Does Smoke Wood Go Stale? Is All Smoke Wood "The Same"

John K BBQ

TVWBB Member
I'm curious to see what others think about "shelf life" of smoke wood, and if there is variation in smoke wood quality. Last weekend I smoked some baby backs and used what I admit was a pretty old bag of cherry wood chunks. While the ribs turned out OK, they didn't have much smoke flavor. During the cook, we didn't see or smell much smoke, although I did add about 3 to 4 new chunks during the cook, positioning the chunks in the "hot spots" so in theory they would start smoking. These chunks also came from a big-box store, and I think were "Western Brand". The chunks were stored in a dry patio box, probably for a couple of years. I've watched some of Aaron Franklin's videos, and he makes a pretty big deal about the quality of the wood he uses.

Has anyone had a similar experience, or have an opinion to share? Mr. Franklin has definite opinions about how aged the wood should be, and I think he may be right. Today my assistant pit masters Casey and Calvin are helping me smoke a 4lb chuck roast, and I'm using my favorite brand of pecan chunks. These chunks feel a little heavy for their size (probably fresher wood), and they come from a town < 100 miles away. We'll see how today's cook goes.

Calvin ( My Lab) and Casey (My Golden) are ready to help! Calvin is ready to help. Casey's enthusiasm needs a little work.

IMG-2561.jpg

Smoker is all ready to light
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Here's my favorite wood chunks

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Dustin Dorsey

TVWBB Honor Circle
It matters. I try to use high quality wood chunks. Most of the products out there Like Western Wood kiln dry their wood which isn't necessarily the worst thing, but it can leave the wood with too low of a moisture content. There are companies out there like Fruitawood that you can get mail order chunks from. They are more expensive but put a better smoke flavor on my food and I can use less chunks. If I don't have good chunks I usually fall back on Western Wood chunks and just put more in. That gets me close.
 

Rich Dahl

TVWBB 1-Star Olympian
I also agree with Dustin. I have a large supply of smoke wood I got from Woodshed in Orange Ca. Most of it is a least 5 years old or older.
After about one or two years it starts to loose it's smoke flavor, so to compensate I add more wood. Both Barb and I don't like a heavy smoke flavor so it works out okay for us.

Here are my grilling buddies. Abby our Black Lab and Whitney are Golden Retriever, Husky, Coyote mix rescue dog doing what they do best, soaking up some rays. Also guarding the entrance to Weber Road,100_5339.JPG
 

Brad Olson

TVWBB Guru
John, sometimes dry wood can be brought back a little bit with a water bath. When I'm using older wood I'll sometimes soak it in a bucket of hot (at the start) water for a couple of hours first.
 

J Hasselberger

TVWBB Pro
I did some googling about chemical changes in wood as it ages. Long story short, the changes relate more to moisture content than to age. The phenol content gives wood it's "aromatic" qualities. As wood dries, the phenol content drops. I didn't find any scientific data (not that it doesn't exist) that factored "age" into the equation, but it often takes a long time for wood to reach moisture content equilibrium with it's surroundings. Drier wood will burn hotter and faster, so that would have an effect on the cooking result.

A bigger factor would be fungal invasion (dry rot), since that alters the chemical makeup quite a lot.

I'm just happy if it lights up nicely and burns cleanly. Post oak and pecan are readily available locally in these parts, so that's what I go with.
Jeff
 

Timothy F. Lewis

TVWBB Hall of Fame
Gee Rich, I had a black Lab named Abby too, a lifetime ago. She was part of a relationship and she got the dog, I sure miss the dog! The girl too really. It was just a wrong match at the time.
 

Griff

TVWBB Super Fan
John, I recently had the same experience. Cleaning up in the garage I came across some hickory that had to be at least 6 years old. The smoke/flavor was great initially, but when I used a week ago it gave very little smoke flavor to the meat. The only explanation was that 6+ years in a heated garage died it out too much.
 

timothy

TVWBB Hall of Fame
If you think of wood as a spice, then yea over time it loses some of it's potency.
I know a lot of members are happy using older wood and I was that way until I bought some from Smokinlicious.
Nite and day difference in taste and smell.

Tim
 

Jim Lampe

TVWBB 1-Star Olympian
Yes, i believe wood dies after a while.
kinda like flat beer.
90% of the wood i use is apple or hickory (or both together) and it is supplied to me by a friend (Joshua) who just happens to be in "the tree cutting down biness"... i run low on apple, he swings by with recently cut apple wood.
same with hickory...
Josh and i are also in "the swappin' biness"... i swap bacon for his homemade kielbasa and smoke wood.
I also heat my home with the wood he cuts and delivers. flat, tasteless wood.
 

