Hickory vs Mesquite: Which is the Better Wood for Smoking Meat?


Smoking meats is a serious business! Choosing the appropriate wood for what you’re planning to smoke is essential. It changes the flavor of the steak, brisket, chicken, or turkey to be placed on the grill.

Two of the most popular options are hickory or mesquite. In this article, we explore which of these two kinds of wood is best.

Hickory vs Mesquite Wood for Smoking Meat

Mesquite Wood: What’s it all About?

Mesquite wood grows in South America right up to Mexico and in parts of the U.S., including Texas. There are scores of species of Mesquite, each with their subtle differences in flavor when using mesquite wood for smoking.

Most popular in Texas, where it’s far more abundant and sourced locally, this wood improves the health of the soil due to the inclusion of nitrogen in its composition. As a result, the occasional spark is generated while the wood is burning, so don’t be surprised by this. It’s perfectly normal.

Mesquite is a rapidly burning wood that includes lignin, which itself is highly combustible and produces considerable mesquite smoke – more than many other types of smoking wood.

Learn How to Use Wood Chips in An Electric Smoker, here.

What Does Mesquite Smoke Taste Like?

It has a rich, pungent yet earthy flavor when used sparingly by the grill master for meats that cook quickly. Also, mesquite smoke adds intense coloration to smoked meats.

The real trick with mesquite wood for smoking is to use it selectively. It burns quickly compared to other wood types. It’s easy to see it be overused or stay on fire too long. This results in a slightly bitter taste from the smoke, which is less desirable.

Because of these properties, it’s a good idea to plan its use. Meats and other food that require less cooking time are the best ones to smoke with mesquite wood. They can be on and off the grill before this wood is overcooked, and the smoke turns bitter.

Hickory Wood: What’s it all About?

Hickory wood grows in the U.S. in as many as 12 species and elsewhere, such as south-east Asia. The southern part of the U.S. and the Midwest are the two parts of the country that see the most hickory being used for grilling.

This wood is especially popular because it’s usable for longer duration cooking. This compares to mesquite wood, which typically is not. 

A clean-burning wood type, it provides greater smoking for longer providing added flexibility for the pitmaster. There isn’t a specific need to mix other wood types with hickory unless desired.

Also, there are fewer concerns when mixing different types of meats on the grill, various thicknesses of steaks, and seasonings either. Altogether, this makes hickory an easier choice, especially for people new to smoking meat.

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What Does Hickory Smoke Taste Like?

The taste is somewhat pungent but also a sweeter taste through the hickory smoke. Hickory smoke delivers an excellent, deeper color on meats compared to mesquite, which isn’t as deeper coloration.

For instance, bacon that’s been smoked using hickory has become a popular choice lately. The addition of the sweet smokey flavor to bacon complements this meat’s natural robustness.

There is no concern about the smoking changing flavor with a longer burn, so hickory is a go-to option for smoking when you have guests to entertain while tending the grill too.

What to Smoke with Hickory?

Smoking Meat on a Griller

The most common meat to smoke with hickory is bacon, hands down. If you’re new to using hickory wood, that’s a great starting point to get comfortable using it.

Hickory wood is pretty versatile. So, it can be used with fish such as salmon, but equally, the smokey flavor infuses cheeses like brie or camembert nicely too. Even nuts shouldn’t be excluded from consideration if you’re looking for a change from store-bought honey roasted or a barbecue flavor peanuts that fails to deliver an authentic taste. Pork is excellent too – we cover this in more detail in the next section.

Also, game meats work with hickory wood. A whole turkey or chicken will work well as this slow-burning wood performs well. Also, as we’ll touch on later, beef brisket shouldn’t be discounted either.

Is Hickory Good for Smoking Pork?

As indicated earlier with the bacon example, the profile of hickory smoke makes it perfect for smoking pork.

It adds a significantly rich flavor to the meat and a darker coloration than previously existed.

Smoking a pork shoulder for plenty of pulled pork is a perfect use of hickory wood. The sweet aroma will infuse with the meat particularly well. If wanting to add even more sweetness, then blending it with a little applewood is a neat idea. Just don’t be overly generous with the applewood.

Can You Mix Hickory and Mesquite?

It’s certainly possible.

Mesquite has a stronger profile of the two. Balancing it with hickory will even out the smokey flavor for anyone who finds mesquite to be overwhelming.

Mixing mesquite and hickory is an interesting choice because it adjusts the flavor profile considerably, making it sweeter yet a little less earthy too.

Use hickory as the base. It is the longest burning wood that delivers consistent smoke over the cooking period. With mesquite, it burns much faster, so it’s either good to add at the beginning of the near the end in small amounts to avoid making the meat bitter tasting or overpowering the subtler hickory smokey flavor.

Is Hickory or Mesquite Better for Brisket?

When cooking brisket, it’s richer meat, and so it can handle a strong smokey flavor.

Mesquite wood is fast burning and ideal for an authentic Texas-style brisket that’ll be respected around the neighborhood.

Hickory wood will add a bacon flavor or one that’s reminiscent of nuts – it’s certainly robust. But take care not to use too much to avoid overwhelming the natural brisket flavor.

In Conclusion

Hickory or mesquite? There is a case for using both mesquite and hickory for some cookouts. However, mesquite is used sparingly not to overdo it. If you prefer a richer, deeper taste with good coloration, then mesquite is worth trying. However, if you want longer cooking times combined with a slightly sweeter, more flexible smoking wood, then hickory is the clear winner. Also, if you’re new to smoking meat, pick hickory as it’s easier to manage.

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Tyler Lachance is a cookout professional. His expertise on cooking grilled food, creating marinades, formulating sauces and matching his food with the perfect drink is unrivaled.

Born and raised in a family that has a long history of cookout, he has treated this activity as a part of his culture and who he is.