The Full Cut

What you should know about barrel smoking wood for BBQ

Ben Loseke

Two piles, one of barrel smoking wood chunks and another of barrel smoking wood chips 100% authentic barrel BBQ smoking wood by Midwest Barrel Co.

Smoking meats and other foods is one of the best ways to cook, especially for anything and everything related to BBQ. Beef, pork, chicken, vegetables, cheese – you name it – they’re all fantastic when smoked to perfection.

To create those truly mouthwatering smoked meals, though, you need to have the right type of smoking wood for your grill or smoker. There is just no way around it: Without the best wood, you’re leaving a lot of flavor on the table.

Or more like leaving all that flavor off the table, right?

Don’t fall victim to a future without flavor. Make sure you use the best BBQ smoking wood available – barrel smoking wood chunks and chips! Let’s break down some of the reasons why barrel smoking wood is simply better.

How smoke cooks meat and other foods

smoked meat on the grill with smoke rising

First things first, let’s take a look at how smoke from slowly burning wood actually cooks and adds flavor to whatever fine BBQ or other cuisine you’ve got sitting on the grill or in your smoker. Believe it or not, there’s quite a bit of science behind the entire process.

That process begins with smoke, of course. Smoke is made up of many tiny particles that are released from a burned material or substance. With burning wood, organic compounds are released into the air as smoke. This is where our delicious smoked meats and smoked foods get their flavor.

You see, when you burn wood and cook with smoke, you are releasing cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin from that wood. When burned, these turn into acids, esters and furans that add taste and smell. Different types of wood carry different flavor and aroma possibilities, as does wood of different ages and growth conditions.

Smoke interacts with and cooks meat

There’s a lot happening to your meat, too, whenever you’re working with smoke. All meat contains three elements that are affected by smoke: water, fat and proteins. Each of these elements react to smoke in different ways and can highlight specific tastes and smells.

Meat is also made up of connective tissue that is filled with collagen. If you cook the collagen quickly, then it toughens up. However, when cooked low and slow as with smoking, that collagen melts, takes on water and you end up with that ideal tenderness and juiciness.

The fat in meat also melts when smoking for longer lengths of time. The fat renders and is again responsible for much of why meats come out of the smoker so tender and juicy when smoked just right.

Chemical reactions cook and add color

But while flavor may be the most important, there’s a lot going on that affects color. When you’re smoking food, there are several processes and chemical reactions going on that serve as signals as to whether the food has reached a desired level of doneness.

One of those is the Maillard Reaction. This reaction is what makes the meat brown because amino acids in the meat – react with reducing sugars. This results in that quintessential brown coloring.

Another well-known phenomenon – and a sign that you’ve cooked your meat, especially brisket, to perfection – is the highly coveted smoke ring. This is the line of pink meat found just beneath the bark. The line should be about 1/4 inch thick.

You have your wood to thank for that smoke ring. The coloring comes from a chemical reaction that occurs when nitrogen dioxide gas is produced by the wood as it is burning. The gas is infused into the surface of the meat as it’s smoked, reacting with the water found in the meat.

The result is the production of nitric oxide. The nitric oxide then interacts with the myoglobin in the meat to retain that pink color. Myoglobin is the pigment in meat that usually has a bright red or pink appearance.

When the meat is cooked, it turns brown in color. However, the nitric oxide prevents oxygen from attaching the myoglobin in the meat, preventing the color from changing.

Let’s talk flavor

So, we’ve covered the science behind smoking meat. Let’s discuss what everyone cares about most – flavor.

Whenever you are smoking meat, the smoke that’s produced doesn’t directly contact the meat. The smoke only touches the outside, which is where you will get that mouthwatering smoky flavor. Aside from the smoke ring, you will not get much flavor at all from the smoke itself underneath the surface.

To get as much smoky flavor on the outside of your meat, all you have to do is apply a wet rub. This helps to keep the meat cool, which attracts particles from the smoke. The rub will also trap more of the smoke because it’s wet.

What barrel wood adds to the equation

Barrel BBQ smoking wood chunks

Now, you’re probably wondering what smoking foods and meats with barrel wood adds to the equation. For starters, all of the 100% authentic barrel smoking wood chunks and chips that we sell come from used barrels that were made with American White Oak.

Already a top choice for smokers and BBQ fanatics, oak provides an excellent – but not too powerful – smoky flavor. It also has a long burn time, so it’s perfect for those larger meats like beef and pork.

Many grill masters choose to mix oak with other types of wood to get a little bit of extra, complex flavor. That’s what barrel wood adds.

No, you’re not going to pull meat and food out of the smoker that magically tastes like bourbon or red wine or barrel-aged stout. However, you will notice hints and notes of flavors that are commonly associated with whatever spirit, beer or other beverage the barrel aged.

On top of that, barrel wood smoke smells amazing. The aromas that waft up from your grill or smoker are really going to remind you of a nice glass of wine or your favorite pour of bourbon.

How we pick barrels for smoking wood

A broken down bourbon barrel with charred staves and head on floor

At Midwest Barrel Co., our primary customers are craft breweries, wineries and distilleries that are looking to purchase freshly emptied, used oak barrels that previously aged bourbon, whiskey, wine, port, rum – you name it.

But not every barrel makes the cut for refilling. Some may be damaged, while other barrels may have been extras in large truckloads that we’ve identified as perfect for cutting up into smoking wood chunks or chipping into smoking wood chips.

Either way, these barrels have still been freshly emptied. Throughout the barrel-aging process, the staves have soaked up whatever beverage the barrel aged and are now ready to cook up some seriously delicious BBQ.

Fire up the grill!

You could keep reading about how barrel smoking wood performs, but that’s no match for putting all that you’ve learned into practice. Now’s your chance to pick up a bag or two of smoking wood chunks or smoking wood chips and take your BBQ flavor to the next level.


Ph.D., and Founder of Midwest Barrel Co. Barrel expert. Plant doctor. American picker. Only known allergies: spicy food and meetings.