Mesquite Vs. Hickory – Which Wood is Better for Smoking

Not sure if you should use hickory or mesquite for your next cookout?

If your thinking of smoking some ribs or brisket, you need to pick what wood your going to use!

Mesquite and hickory are both two popular choices of wood for smoking.

But it’s good to know when to use each, as they can really affect the flavor of the food.

Different cuts of meat pair better with certain wood.

Were going to look at the different smoke strengths, the flavor, what protein you should pair with each type of wood.

So let’s find out which ones are the best choice for your cookout!

Our wheelbarrow full of mesquite wood

Picking The Perfect Wood for A Cookout

When smoking meat, you can choose a flavor of wood, like you would choosing seasonings.

Some woods are lighter and some are much heavier. So to choose effectively, it is important to first understand the types of wood available and how to use them. 

Hardwoods And Softwoods

You cannot smoke food with softwoods, the sap and resin of these airy woods make for a fast burn that releases an acrid smell after combustion.

For smoking, you want the hardwoods. Hardwoods are denser, they will burn slower and will give your food that desirable smoky flavor unique to BBQ.

You can tell the types of wood apart by pressing your fingernail into them. If it’s softwood, your nail will leave an imprint whereas you won’t see it with hardwood.  

Different Strengths of Wood

There are mild, medium, and intense strengths of wood, these are:

  •  Mild flavored woods include variations of fruitwoods such as; apple, cherry, peach. These mild but sweet aroma woods are a good match with lighter proteins such as fish, poultry, and pork.

  • The middle is where you find oak and hickory woods. The flavor is more intense than the light woods but also keeps that light and earthy taste. So, it fits pork very well, but also is a strong enough contender for beef brisket and gamey meat.

  • The strongest wood of all is mesquite. It does have a fast burn and an impactful taste, it’s not always a great choice for smoking low and slow. It’s best used for red meat.

What Flavor Do You Get With Mesquite?

Mesquite wood chips give food a bold, earthy, and intense flavor.

When food is overexposed to this strong flavor it can become very sharp and bitter

Mesquite is widely popular in Texan BBQ recipes and other places specific in North America and South America.

Mesquite can burn faster than hickory, so if you’re looking for a real slow cook, you may need to load up on fuel.

The strength of the smoke and consuming nature of the wood burn is why mesquite is such a good match for red meat.

Darker meats can take on the power of the smoke, unlike other lighter proteins without the flavor becoming overwhelming to consume. It can also be paired with game, duck, lamb, and beef brisket.

Our load of mesquite wood for the smoker

What Flavor Do You Get With Hickory?

Hickory has a medium smoke strength profile. It is great when paired with pork and all red meats.

Hickory is also good with fish, poultry, and vegetables when mixed with lighter woods.

Nutty, sweet, and hearty, Hickory wood is celebrated in traditional Southern USA BBQ and is very commonly paired with pork.

The sophisticated nature of the wood brings out the natural flavor of food without overwhelming the taste with its smoky flavor.

However, excess use of Hickory can lead to a bitter flavor in your food, so it is important to be mindful of that. 

Our stack of hickory wood

Mesquite Vs Hickory, Which Should You Pick?

Each type of wood affects different food inversely. If you are new to wood smoking, it is best to adapt to start with a milder flavor profile and build up.

This is done by mixing to your usual lightwoods and increasing the ratio of medium or strong woods to lighter woods to familiarise yourself with the intensity.

Mesquite and hickory are both on the stronger end of smoke strength, however, mesquite is still much stronger and can only be used sparingly.

While mesquite and hickory are great for red meats,

Hickory is also good with lighter proteins when mixed with fruitwoods and mesquite wood should be mixed even for red meats to prevent overwhelming the palate.

Mesquite also does add color to food but is generally lighter in color than the red color of hickory smoking.

Our favorite wood to use is hickory – great all-rounder for smoking!

The Winner

Want to know the winner of this battle? Well, hickory is the more versatile due to its milder flavor but if your looking for strong flavor mesquite would win!

If you consider wood smokes as spice, is there one spice that is the greatest of all? It’s all up to personal taste! So you need test, test, test!

It all just comes down to preference and the type of meat your smoking!

Smoke On!


Author: Charlie Reeves
Hi, I’m Charlie, I am head taste tester at Simply Meat Smoking! I love it grilling, smoking, and getting out in the yard with the kids! The family also love to test all my recipes (especially my EXTRA CRISPY pulled pork, smoky pork loin, and ANY SEAFOOD I grill)

You will usually find me playing with the kids, perfecting my brisket bark, or sipping beers with boys around the fire. Can’t wait to share all my delicious smoking and grilling adventures with you!

You can read more on our About Us page.

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