with some mouthwatering cherry wood. The wood will imbue the chicken with just the right amount of fruity juiciness for delicious results.

Best Wood for Smoking Beef

Smoking beef can be tricky, so we recommend going with the safest bet for classic smoky flavor: oak. Not only will oak provide neutral smoke that pairs well with any beef, but it will also provide plenty of heat to thoroughly cook the beef.

Best Wood for Smoking Pork

Who doesn’t love a little sweet maple taste with their ham, bacon or pork belly? For this reason, we’d strongly recommend you try sugar maple wood with your pork. The wood will produce a mild smoke with a hint of maple-syrupy flavor to tickle the tastebuds.

Best Wood for Smoking Turkey

If you want a truly memorable Thanksgiving feast, we recommend adding some cherry wood when smoking your turkey. The wood will give your bird some extra fruity sweetness. It will also turn its skin a handsome mahogany color!

Various smoked meats on a wooden tray
You can’t go wrong with using kiln-dried hardwood to smoke any meat.

Expert Tips for Smoking or Grilling with Wood

Let’s get down to business, shall we? It’s time to fire up your grill or smoker and make some truly exceptional meat. But what do you need to know to fire it up like a pro? Here are some guidelines to help you get started:

Don’t Worry About Soaking Your Wood

The debate about whether you need to soak your smoking wood has been raging for eons. And we understand why so many people advocate for soaking since it can prolong the smoking process.

But here’s the thing: if you’re using kiln-dried wood chunks, then they should burn slowly enough already. You don’t need to soak them because the fire will already take multiple hours to consume the high-density cubes. So, if you don’t want to take the extra time to soak your wood, you don’t have to!

Keep the Fire Small

A small fire should produce enough smoke to effectively flavor your meat. If it gets too big, you could wind up with a giant charcoal briquette rather than a brisket! So, don’t go crazy with adding too much wood to your smoker. A little heat goes a long way.

Avoid Opening Your Smoker as Much as Possible

Be sure to keep your grill or smoker closed as much as possible to keep the heat from escaping. By opening it too much you could lower the temperature and risk the meat not getting cooked thoroughly enough. So, keep it closed and keep an eye on the temperature to ensure all is well in there.

Monitor the Temperature of the Food and The Grill

Don’t take the thermometer on your smoker or grill at face value. Instead, invest in a good digital thermometer so that you can verify the temperature inside the cooker and your meat.

You may also want to invest in an automatic temperature controller to easily modify the temperature in your smoker.

It’s Time to Get Cooking!

We hope you’ve found this guide helpful for all your cooking wood needs. As you can see, using wood for cooking presents a lot of exciting opportunities for experimentation. And the good news is you really can’t go wrong when you’re cooking with perfectly sized kiln-dried hardwood.

At Hot Box Cooking Wood, our mission is to make it as easy as possible for you to enjoy wood-fired cooking. We do that by providing a wide assortment of wood species and sizes that you can easily order and receive with free two-day shipping nationwide. Please check out our cooking wood page to learn more about all the products we offer.