The best firewood is of course the type that best suits your needs which can vary depending on whether you are cooking or using the wood for heat in a fireplace. There are many types of wood that are suitable either for the fireplace or for cooking. Here I will repeat some of the basic important principles that are important when choosing wood. After that is a detailed list of several common types of firewood and their characteristics.
Seasoned firewood is wood that has been left out to dry for an extended period of time. Wet wood, including green wood which has recently been cut from a tree, is more difficult to burn and burns with less heat. Avoid using wet wood and always use seasoned firewood if at all possible.
Energy Content – BTUs (British Thermal Units)
This is a measure of how much heat is given off by a certain amount of wood. The hardwoods have the highest BTU content and thus are considered the best firewood for high, intense heat. The highest of the high include rock elm, sugar maple, and red oak. Softwoods, like white pine, basswood, green ash, and white spruce, are much less dense and thus do not burn as long with as much heat output.
Hardwood Vs. Softwood
Hardwoods are very dense. They pack more BTUs of potential heat energy per volume of firewood. Therefore they tend to be the best firewood types for heat and for cooking. However, they are more difficult to get ignited in the first place. Softwoods are less dense and also tend to be more resinous. This means they ignite much faster and thus can be good as a starter wood to get your fire going. However, they tend to give off less heat and burn faster.
Some examples of hardwoods
Best Firewood – Ash, red oak, white oak, beech, birch, hickory, hard maple, pecan, dogwood, almond, apple (incense-like perfume, nice scent); high heat, easy to burn, no heavy smoke, overall excellent.
Good – Soft maple, cherry, walnut; medium heat, easy to burn, no heavy smoke.
Fair – elm, sycamore, gun, aspen, basswood, cottonwood, yellow poplar (bitter smoke); low to medium heat, can be a bit harder to burn, medium smoke, ok for kindling but not as much heat and more smoke.
Some examples of softwoods
Good – southern yellow pine, spruce, fir, resinous so easy to burn, has medium heat but burns out quickly, and easy to burn but heavy smoke, ok if you want a quick warming fire or short fire that will burn out before you go to bed.
Good for kindling – eastern red cedar, medium heat, easy to burn, medium smoke, pop a lot and throws sparks, good for kindling.
Fair – cypress, medium heat, a bit harder to burn, medium smoke.
What Is The Best Firewood? Specific Types of Firewood
The following is a list of many common types of firewood. Where possible I have mentioned its suitability for cooking and/or as a smoking wood. Which woods are available to you will depend on several factors including your location and the season:
- Alder – Alder gives off little heat and burns quickly, however, good charcoal can be made from it. Has a delicate flavor with some sweetness. For smoking its mild flavor can accent fish, pork, poultry and game birds nicely.
- Almond – Almond is on my short list of the best firewood types. It is very hard with long-lasting high heat, and a sweet smoke flavor which compliments almost all types of meat beautifully. An excellent fireplace and cooking firewood.
- Apple – Perhaps the king of all cooking woods, this is definitely one of the best firewood types. However, it tends to be more rare as firewood because it is quite attractive and can be used in furniture making and other decorations. It has a heavenly sweet smell which is great for cooking and smoking. It burns hot without giving off much flame, making it ideal for firewood cooking in a fire pit. The flavor is mildly smoky with hints of fruity sweetness. Great with poultry and pork but will compliment just about anything. If you can find any, snatch it up!
- Acacia – In the same family as mesquite, acacia has a similar flavor but is not as heavy and not as hot burning. A good cooking wood.
- Ash – Excellent firewood. Tends to burn very well, even if a bit wet and green. Distinctive flavor goes well with fish and meats alike.
- Beechwood – This has some good heat and flame but tends to give off a fair amount of sparks, making it less suitable for an indoor fireplace and cooking.
- Birch – Birch gives off good heat but tends to be consumed pretty quickly. The flavor is good, similar to maple which compliments pork and poultry nicely.