Chris Allingham

Administrator
Staff member
Agree with what others are saying above. The best smokewood that most of us will get our hands on, beside the situation Jim Lampe describes, is wood from a quality supplier like Fruita or Woodshed or similar, and it will be at it's best when first received and will go downhill from there. The longer you have it, the drier it gets and the less smoke it produces, and the more you have to use. Here in CA where we have low humidity and I keep mine in a big Rubbermaid storage container in the garage, I don't think my chunks ever go bad, i.e. they don't rot, they don't deteriorate, bugs don't infest them. But I do replace about every two years, and I'm guessing I should replace annually but I just don't go through that much and it feels like a waste to toss them out too soon.

Shifting gears, at Camp Brisket 2020, there was a Wood & Smoke panel. I wrote about it here, do a Ctrl-F and search for "wood", it's the first instance.


A few excerpts...remember that much of this is referencing the use of wood in stickburners.

-----

A wood fire cooks the meat; its smoke flavors the meat and has antimicrobial properties.

It’s important to use well-seasoned wood when barbecuing, in the range of 9-15% moisture content, especially in stick burners. A clean fire will impart the good aspects of smoke to your barbecue.

When burning green wood, much of the fire’s energy goes into driving off water content, and undesirable flavor compounds can result.

Dr. Nickelson demonstrated a handheld electronic wood moisture meter that he uses to check the moisture content of seasoned wood.

The panel discussion turned to wood chunks for smaller smokers like the Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker. Wood chunks are typically double-kiln dried to prevent disease transfer across state line. As a result, they may be drier than the 9-15% moisture content discussed for seasoned wood and thus will produce less smoke. There’s not a whole lot you can do about this, you get what you get when you buy wood chunks at retail stores, unless you buy wood chunks from online suppliers that can tell you the moisture content of their products.

Kevin Kolman described a method he’s been using in lieu of wood chunks in the WSM that he says gives him good results for Texas-style brisket. Kevin lays a 12″ long split piece of post oak across the bottom of the WSM charcoal chamber, fills the empty area around the wood with unlit Weber Charcoal Briquettes, pours a Weber chimney starter full of lit charcoal on top of everything, lets it burn for about 5 minutes, then assembles the cooker. He uses water in the water pan, sets all three bottom vents 1/4 open and the top vent 1/2 open.
 

Lynn Dollar

TVWBB All-Star
The best wood you can get is when your neighbor cuts down his hardwood tree or your brother cuts down his apple trees. Its a lot of work, but its the only way to control the process and know for sure what your getting.

I'm fortunate to have a woodlot here in OKC that caters to smoker wood. Its my second best source. Edit to add ... the problem with the woodlot is I'm never sure how long the wood has been seasoned. And the guy who runs the woodlot doesn't really know, I don't think its his fault.

I use a moisture meter. But ya can't get a good reading on the outside of a split. To get the real reading, it has to come from inside. I either cut a split in half or split it again, and then take readings. The outside will always be drier.
 
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John K BBQ

TVWBB Member
Very impressed b
Agree with what others are saying above. The best smokewood that most of us will get our hands on, beside the situation Jim Lampe describes, is wood from a quality supplier like Fruita or Woodshed or similar, and it will be at it's best when first received and will go downhill from there. The longer you have it, the drier it gets and the less smoke it produces, and the more you have to use. Here in CA where we have low humidity and I keep mine in a big Rubbermaid storage container in the garage, I don't think my chunks ever go bad, i.e. they don't rot, they don't deteriorate, bugs don't infest them. But I do replace about every two years, and I'm guessing I should replace annually but I just don't go through that much and it feels like a waste to toss them out too soon.

Shifting gears, at Camp Brisket 2020, there was a Wood & Smoke panel. I wrote about it here, do a Ctrl-F and search for "wood", it's the first instance.


A few excerpts...remember that much of this is referencing the use of wood in stickburners.

-----

A wood fire cooks the meat; its smoke flavors the meat and has antimicrobial properties.

It’s important to use well-seasoned wood when barbecuing, in the range of 9-15% moisture content, especially in stick burners. A clean fire will impart the good aspects of smoke to your barbecue.

When burning green wood, much of the fire’s energy goes into driving off water content, and undesirable flavor compounds can result.

Dr. Nickelson demonstrated a handheld electronic wood moisture meter that he uses to check the moisture content of seasoned wood.

The panel discussion turned to wood chunks for smaller smokers like the Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker. Wood chunks are typically double-kiln dried to prevent disease transfer across state line. As a result, they may be drier than the 9-15% moisture content discussed for seasoned wood and thus will produce less smoke. There’s not a whole lot you can do about this, you get what you get when you buy wood chunks at retail stores, unless you buy wood chunks from online suppliers that can tell you the moisture content of their products.

