So you’ve got your rack of ribs, a great dry rub, and maybe even a sauce to finish them with.
While pork is pretty forgiving, there are a few kinds of wood we always recommend for ribs. There are also a few combinations we’ve had success with, so read on if you’re feeling like experimenting.
What is the best wood for smoking pork ribs?
While it may sound like a bit of a cop-out there is no single “best wood” for ribs.
On its own pork has a fairly mild flavor so you can use a stronger flavored wood like hickory to add more smokiness to your ribs.
If you want a sweeter, lighter flavor, you can use fruit woods like apple, cherry, or pecan. You can even experiment with combinations of flavors like oak and cherry at the same time.
I love a smokier flavor on my ribs from wood like oak with a fruit wood imparting a bit of sweetness, usually apple.
However, there are all sorts of options that we’ll get into further below. We’ll also give you a rundown on some of the most common woods that work well with pork as well.
Best woods for ribs that impart a strong flavor
Pork ribs can handle a headier smoke, so it’s worth considering woods that impart a strong flavor. These woods will impart a deep and noticeable smokiness to the meat, as well as rich color.
Mesquite brings an intense smoky and earthy flavor to whatever you’re smoking. If your ribs have been lacking some smokiness, you can try adding some mesquite wood to your smoker.
Just remember that mesquite can burn hotter and is prone to over-smoking, leaving a bitter flavor.
People have described hickory as imparting a nutty or bacon-like flavor, which makes it perfect for pork, including ribs. It also helps develop that mahogany color that screams smoked meat!
However, you can also get a bitter flavor from too much smoke, like mesquite, so this is something to be aware of.
While it may not be quite as strong as mesquite or even hickory, oak is a great wood that imparts a lot of flavor. It also helps develop a deep red color to the meat, which suits ribs. This is one of my favorite woods to smoke with, period.
Best woods that give ribs a mild flavor
If you prefer a milder smokiness to your pork ribs, then it’s worth considering some of these woods. While they do impart a nice flavor, they aren’t as strong as the likes of hickory, oak, or mesquite.
If you’re looking for a lightly fruity and sweet flavor, apple is a great way to go. Chances are you’ve come across applewood-smoked bacon or other products. If you’ve enjoyed those, check applewood out for your next rib smoke.
Cherry wood is great to smoke with for two reasons. Its subtle sweetness will add flavor without overwhelming the meat, and it will also help develop a beautiful, deep red color on your ribs.
If you are looking for a wood that fits in between fruit wood and the stronger flavors, check out pecan. It has a similar sweetness to the apple or cherry wood. Pecan also brings a subtle nuttiness. Likewise, it brings a bit heavier flavor without overwhelming the ribs.
Best wood combinations for smoking ribs
The best part of smoking and cooking barbecue is being creative and putting your own spin on recipes and making everything your own.
You get to choose the cuts of meat you use and the flavor profiles, and you can mix and match to your own tastes and preferences. We normally think of that as being the rubs and sauces, but you can do that with your wood as well.
A great way to do this is by pairing a heavier flavored wood, like hickory and oak, with a sweeter fruit wood like apple or cherry.
If you’re smoking on an offset smoker, start with the strongly flavored wood and then finish with the fruit wood of your choice. It’ll help ensure that you don’t get too much of the smoke that can cause bitterness while finishing with a sweet smoke.
One of the best combinations is mixing oak and cherry or apple. You’ll get beautiful deep red coloring, good smoke flavor, and some sweetness as well.
The best part of all that is you can customize it to your heart’s content. Experiment to find what you and your family enjoy the most. Just have plenty of wood on hand, so you don’t run out at an inconvenient time!
Smoking ribs with wood pellets, chips, or chunks
You’ll have seen wood chunks, chips, pellets, and logs or splits. Which is right for your type of grill?
They burn long enough to give a good wood smoke flavor. Wood chunks burn clean, resulting in good smoke for adding flavor to your ribs.
You could use chips as well, but they will burn up too quickly and you’ll need to replace them.
Most methods involve adding wood chunks to a mix of unlit charcoal, and then sprinkling lit coals over the top.
If you are using a propane gas or electric smoker, you will need to use wood chips. In those styles of smokers, they will be in a smoker box above the heating element. Chips are ideal for short bursts of smoke because of how small they are.
You can also use them on a gas or charcoal grill if that’s all you have. Just wrap a large handful of chips in two layers of aluminum foil and puncture a few small holes with the point of a knife. Put the bundle over the fire, and you will get extra smoke flavor.
While some recommend that you pre-soak your wood chips, there is no benefit for doing so.
When you think of offset smokers and old-school barbecue, you picture wood logs being shoved into the firebox. They are ideal for when you want to cook with nothing but wood. As they burn, they create fresh coals that will still provide heat and will cause new logs to burn cleanly.
If you want to use wood logs for smoking, make sure that your firebox can accommodate them. Sometimes you can find log splits (or even split the logs on your own) that will fit easier in smokers intended for personal use.
If you have a Traeger, Pit Boss, Z Grills, Camp Chef, or another brand of pellet grill, you’ll obviously be smoking your ribs using wood pellets. Just like other types of wood, pellets come in different flavors and blends.
Pellets manufacturers make pellets from sawdust without any artificial binders. The manufacturer compresses sawdust into a small cylinder, about the diameter of a pencil, then the cylinder is cut into pellets roughly an inch long.
Where to buy your smoke wood
Now that you have an idea of what kind and size of wood you want for smoking your ribs, you need to find wood to buy. If you want to buy local wood that is good for smoking, find your local barbecue joint and ask the pitmaster. They’ll know where to go.
If you have properly identified trees in your yard, you can go the truly hands-on approach and chop your own wood. You do need to let the wood season, though, so it will burn properly. This usually takes 6-18 months if you’re air-drying it outdoors. Keep it off the ground and covered from the elements to ensure the best results.
Freshly-chopped wood isn’t good for smoking ribs. The resins and sap will give you dirty smoke that results in bitter-tasting meat. This means you need to plan ahead with chopping your own wood.
With the emergence of backyard barbecue, I’ve seen local grocery stores carrying wood chunks and wood chips. You can also go to hardware stores and big-box stores to find bigger selections of wood and wood pellets.
Also, Amazon is a never-fail and will always have a large selection. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the selection, we have a couple of brands that we love on Amazon: Weber and Western Premium BBQ Products both come in a big range of flavors. Always keep a few bags of their wood chunks or chips in stock, depending on what kind of smoker or grill you’re using.
When it comes to smoking ribs, you want to be aware of the different flavors and effects your choice of wood can have on the meat.
Woods like hickory, mesquite, and oak will give your ribs a stronger smoke flavor. Cherry, apple, and pecan wood will give your ribs more subtle, sweeter flavors. Oak and cherry are a great combination for ribs, but it all comes down to personal preference.
Got a pellet grill? We’ve got a couple options specifically geared toward those grills. If you want a quicker cook, check out these hot and fast smoked baby back ribs. In this article, we give you two ways to prepare smoked pork ribs on a pellet grill.
Maybe you’ve thought that your ribs are pretty darn good, and you want to have a go at competing in barbecue, check out our breakdown of how to smoke competition-style pork ribs.
What’s your favorite wood to smoke ribs with? Let us know in the comments! Also, let us know if you have any wood-related questions in the comments.