- Cedar – Lovely smell, like the inside of a cigar humidor. Gives nice steady heat without too big a flame. Excellent for cooking and smoking. Cedar planks can be soaked and used to cook foods like pork and fish (cedar planked salmon being a classic dish) on a grill to great effect. Definitely one of the best firewoods for cooking if used correctly.
- Cherry – Another of the best firewood types, this burns hot and with a low flame similar to apple. It has a mild fruity flavor excellent with almost anything, including poultry, pork and beef.
- Crabapple – Very similar to apple wood in function and flavors.
- Douglas fir – Slow burning with a lot of heat. Good firewood. Tends to be a bit resinous for cooking.
- Elm – Tends to have a high water content so it smokes quite a bit but still has good heat. Ideally this needs long seasoning (up to a few years) to be really dry and burn hot and evenly and without too much smoke.
- Eucalyptus – Like elm, this has high water content and needs long seasoning. There appear to be many different varieties that vary somewhat but in general, once seasoned, these are hard woods that give good heat. They can have a slightly resinous, medicinal, although not unpleasant, smell due to the gums contained within, making them less than ideal for cooking. However, it can be an excellent heat source if well seasoned.
- Grapevines – These precious pieces of wood have a great rich and fruity aroma that flavors poultry, red meats, game and lamb beautifully. Gives off lots of smoke and can have a hint of tartness. Because they tend to be smaller pieces and branches which are available, this is ideal for fast fires to quickly cook smaller cuts of meat. Alternatively, it can be used along with other woods as a smoking wood to add flavor.
- Hawthorn – One of the best firewood types. Burns very hot and long. Excellent.
- Hickory – Considered the “king of smoking woods”, hickory is a hard, high heat wood that gives off a strong sweet, almost bacony flavor which works beautifully to flavor pork, ham and beef. Great long lasting heat. Definitely one of the best fire wood types.
- Juniper – This wood snaps and pops a lot. Like pine it is a natural insect repellent with a distinct aroma, smelling like a piney cedar chest. Not great for cooking. The berries on the other hand can be used for flavoring several types of dishes (they are the primary flavoring agent in Gin also).
- Lilac – Very light, subtle smoke flavor with floral nuances. Can be good with seafood and other milder dishes.
- Lime – This is actually a quite poor fuel wood, not giving off much heat. Better for other uses like carving.
- Maple – Smokey but with a mellow, slightly sweet aroma and flavor, this is a good fuel wood. Compliments pork, poultry and game birds nicely.
- Mesquite – Another one of the most popular woods for cooking either as a primary fuel or as a smoking wood. Burns very hot with a smokey but richly flavored smoke. Nice earthy flavor is good with just about anything including beef, fish, chicken and game.
- Mulberry – Like pear, this is similar in many ways to apple. Sweet smelling smoke is great for cooking.
- Oak – Oak is one of the best fire wood types. It requires a good deal of seasoning time (as much as 2 years) but then is a good slow burning wood with lots of heat and a small flame. If it is not fully seasoned the smoke can be very dense and bitter. The flavor is a heavy smokey flavor which is good with bold foods like ribs, red meat, pork and heavy game.
- Other sweet fruit woods – Fruit woods such as apricot, plum, peach, nectarine all tend to be excellent flavoring agents for lighter meats like chicken, turkey, pork, and fish. They tend to be a bit milder and sweeter than hickory.
- Pear – An outstanding firewood similar in characteristics and use to apple.
- Pecan – While not the best firewood for heat, it has an excellent sweet and mild flavor similar to hickory which makes it excellent for smoking.
- Pine – This burns well when well seasoned but has a tendency to crackle and pop because it is resinous and a softwood. Good for kindling since it lights easily but too much can leave a strong piney smell which is nice outdoors but can be overwhelming indoors or with food. Can also leave an oily soot in your chimney. I’d avoid this for cooking.
- Pinion pine – While most pine is a softwood, this type is one of the hardest pines with a pretty outdoorsy fragrance and also has natural insect repelling characteristics. Not good for cooking but a nice outdoor fire pit wood. Popular for use in chimineas.
