Your food is not really barbecue if the meat has not been smoked. Yes, the meanings of words change over time, but that doesn’t mean that we should just roll over and accept that barbecue means cooking hot dogs on a propane grill. There’s already a word for that. It’s called “grilling.”
Barbecue needs smoke because smoke makes the food taste better. Smokeless methods like oven-roasting can manage the low temperature and long cooking times required to cook most of the cuts of meat popular with barbecue lovers, but the food will not taste good enough. It will not be barbecue. Charcoal may be a little better than gas, but the best smoked meat comes from a wood smoker. One of the most interesting and strange things about barbecue is how the fuel used for cooking gives the meat some of its flavor. No one’s going to eat an oak tree, but if you put a branch in your smoker, your food will taste different. That’s a little bit weird, and it prompted a little bit of research.
There are a lot of guides on the internet that will tell you the different tastes you can expect from using different kinds of wood. After reading these different charts and articles that all seem to contradict each other in one place or another, it seems that Meathead Goldwyn of AmazingRibs.com has the clearest view of the issue, and he does not go much further than listing whether a type of wood imparts a mild or a strong smoke flavor: “I would love nothing more than to tell you that a particular wood has ‘nuances of spice with an undertone of mushrooms.’ I just can't do it.” Goldwyn’s almost certainly right here, especially considering that the same kind of wood will taste differently if it has grown in different places with different soils and climates, but there has to be something happening to the meat that makes things different if you choose an apple log over a maple. Maybe that is best left unknown. The romance of barbecue would be ruined if we knew exactly what was happening in the smoker.
The upshot to all of this is that you will probably be safe using oak or hickory in your smoker. But what if your neighbors just cut down their hackberry tree? The list below will help as an unofficial guide to some of the trees native to Indiana and might help you decide whether your neighbor’s tree will be useful to you. There are a few words that describe the strength of the smoke flavor of each type of wood as well as the density of the wood, which is worth taking into account because denser woods burn longer. This guide does not include unreliable information about how “fruity” or “sweet” a particular wood tastes and instead provides an equally unreliable and probably impractical description of the tree itself.
Apple – Mild/Medium Smoke
Fairly dense wood. The world’s tallest apple tree only reaches about 40 feet.
Beech – Mild Smoke
Dense wood. Thin, blue-grey bark perfect for carving hearts with the initials of you and your sweetheart inside.
Cherry – Mild Smoke
Fairly dense wood. Flaky black bark. The black cherry trees that are most common in Indiana woods are not the ones that give you the cherries on top of your ice cream. Black Cherry trees are usually found at the edges of woods as opportunistic trees. Stronger, straighter trees like oaks and hickories usually out-compete cherry trees in older, mature forests.
Hackberry – Mild Smoke
About as dense as cherry/mulberry. Like black cherry, this is another berry tree you’ll find on the edges of Hoosier woods. Has strange wart-like ridges on its bark.
Hickory – Strong Smoke
Dense. There are different varieties of hickory, (pecan, listed below, is one of them) but the traditional barbecue smoker hickory is shagbark hickory.
Mulberry – Mild Smoke
Wood about as dense as cherry and hackberry. These trees make a lot of edible berries once they are mature. These berries can be a pain to clean up. Do you need to take revenge on your neighbor? Plant a mulberry tree next to your neighbor's driveway and wait ten years for it to mature and bear fruit.
Oak – Strong Smoke
Dense wood. Do you ever get the feeling that an oak tree saves up its acorns for years, and then all at once it pelts down an infinity of acorns ? I get that feeling sometimes. Two more oak facts: Red oaks have pointy leaves and white oaks have rounded leaves.
Pecan – Medium/Strong Smoke
Dense wood. Closely related to hickory. The pecan tree in your backyard will probably not have the huge pecans you can use for making pies and Chex Mix.
Persimmon – Mild Smoke
One of the densest woods native to Indiana. These trees bear fruit but are less annoying than mulberry trees.
Sugar Maple – Mild/Medium Smoke
Dense wood. Tap this tree and wait till the weather moves in and out of freezing to collect the sap. Boil the sap and put some Eggos in the toaster because you just made syrup. This tree is also the best-looking fall foliage tree.
Walnut –Very Strong Smoke, can be bitter (try mixing with milder wood)
Moderately dense. The black walnut trees common to Indiana drop walnuts that are “technically” edible if you are willing to work through the stinky green husks on the outside of the nut. These trees seem to get their leaves much later in the spring than other trees, and they lose their leaves much earlier in the fall than other trees. If these trees are so put out by making leaves, why do they bother with those big green walnuts? I don’t know except that trees aren’t people, and I shouldn’t judge them like that.