Breaking down everything you need to know about choosing the right smoking wood for flavorful chicken including the the best kinds of wood to pair from hickory to apple. Say bye to sad, flavorless chicken off your smoker!

Overhead shot of spatchcock chicken over a bed of charcoal.

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We always break in our new grills and smokers with a whole chicken. One, they are inexpensive compared to other cuts of meat, and they pick up a rich, smoky flavor even as we’re learning a new grill. The thing is, every cut of chicken is perfect for smoking.

It comes out juicy and moist every time, but the trick is to cook them without a heavy smoke flavor that can be too much or even downright acrid. After years of testing, we can’t imagine cooking chicken any other way.

Smoking is all about slow-cooking chicken to get that mouthwatering taste that only comes from grilling. And, as you hone the art and skill of smoking wood, one thing you’ll soon discover is the importance of picking the best wood for smoking chicken – your secret weapon for taking your chicken recipes to the next level.

TL;Dr Summary

Skim this for the type of wood you want.

Picking the Best Wood for Smoking Chicken

The type of wood you choose can make or break your chicken game. You have tons of options – pecan wood, hickory wood, apple wood, cherry wood, and more. Each brings different flavors to the party.

One thing to keep in mind is that no matter your choice of wood, it infuses this delicate meat with flavor, and it’s easy to overpower the chicken. You want to create a balance. So, it’s important to know which type of wood will produce the flavor you’re looking for.

From the sweet flavor of apple wood to the boldness of hickory, each wood adds its own unique flavor profile to the mix, and you’re going to find those you love and those you don’t. This guide is your ticket to understanding the unique flavors each wood brings to the table.

Whole chicken on a grill being basted with a brush.

Top 5 Best Woods for Smoking Chicken

Whether you’re smoking chicken thighs, quarters or a whole chicken, these options are the best. You may decide that you want a more mild flavor on chicken wings since they are smaller and a stronger flavor on grilled chicken breasts.

Apple Wood

  • Flavor Profile: Brings a sweet and fruity wood smoke flavor.
  • Impact on Chicken: Infuses a mild and subtly sweet taste, making it an excellent choice for those who enjoy a touch of sweetness in their chicken.

Hickory Wood

  • Flavor Profile: Known for its strong and robust smoke flavor.
  • Impact on Chicken: Impabrts a bold and smoky taste, making it perfect for those who prefer a hearty and full-bodied flavor in their smoked birds.

Pecan Wood

  • Flavor Profile: Adds a mild, nutty flavor to the mix.
  • Impact on Chicken: Provides a gentle, nutty undertone, allowing the natural flavors of the chicken to shine through while still adding a distinctive touch.

Maple Wood

  • Flavor Profile: Offers a slightly subtle sweetness.
  • Impact on Chicken: Enriches the overall taste with a delicate sweetness, making it ideal for those who appreciate a balanced and nuanced flavor. We love mixing maple with other woods like pecan, oak, or hickory.

Oak Wood

  • Flavor Profile: Offers a balanced flavor that we love with almost anything.
  • Impact on Chicken: Infuses a classic smoky flavor, making it a go-to choice for those who love their chicken with an authentic smokehouse flavor, like these chicken leg quarters.
A person is using a spatula to cook chicken legs on a grill.

If you’ve never smoked with wood chips before and you want to try it, check out our How to Smoke with Wood Chips guide!

Factors to Consider When Choosing Smoking Wood for Chicken

It doesn’t matter if you’re grilling over charcoal, on a gas grill with wood chips in a smoker box, in an electric smoker, or with a pellet grill, every type of wood imparts a unique flavor.

Intensity Levels: Understanding the Strength and Potency of Various Wood Types

The intensity levels of different wood types play a crucial role in determining the overall flavor impact on your smoked chicken. Here’s the lowdown:

  • Mild Woods (e.g., Apple, Pecan): These lighter woods bring a subtle fruity flavor to the table. Ideal for those who prefer a more subtle smokiness, allowing the natural flavors of the chicken to shine through. Try these with smoked chicken thighs and smoked chicken breasts.
  • Medium Woods (e.g., Cherry, Maple): With a balance between mild and strong, these woods provide a subtle intensity, adding depth to the flavor without overwhelming the chicken. Cherry also adds a richer reddish color to the color. Try these with beer can chicken.
  • Strong Woods (e.g., Hickory, Mesquite): For strong flavor enthusiasts, bold woods bring a potent and robust intensity. Hickory, known for its boldness (almost a heavy bacon flavor), and mesquite, with its intense smokiness, are game-changers, imparting a hearty flavor that stands out. Keep in mind that some people don’t care for the intensity of Mesquite and find it offputting.