- Spruce – This is a very sparky wood which burns quickly. Not one of the best.
- Walnut – Walnut, all types, tends to give off a heavy smoke which when used alone can be quite bitter. Best to use along with other sweeter woods like almond, pear or apple with heartier fare like red meats and game.
Choosing Your Firewood
Determining the best firewood can only come after asking, “Best for what?”. Not all firewood is created equal. Some are better than others but some just have specific purposes they are best for. So picking good firewood can only be done after knowing what you plan to do with it. I’ll cover some of the best firewood whatever your need, especially if you are looking for a barbecue cooking wood such as cooking with applewood or the best firewood for your fireplace.
Hardwood vs. Softwood
The terms hardwood and softwood refer to the density of wood, how hard it is and how much weight it has. A very dense wood, a hardwood, has more wood matter in it and therefore will burn hotter and longer. Therefore, hardwoods are the best firewood if you need a lot of heat and you want your fire to burn long. Oak is one of the most frequently seen hardwoods available. Other examples of very hardwoods are rock elm and some types of ash.
While softwood burns faster and cooler, it lights much easier. Therefore, softwood is good for kindling to get a fire started. Pine, spruce, fir, and willow are examples of commonly seen softwoods.
Best Fire Wood for the Fireplace
In your fireplace, you generally want wood that will burn hot and burn long. Again, more dense woods, such as hardwoods, are great for this. The harder the wood, the better it is for producing high heat and long-lasting embers. These hardwoods can take a long time to get lit, but once they do, the embers they produce will be super hot and will ignite practically anything you throw on them afterward. Examples of good hardwoods which are readily available are oak, almond, apple, hickory, and mesquite. There are others like madrone, manzanita which are good too but less available in general.
Resinous woods are okay in the fireplace if you are not cooking over them. They do have a strong aroma, some of which can be very pretty. These woods do not work well for cooking, however.
Best Fire Wood for Cooking
Cooking over firewood has many advantages, whether it’s in your fire pit or fireplace barbecue cooking wood can add great flavor and aromas to your grilled foods. Again, dense hardwoods are best here.
The fruit woods, like cooking with applewood, almond wood, or cherry wood, are perfect companions to grilled foods. Their sweet smoke aroma complements food beautifully. Oak, being one of the hardest and densest woods, burns hot and long and is definitely a good barbecue cooking wood, but doesn’t have as much distinct flavor as the fruitwoods. It does impart a strong smoky flavor though.
Some of the strongest smokey flavors come from hardwoods like hickory and mesquite. They can be a great compliment to certain meats and poultry but have a very distinctive aroma. If you don’t want their strong signature aromas in your food, stick to the milder fruit woods or oak.
For cooking, avoid softwoods and highly resinous woods like pine or juniper. First of all, they burn quicker and cooler. Secondly, the resinous woods give off very potent resin aromas which are off-putting and don’t work with food. Some can even be toxic so avoid these woods!
Some Tips and Facts to Help Choose the Best Fire Wood for You
- Softwoods burn fast and cool, good for starting a fire, but bad for heat and cooking.
- Avoid resinous woods, like pine, willow, and juniper, for cooking.
- Wet wood burns colder than dry wood but burns longer. It is harder to light. Generally, avoid wet wood for cooking.
- Use “seasoned” firewood because it is dried out completely so that it burns slow and hot and is easier to light.
- Heartwood burns hotter than sapwood in general. Sometimes wood is labeled as one or the other.
- Wood embers (and charcoal) burns hotter than the fire of the fresh wood itself. Therefore, for maximum heat for cooking, let a bunch of logs burn completely until they are embers before adding food. The embers give off much more heat than the fire itself. You can get coals faster if you use smaller pieces of wood, to begin with. More can be added as needed to maintain the heat.
Well, that’s it! So what is the best firewood? As you can see, that depends on the answer to the question, best firewood for what? While some are good for cooking, others are not. While some are good starter woods, others are not. I hope this list and info will help you find the best firewood for your needs.