Are Citrus Woods Good for Smoking?

Citrus trees offer a wide variety of options when it comes to smoking, and many people are surprised and delighted to hear that not only are most citrus woods great for smoking meat, cheese, and other foods but that most citrus wood gives off a mild flavor which makes them appropriate with a wide array of foods and allows careful experimentation with less of a chance of overwhelming the food the first time out as you learn how to smoke with each type.

Generally speaking, most citrus woods are excellent for smoking, giving a mild fruity & smoky flavor good for both smoking and cold smoking. Avoid woods like mango, which have other properties that cause them to be unsuitable for smoking food.

Lime, lemon, and orange are three citrus trees in particular that stand out as being outstanding options when it comes to smoking meat and imparting a bit of unique sweet smoky flavor that can add a lot to a dish. These are particularly good with lighter meat where a light hand on smoking is ideal such as chicken, turkey, or fish. Oh, and using some orange wood on some quality sharp cheddar cheese? Chef’s kiss!

Let’s dive further into the most common citrus woods, how to use them, what they go with, and where you can find them to get you up and smoking with the power of citrus.

large barbecue smoker prepping meat
Large barbecue smoker grill at the park. Meat prepared in barbecue smoker.

Best Citrus Woods for Smoking Food

One of the best ways to compare smoke from exotic or unfamiliar woods is to compare them with something similar that most backyard smokers are much more likely to have been exposed to. Since Apple and Cherry are the two “standard” fruit trees that many smokers have used, and have access to, these are the ones that I’m going to use for comparison’s sake to give experienced backyard barbecue specialists a much better idea of where these citrus woods rank.

When talking about orange, lime, and lemon, three of the most common citrus tree woods that are available for smoking, the smoke is really good but it’s also mild. I would say in my experience the smoke is lightly fruity and lightly smoky, and would be milder than both cherry and apple in most situations. These citrus wood choices are very good for smoking pork, chicken, fish, and cheese.

This also makes these great for marlin steak or tuna steak – big chunks of fish that can be a bit meatier but are still fish and therefore need a light touch. I’ve heard multiple rave reviews of Orange in particular being great for smoking some large chunks of marlin.

While some meat smokers have talked to have told me beef and bison can also take a good mild flavor when smoking with citrus woods, most harder red meats aren’t going to take flavor quite as well from citrus wood.

Almost everyone I talked to agreed that while the flavor is mild and tasty, it’s also going to have a hard time working on wild meat. If you’re looking for something to smoke gamier meat like deer, pheasant, rabbit, etc, then you will probably want to look for something stronger.

When dealing with the more citrus side of fruit woods the fruitiness also tends to be a bit more distinctive in flavor profile, even when mild. This is important to note because it also means that if you choose to use the wood of a citrus tree that

Some common citrus wood options to experiment smoking meat with are:

  • Lemon
  • Lime
  • Orange
  • Nectarine
  • Tangerine
  • Grapefruit

If you live in other parts of the world, there may be even more options, but always make sure to check on local fruits, wood, plants, and any potential side effects that interacting with them may have.

Smoking Meat with Orange Wood

Orange wood has perhaps the best reputation among citrus woods with barbecue smokers. I’m not sure if this is because its flavor is that much ahead of what lime and lemon wood provides or if it’s because wood chips from orange trees tends to be a bit more widely available, but there’s no denying that orange wood has a great reputation to smoke most fish, poultry, and white meats that go good with apple and cherry in normal circumstances.

In fact, there is one anecdotal story from the smoking meat forums of a user who worked for a famous barbecue restaurant in California in the 1940s and 1950s and they only used orange tree roots in their smoking process. He tells the story of the morning prepping of the smokers and man, his story makes me wonder just what that process did to create such a great tasting barbecue if many other fruit woods and mesquite haven’t been able to come close to touching it since.

If you’re looking to just dabble a toe with smoking with citrus wood then it’s clear orange is the way to go.

Smoking Meat with Lime Wood

Wood from lime trees works great for smoking the same meat and cheese as orange wood, and other citrus woods, but there are two types of meat where many people swear by lime, and it actually makes sense as I’ve seen this pairing in some foreign dishes to create a really interesting taste blend.