Smoking Time: How Different Woods Burn and Their Impact on Cooking Time

The burning characteristics of different woods directly influence the cooking time and overall experience of smoking meat. Here’s the scoop for smoking chicken:

  • Quick-Burning Woods (e.g., Mesquite): This wood type burns relatively faster, making it suitable for those who are looking for a quicker smoking time. Perfect for when you want that smoky goodness without spending hours tending to the smoker.
  • Moderate-Burning Woods (e.g., Pecan): Strikes a balance between quick and slow. This wood type provides a moderate burn, giving you a bit more time to infuse the chicken with flavor. 
  • Slow-Burning Woods (e.g., Hickory, Apple, Cherry): If you’re in it for the long haul, slow-burning woods are your go-to. Hickory and fruit woods like apple and cherry deliver a leisurely burn, allowing the chicken to soak in the smoky goodness over an extended period. Perfect for achieving that melt-in-your-mouth tenderness.

Check out our full guide to smoking wood for more flavor pairings.

How to infuse more smoke flavor when grilling chicken

Want even more flavor when you smoke your birds? Consider spatchcocked chicken, which is cutting it so that it lays flat on the grill for even cooking and more exposed surface area.

Never done it? Learn how to spatchcock a chicken like a pro! This is also a handy trick for speeding up smoking turkey.

A bag of pecan wood in front of a rotisserie chicken on the grill.

Our Favorite brand of Smoking Wood:

Western Wood is our go to brand for Smoking Wood Chips and Chunks – you can find these in local grocery stores and hardware stores. Western wood is kiln-dried and burns consistently. We’ve been using it for over 5 years.


Girl Carnivore Pro Tip

Whether using chips, wood chunks, or wood pellets, these flavor combos are all the same. The only difference is, with a charcoal grill you get a more robust grilled flavor than a pellet or gas grill.
For more info, see our tips on how to smoke on a gas grill.

Tips and Techniques for Smoked Chicken with Wood

Preparing the Wood for Smoking

  • Before using your wood chips, it’s important to prep them for the smoking session. One thing we don’t recommend is letting the wood soak in water. We’ve found that dry wood burns a nice, clean smoke rather than steam, which is what we don’t want. Make sure the wood is completely dry when you add to the coals, smoker box, or foil packet.
  • Another important thing is to make sure the smoke is burning clean before adding the chicken to the grill. When you first add wood to the coals, the smoke will be a darker color that can leave an acrid, bitter flavor. You want to wait for the smoke to burn clean and clear, called blue smoke. Just like when you prep your charcoal grill, you want to allow the grill to preheat and burn off before cooking for the best results.

Choosing the Right Amount of Wood for Ideal Smoke Production

  • Finding the right balance of wood is key to achieving that perfect flavor without going overboard. Start with a moderate amount – a handful of wood chips or one to two chunks, depending on your smoker’s size. The aim is a consistent stream of smoke rather than an overwhelming fog. Adjust as needed throughout the smoking process to maintain that ideal smoke production throughout the cooking time.

Properly Combining Different Woods for Unique Flavor Profiles

  • Now, let’s talk about flavor experimentation. Mixing different wood types can add layers of complexity to your chicken. For instance, pairing hickory for boldness with apple for sweetness. It’s like crafting your own unique flavor combo. The key is to find that sweet spot, where the mix of woods elevates the chicken’s natural taste without taking over. Don’t be afraid to get creative, test different wood pairings, and unveil your personal signature flavor for smoked poultry.

Maintaining Consistent Temperature Throughout the Smoking Time

  • Temperature control is a crucial factor in smoking anything. Consistency is key whether you’re opting for a slow, low-temperature smoke or a quicker cook. Invest in a reliable instant-read thermometer, keep an eye on the fire, and adjust the vents to regulate the heat.
  • Remember, it’s not just about the smoke; maintaining a consistent temperature ensures the chicken cooks evenly from the breast meat to the thighs and absorbs that delicious flavor. Be vigilant with temperature management and controlled heat, and your smoked chicken will reward you with a juicy and flavorful outcome.

