Hickory vs Mesquite | Which Works Best for BBQ?

December 15, 2022

What’s the difference between hickory vs mesquite smoking wood and the flavors they produce? I’ve been seeing this question pop up a lot lately. However, the answer depends on your taste and what you want to smoke or grill. For most of us cooks and backyard barbecue warriors, we know mesquite wood has a strong flavor profile. It is often used for red meat like beef, especially brisket. Hickory on the other hand is mildly intense in flavor. It’s a versatile type of wood that goes well with chicken or beef. 

Still, I know it’s really hard to tell the difference between the different smoking woods like hickory and mesquite. When we dive further feel in the hickory vs mesquite wood comparison, you’ll find out what works best for you and your purpose.

Hickory vs mesquite

Differences Between Hickory vs Mesquite: A Side-by-side Comparison

Preview
Weber Mesquite Wood Chunks
Weber Mesquite Wood Chunks, 350 Cubic Inch...
Oklahoma Joe's Wood Smoker Chunks
Oklahoma Joe's Wood Smoker Chunks, 8 lb,...
Where It Comes From
South and North America
Southeast Asia and North America
Smoke Characteristics
Dark Smoke That Discolors Food
Clean Smoke; Burns Longer
Flavor/Taste
Big Bold, Intense and Earthy Flavor
Rich Subtly Sweet and Nutty Flavor
Flavor Intensity
Strong Smoky Flavor
Mild Smoky Flavor
Application
For Smoking Dark Meats Like Texas-style Brisket, Duck, Lamb, or Wild Game Meat
For Smoking Pork, Beef, and Chicken
Weber Mesquite Wood Chunks
Preview
Weber Mesquite Wood Chunks, 350 Cubic Inch...
Where It Comes From
South and North America
Smoke Characteristics
Dark Smoke That Discolors Food
Flavor/Taste
Big Bold, Intense and Earthy Flavor
Flavor Intensity
Strong Smoky Flavor
Application
For Smoking Dark Meats Like Texas-style Brisket, Duck, Lamb, or Wild Game Meat
Oklahoma Joe's Wood Smoker Chunks
Preview
Oklahoma Joe's Wood Smoker Chunks, 8 lb,...
Where It Comes From
Southeast Asia and North America
Smoke Characteristics
Clean Smoke; Burns Longer
Flavor/Taste
Rich Subtly Sweet and Nutty Flavor
Flavor Intensity
Mild Smoky Flavor
Application
For Smoking Pork, Beef, and Chicken

It is important to understand that both hickory and mesquite wood burn almost exactly the same way. So when you decide to switch from one to the other, you don’t need to alter your cooking time or method. 

The second thing to remember: If you’re cooking for a group, only you will be able to note the differences between hickory and mesquite. Only experienced grill masters can tell what woods you used. Some will notice the intense smoky notes of mesquite. Although the distinctive nutty taste of hickory won’t matter for a few. 

Which Is Better: Hickory or Mesquite?

Mesquite wood chips are more effective for smoking meat because the wood burns a little quicker and stronger. It burns fast and smokes a lot, giving your meats intense smoke and bark. 

Meanwhile, hickory wood is more versatile than mesquite and it tastes better. Hickory can be used with various types of meat and is easily integrated with other woods such as oak to create amazingly spicy flavor profiles. 

I like to use hickory with dark red meat like pork shoulder and beef and also with white meats like chicken. 

On the other hand, mesquite wood chips and logs are only great for certain recipes like dark meats. However, it’s probably too strong for smoking ribs or pork shoulder. 

If you’re having a hard time deciding which to choose, you can choose both. Yes, you can mix hickory with mesquite. Blending intense woods with fruity woods will help decrease the intensity. I recommend trying them out individually before combining them. 

Everything About Mesquite, the Wood With a Distinctive Color

Mesquite is from deciduous trees found in North America. Mesquite tree woods are also used to smoke food or to make coals for grilling meats.

Right from time before smoking got so popular mesquite woods were used for centuries to create furniture. The products from the tree are edible and can even be made into flour.

Currently, this ingredient is used for barbecues mainly because of its easy availability and distinctive flavor. Most smokers prefer eating foods made from mesquite wood because the smell gives off spiciness and complements meat like beef rib.

Mesquite is a serious smoking wood used to make meat butts or boneless ribs, chicken breasts, and pork chops. However, the intense aroma can sometimes mask meats. 

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10,266 Reviews
Weber Mesquite Wood Chunks, 350 Cubic Inch...
  • Mesquite wood chips
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  • Great with pork, lamb, & beef
  • 350 cu. in. (0.006 m^3) sized bag

Origin of Mesquite Wood

Mesquite woods come from South and Central America including Mexico. Texas Almanac reports that 76% of mesquite trees that grow in the US are found in Texas. 

Mesquite trees are ecological. They fix nitrogen in the soil and can eliminate the need for fertilizer. This high density of nitrogen is a good source of ignition in the wood when burning. This is why you will see that the wood burns more quickly. On the other hand, it is hard, long-lasting, and considered one of the most stable hardwoods in the world. 