Lime wood does a particularly good smoking job with both chicken and turkey. For whatever reason the specific citrus flavor that comes with smoke from lime wood seems to imbue these two poultry meats in particular with really excellent flavor.

Smoking Meat with Lemon Wood

Lemon is the solid B student among the citrus woods. While it doesn’t seem to beat out other citrus woods when it comes to smoking specific types of meat, it doesn’t receive criticism, either. It’s a solid mild fruity and smoky flavor that seems to work with any of the types of meat, fish, and cheese that do well with a mild fruity smoke. You won’t hear anyone swear by it for a specific cut of meat, but it’s always a solid choice among those backyard barbecue warriors who live in areas where it is readily available.

Pros of Smoking with Citrus Woods

  • Delicious but delicate fruity flavor
  • Different citrusy smoke flavor that sets it apart from apple and cherry
  • Great with poultry, fish, and cheese
  • Allows experimenting with more delicate touch on fruit flavored smoking

Cons of Smoking with Citrus Woods

  • Smoke can be a little too delicate for most red meats or game
  • Need to be careful which citrus woods to smoke with (careful with grapefruit, avoid mango – more on both below)
  • More uncommon, can be hard to find or expensive to acquire
orange wood chips for barbecue smoking
Why not get started experimenting with citrus wood smoking today?

Worst Citrus Woods for Smoking Food

Keeping in mind we’re using loose definitions as your average barbecue fan or backyard griller would use them, and not a scientific definition, because I don’t believe in providing information that can be easily misinterpreted and cause harm in the name of being technically correct. With that said, we’re clearly talking about the dangers of smoking with Mango wood – so let’s dive into that one first.

Mango Wood – Potentially Dangerous Smoking Wood

We’ve already talked in depth why it’s not a good idea to smoke with mango wood, despite the fact there are many forum records of individuals doing it and ending up feeling none the worse for wear.

However, I absolutely can NOT recommend ever using mango, which in our minds is just another tropical citrus tree, but it’s not. Mango is a very different fruit, and the plant/tree itself has important qualities that disqualify it from smoking food.

The short of it: Mango belongs to the anacardiaceous family of trees, or as those of us Eagle Scouts remember from the Scouting days, the same family that Poison Sumac comes from. Mangos are related to poison ivy, as well. While mangos are edible, mango sap can be incredibly dangerous to the point of putting mango pickers in the hospital. You should never smoke with green mango wood, and frankly in my eyes the risks of smoking dried sap into meat means mango is a permanent no-go – it’s just not worth the risk.

So as for the sources that confirm to always be cautious around anything related to the mango tree, we’ve got some good ones straight from local Aussie news:

So the worst wood to use for smoking is mango. There are dangers there, and it just doesn’t make sense to risk it when you have a HUGE list of other citrus woods that can give an amazing sweet and smoky flavor without any such dangers.

Grapefruit Wood – A Little Goes A LONG Ways!

I’m not saying don’t smoke with grapefruit wood – because personally I love the flavor of Grapefruit, but this is a smoke you do need to use with a very careful hand. It’s here in part because some people just hate the taste period. Since the smoke is distinctive, if you have guests who can’t stand this flavor, then you’re best off going with another option. Trust me, if they’re sensitive to it, you’re not going to sneak it by.

The other important sin not to commit, and I learned this one the hard way by screwing up my first go round with it, is that a little goes a long way. Although most citrus trees give a mild flavor, grapefruit wood gives that mild flavor with just a handful of chips. If you put in a lot, it builds quickly like a much harsher wood and although I love grapefruit, it was too much. Far, far too much.

So I’m not saying don’t smoke with grapefruit wood – but proceed carefully to get tuned in with this one.

Smoking meat with grapefruit wood can lead to some great flavors but a little goes a long way and you can 100% ruin the meat if you go too heavy – even if you are a grapefruit fan.

Citrus Smoke Can Add Amazing Flavors

A little bit of citrus smoke can go a long way when preparing fatty fish, cheese, or even some lighter meats. If you have the opportunity to experiment with some of these wood types I highly recommend it as it not only gives you a better idea of the many amazing smoky flavors that are out there just waiting to be unlocked at the smoker, but do so with a light touch to start and work on tuning it in.

Your stomach, and guests, will thank you!

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