Smoking with Cherry Wood Is Safe, But How?

It goes without saying that the type and quality of the raw meat determine the taste of the final outcome the most, closely followed by the seasoning. However, what most people don’t realize is that the wood they throw in the firebox is the third most important factor contributing to the meat’s taste, flavor, color, and texture.

So while you should choose your smoke wood carefully, it’s often easier said than done.

Types of Woods for Smoking

When it comes to woods for smoking, many people go with hardwoods. They’re dense, burning hotter and longer than your other options. They also add a better, bolder flavor to meats.

Fruit woods, on the other hand, provide a lighter, sweeter smoky touch to the meat. But they’re not as dense as hardwoods, translating to a shorter, not-so-clean burn time. However, the best thing about fruit woods is that you can use them on their own or combine them with other hardwoods, opening up a kaleidoscope of smoke variations before you choose.

As for softwoods, they’re soggy, sappy, and not suitable for burning or smoking at all. Their high resin content causes flare-ups and imparts many odd, off flavors to the meat. They also burn too rapidly.

A Word about Smoking with Cherry Wood

Apple and cherry are two popular options for smoking among fruit woods. While cherry has everything in its arsenal that make it excellent for smoking, the problem is with food safety. 

I’m not talking about arsenic as, contrary to popular belief, untreated cherry wood doesn’t contain arsenic. 

The issue is, most cherry tree parts, including bark, leaves, branches, and pits, contain cyanogenic compounds that, when eaten, release cyanide. 

But smoking/burning cherry wood is different from eating cherry pits, isn’t it?

Yes, but there’s more to the story, which I’ll explain shortly. And this is the reason I’m writing this post. I have read (almost) all the articles on the topic on the internet and, with a major in Botany, I couldn’t stop banging my head against the wall reading them… there’s a lot of dis(or, at best, mis)information on the topic.

I leave it here. If you want the definite answer on whether it’s safe to smoke with cherry wood, read or skip to the end. I go without further ado.

Why smoke with cherry wood?

Cherry wood flavor is light but not bland. Its exact flavor profile is difficult to describe, but it falls somewhere in the middle of the sweet-tart spectrum. But unlike its milder flavor, the strong reddish tinge it imparts to the meat is unmistakable and, sometimes, unavoidable, not only on lighter meats, like chicken, but also on beef and pork.

The main benefit of using cherry wood for smoking is it goes well with any kind of meat. As a rule of thumb, you don’t smoke delicate meats, such as chicken and fish, with hardwoods, which are overpowering to the point of turning the meat bitter. 

Chicken and fish have a subtle flavor so they’re almost always smoked with not-so-strong fruit woods, and cherry is one of the best fruit woods to begin (or smoke) with.

On the other hand, unlike chicken and fish, beef and pork have a strong flavor of their own, which you can offset with a strong-flavored hardwood, like oak and hickory. However, if you want to retain most of the meat’s own flavor, cherry or another fruit wood is, still, the best thing to go with.

Another benefit of cherry is that you can combine it with a stronger, bitter hardwood to mellow out the smoke for a tender cook. This combination works wonders for pork, lamb, and beef.

Last but not least, cherry wood produces an above-average amount of smoke. It’s not a clean-burning fuel, making it exceptionally suitable for smoking.

Is Cherry Wood Toxic?

Naturally, all parts of the cherry tree (leaves, bark, stem, branches, pits, etc.) are toxic, with the sole exception of its fruits. These parts contain cyanogenic glycosides, which are precursors to cyanide in that they get hydrolyzed (broken down) into hydrogen cyanide and several other molecules under enzymatic action.

Under normal conditions, these inactive forms (or sources) of cyanide are stored in separate tissues away from hydrolytic enzymes to prevent their breakdown. However, when the tree is under stress, the physical barrier between glycosides and enzymes called β-glucosidases is lifted, releasing cyanide. Digestive enzymes also act on cyanogenic glycosides to release cyanide.

Due to the reason listed above, wilting cherry leaves are far more poisonous than fresh and fully dried cherry leaves.

Perfectly seasoned cherry wood (12 to 18 months) is highly unlikely to contain any trace of cyanogenic glycosides. This is because as soon as the tree falls (or is cut), glycosides convert into cyanide. By the time it’s fully dried, there’s no cyanide or cyanogenic glycosides left to release cyanide.

Even in fresh cherry wood, the levels of cyanogenic glycosides are very small (higher levels are found in leaves and pits). The lethal dose of cyanide for an adult is about 0.5 grams, and it is very unlikely you would consume that much cyanide from smoking with cherry wood.

But there’s no beneficial amount of cyanide…

Only when you smoke cherry wood… even when it contains cyanogenic glycosides… the heat breaks down the glycosides, preventing them from releasing cyanide.

So… in a nutshell… There’s no danger of cyanide toxicity from smoking with cherry wood.

But there’s more to the story…

So far we have concluded that burning/smoking properly seasoned cherry wood is safe. But while smoking fresh or improperly seasoned cherry wood wouldn’t give you cyanide toxicity, it’s not entirely safe for your health. The reason is… it still contains particles that–when smoked and inhaled–can cause lung irritation and other severe respiratory problems. The idea of infusing your dishes with poisonous smoke is even more horrific.

So, would I smoke with properly seasoned cherry wood?

Absolutely yes.

But would I smoke with fresh or improperly seasoned cherry wood?

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