Girl Carnivore Tips for Smoking Chicken with Wood

  • Use chunks rather than chips for longer; use cleaner smoke if you have a bigger grill (ceramic, charcoal, drum, or offset smoker).
  • Use wood chips in a smoker box on a gas grill to impart a mild smoky flavor.
  • Do not soak wood chunks before smoking.
  • Mix woods for more complex flavors.
  • Try different woods to create unique blends and see which you like best.
Bags of Cowboy charcoal.

The Best Charcoal for Grilling Chicken

Picking the right type of wood is only one part of getting the best flavor when using a charcoal grill. We find that using real charcoal can drastically improve the flavor when you smoke chicken (even without adding extra wood). This is great if you have family or friends who don’t love the flavor of smoking because they associate it with being too strong.

We use all-natural charcoal with no fillers or chemicals added in. This means that it’s simply compressed charcoal with vegetable starch binders when a briquet pillow OR is simply lump charcoal made from real wood. When buying charcoal, look at the bag to see what it’s made of. A lot of the ‘quick light‘ brands have chemicals in them that make the charcoal light faster but also impart a chemical flavor onto your food.

For ease, learn how to light charcoal in a chimney for the cleanest taste when grilling.


Here are our favorite fuels for the type of charcoal grill you own. Not sure what grill to smoke a chicken on? Check out our best grills to see our favorites:

Bag of Jack Daniel's pellets.

The best Pellets for Smoking a Chicken on a Pellet Grill

Pellet grills are a great tool for smoking chicken. When smoking with pellets, you also have just as many choices for pellet blends as there are types of wood. And just like wood chips, the blend you pick to load your hopper influences how hot the grill runs.

When buying pellets for our Traeger grill, we look for bags that are only compressed wood pellets. But we’ve found that we love grilled flavor we get when we use charcoal pellets instead of wood pellets. Our tip for added flavor when smoking on a pellet grill is to add a box of smoking chips over the hotter part of the grill grate OR to add wood chunks to the back corners to double down on the smoky flavor.


Smoked chicken thighs on a baking sheet on the side of a grill.

Other Factors to Enhance Smoked Chicken Flavor

Dry Brining

  • Dry brining is the secret weapon for taking your smoked chicken to the next level and can help crisp the skin. Dry brining involves rubbing the chicken with a dry rub. This is usually a mixture of salt, spices, and herbs, allowing it to rest and absorb those tastes before hitting the smoker. This method doesn’t just make the chicken juicier – it adds a whole layer of flavor that goes deep. The outcome? A smoked chicken that’s not only perfectly seasoned but bursting with incredible flavors.

Marinades and Rubs

  • A great grilled chicken marinade and rubs are a great option for adding flavor. Marinades, typically liquid concoctions of herbs, oils, and spices, penetrate the chicken for an inside-out flavor infusion. Rubs, on the other hand, are dry mixtures massaged onto the chicken’s surface, creating a flavorful crust during smoking. The key here is choosing the perfect combination of flavors that elevate the natural taste of the chicken and work harmoniously with the wood type. 

Pairing Smoked Chicken with Suitable Sides and Sauces

A note about chicken skin and smoking

What’s the trick with smoking chicken to get crispy skin? Well, when smoking chicken, you often don’t get the same crispy skin because of the lower temperature. The skin absorbs the smoke but doesn’t have the crunch of fried chicken or even pan-seared chicken. This is particularly hard when smoking marinated chicken. Always make sure you pat the chicken dry with paper towels to get the most intense flavor.

Remove smaller cuts, like chicken wings or smoked chicken thighs, from the grill once they’re done cooking, and then increase the heat. We finish the chicken, skin side down over the heat to help sear the chicken at the end, adding a little char to the skin.

Overall, selecting the right smoking wood is the key to unlocking a world of tastes for your chicken. We’ve explored different woods, choosing the right amount of wood, maintaining the right temperature, and other factors affecting smoked chicken flavor. Now, light up the grill and experiment with different types of wood with confidence.

Bbq chicken wings on a grill with a foil packet with the best wood for smoking chicken in the background.

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Helpful Grilling Guides



We recommend every 30-45 minutes for best results. Avoid adding chips more than three times during the smoking process as it can cause a bitter taste.


Whatever kind you have! You can use a pellet smoker, electric smoker, charcoal smoker, or any type of smoker! You can even use smoking chips to smoke on a gas grill to impart smoky flavor to your chicken.

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Well, Hey, Y’all.

Kita is a multi-talented individual, boasting numerous accomplishments such as being an award-winning recipe developer, world-traveled professional photographer, and journalist. As the lead creative force behind Girl Carnivore®, she is widely recognized as an authority on all things meat.


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