Benefits of Mesquite Wood 

  • Burns evenly and produces high heat and great burning coals
  • Mesquite taste and aroma cannot quite keep up with hickory, but the flavor is fantastic here too.
  • For many die-hard barbecue professionals, this hardwood is great for direct searing on the grill.
  • Mesquite is unmistakable while shopping. It has a chocolate-brown appearance with growth rings in the center. 
  • Mesquite gives an intense color to smoked meats. It gives a darker bark. 
Outdoor Barbecue Grill with Wood Fire

Everything About Hickory, the Versatile Smoking Wood

Hickory wood comes from trees in the walnut family. It is a dense hardwood.  It brings with it a mildly intense aroma when burned to smoke meat and fish. 

It is a medium smokey wood with an unique flavor note when combined with oak and provides an extremely smoky taste to meals. 

As with any hardwood, it also has an unusual flavor which some people believe has an unpleasant acrid, or mildew smell. This is why it is frequently combined with oak. 

Almost all foods can be smoked with hickory chips or logs. The great thing about hickory smoking chips is that nutty and sweet smell and taste

Hickory wood is a naturally burning wood type, providing excellent flexibility for grill masters. This is one of the best for new barbecue smokers since it works great with many dishes.

Oklahoma Joe's Wood Smoker Chunks, 8 lb,...
1,533 Reviews
Oklahoma Joe's Wood Smoker Chunks, 8 lb,...
  • Oklahoma Joe's hickory wood chunks are...
  • For use with smokers and charcoal grills...
  • Ideal for smoking meats, poultry,...
  • Made of all natural wood chunks

Origin of Hickory

Hickory is quite common throughout North America as well as South America. It’s also found in Southeast Asia. 

Hickories are popular throughout most of the southern part of the US and the Midwest. The woods are unique due to their versatility. They are excellent for making dishes that need to be smoked for longer. 

Aside from being used as a smoking fuel, hickory is commonly used for seasoning and curing meats, which tells a lot about its high versatility. 

Benefits of Hickory Wood 

  • Long burning time
  • Hardly sparks
  • Hickory woods have a natural sweetness with a mild smoke flavor profile that wouldn’t ruin your dish’s natural flavor
  • Creates a great flame – also worth considering for fire bowls.
  • Hickory goes well with any meat or fish.
Barbecue Wood Fire

What Else Is Important when Smoking With Wood?

In addition to using the right type of wood, the condition of the wood and the correct handling of it are important for safe barbecuing with wood. Next, I’ll show you what you should consider while choosing and using these woods for smoking. 

Clean and Dry

For effective food smoking, you need dry (not fresh) and clean grilling wood. The residual moisture should be a maximum of 20 percent. It must not show any sign of fungus or other contamination. Smoking wood must not have chemical treatments.

Log Size 

The sizes of the wood chips or wood logs are also important. Log length of 8 inches and a thickness of around 2 to 3 inches are great for even burning and good temperature development. For wood chunks, the ideal dimensions are 1 by 1 inch in length and width. The thickness is typically 1.4 inches. 

The Embers

Would you like to make your grilling as low-emission as possible? Then you should only place the food on the grill when the wood fire has burned down

Don’t place your meats anywhere direct flame can be seen. Grilling takes place over the embers, not over a wood fire

The reason: wood binds pollutants that are released when burned. There are over 100 hazardous chemicals released from wood smoke and they can be carcinogenic. 

Among other things, substances such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, acids, and tar are released while smoking wood. If you grill directly over a wood fire, you’ll have nothing but polluted grilled food and a bitter aftertaste. If you grill over the embers, most of the pollutants are already burned out.

FAQs 

What Does Mesquite Smoke Taste Like?

Mesquite typically has a big, bold, intense, and earthy flavor. It burns quickly and hot produces plenty of smoke and is rich in savory flavor.

What Does Hickory Smoke Taste Like?

Hickory is known for its mild, intense, savory, and hearty flavor. Hickory is good for meats like large sliced rib cuts and pork shoulder, for white meats, and even fish. 

Is Mesquite or Hickory Better for Steak?

Steaks, as well as other meat varieties, can go well with hickory, the versatile wood. However, mesquite is better than hickory for steaks like beef brisket. I feel the darker your meat is, the better mesquite would be for cooking. 

Barbecue Grill with Wood Fire

Final Words 

I’ve compared and introduced each wood type to show you the best dishes you can use them in. Again, hickory imparts a medium-high flavor to meats. Mesquite has a strong flavor that can bind meat. If you fall in love with both kinds of wood, you can mix hickory and mesquite for your smoking sessions. 

By Kristy J. Norton
I'm Kristy – a chef and connoisseur of all things BBQ! You can find me either in my kitchen (or someone else's) or at a big outdoor barbecue surrounded by friends and family. In both my professional and personal life I’ve picked up more than a few tips and tricks for turning out delicious food. I consider it a privilege to share it with others!
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