Kevin Kolman described a method he’s been using in lieu of wood chunks in the WSM that he says gives him good results for Texas-style brisket. Kevin lays a 12″ long split piece of post oak across the bottom of the WSM charcoal chamber, fills the empty area around the wood with unlit Weber Charcoal Briquettes, pours a Weber chimney starter full of lit charcoal on top of everything, lets it burn for about 5 minutes, then assembles the cooker. He uses water in the water pan, sets all three bottom vents 1/4 open and the top vent 1/2 open.
Lots of great comments and info in this string. I have tried Mr. Kolman's fire building method and have to say that it works well. Now I just need to be sure I'm using "fresh" wood and/or using a moisture meter to cull out the bad stuff.
 

Lynn Dollar

TVWBB All-Star
Actually, the best moisture meter is your eyes and hands. Use the eyes to " size up " how well seasoned a split is and get an idea of how much you think it should weigh. Then pick it up and feel how heavy it is. Green wood will be very heavy. If its much lighter than you think it should've been, its probably well seasoned.
 

John K BBQ

TVWBB Member
Lots of good info in this string, it all makes great sense. I decided to do a little density check on my recent chunk purchase, because Lynn's comments on weight made sense to me, and because I bought at the STL BBQ where they don't carry my usual brand (Sweet & Smokey by Chigger Creek), but they do carry other chunks made here in the might MO (Gourmet Chunks).

Cutting to the chase, my observations show no major difference in weight per ml of water displaced. All the chunks seemed to "weigh something", and they all looked and smelled pretty good. You'll see in the photos the new chunks are smaller. I bought smaller ones to use in my PK360 and I'll be using lots of these little guys the next time I light up the 22" WSM. I didn't have much Sweet N' Smokey left, and, I didn't want to use samples w/bark on them (or fuss with removing bark). So I just did two samples of each.

My photos and "data" are below. Just wanted to show y'all I was paying attention and thinking outside the box a lil bit.

A photo of the chunks and my kitchen scale;
chunk on scale.jpg

Chunks submerged; I filled to 250 ml, then removed the chunk, and subtracted the reading from 250 to get displacement
(decided to do this on the workbench for no particular reason)
pyrex.jpg

Here are the results. Pretty small sample size, but given accuracy of the equipment, I doubt the results would differ much with a larger sample size.
One could conclude that the Gourmet chunks are a little more dense, and therefore might create better smoke & flavor, however, small sample size, crude measuring, and other factors at play lead me to conclude no significant difference.

density table.JPG
 

Bob Bass

TVWBB Guru
Years ago I would purchase those plastic wrapped bags of dry smoking wood from the usual box stores. It was ok back then because I did not know any better. Or at least I thought I knew more than I did.

Since then, purchases from Fruita have taught me that I did indeed not know much at all. And I for one, am happy that I have received that education. ;)
 

J Hasselberger

TVWBB Pro
It’s important to use well-seasoned wood when barbecuing, in the range of 9-15% moisture content, especially in stick burners. A clean fire will impart the good aspects of smoke to your barbecue.
For many years, I was in the guitar making business, so wood stabilization was a significant issue. Interestingly enough, air-dried wood will stabilize outdoors at between 9-15%. Most instrument makers would store uncut boards outside for at least a few years. After cutting the stock to size, it would typically be stored in a moisture-controlled indoor space until getting down into the 6-8% range, where it would be reliable stabile in an instrument. Once an instrument is built, the wood will continue to change as it's played and as it gets older. The consensus is that as the wood vibrates over time, the sound "opens up", which is part of the reason why older instruments are more highly prized.

What this has to do with smoke wood is unknown to me, but the 9-15% range recommended for barbecue is pretty much what you get from natural outdoor air-drying. Once the wood is cut and left to dry, it will gradually settle into that 9-15 range and stabilize.

As a point of interest, here is a photo of the wood yard behind Smitty's in Lockhart. This is only part of it -- there is an entire section of split logs as well. Most joints in these parts have a similar yard. So the tradition at well-regarded barbecue restaurants is air-drying. Don't know if that makes it better or not, but that's what they do. -- Jeff
Smitty&#x27;s wood by Jeff Hasselberger, on Flickr
 

Brad Olson

TVWBB Guru
But I've been using a $30 model and I pretty confident I'm getting good enough accuacy for what I'm doing. I've no way to test its accuracy, but I'm not doing rocket science either . I have this one

I ordered one and it arrived last week, and I put it to use this morning. Simple to use and it told me that the piece of wood I wanted to use for today's ribs is around 12-15%.
 

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