Though pork may be one of the staples of barbecuing, it’s also arguably a tricky meat to deal with. Given that it’s a white meat, it’s far more delicate than your hardier stuff like beef, lamb, and venison.
With pork, it’s important to remember that its delicious flavor can be quickly overpowered, if you’re not careful.
In essence, the same rules apply to pork as apply to game, fish, and poultry: be gentle, be considerate, and remember that a little wood is probably enough.
Also, pick a wood that’s good for smoking pork, one that wouldn’t overpower its taste.
The Different Cuts When Smoking Pork
Another important thing to remember when it comes to smoking pork is that ‘pork’ can mean any number of cuts.
There are thicker, heftier cuts like pork shoulder, neck, leg and shank, and then there are the smaller, thinner cuts like short ribs, rib chops, loin, and trotter.
There are plenty of articles out there which ignore this distinction, but in my cooking experience, it’s important to curate the woods you’re using based not only on the type of meat, but on the cut, too.
So, I won’t just go over the best woods for smoking pork, but also the best cuts for each one.
Best Woods For Smoking Pork
The Pit Master is wise enough to know that all woods have their unique and useful properties for pork (though fruitwoods are always a good place to start).
That’s why I won’t be ranking these woods from best to worst, but instead shall present you with all of the flavor profiles, pros and cons you need to make your own informed decision.
Taste profile: subtle, mellow, sweet and fruity, slightly smoky.
Mix with: hickory, pecan, oak or a little mesquite for a kick; cherry for great color.
Best cuts: pork belly, short ribs.
Here’s a pro-tip, if you’re wrapping your pork at any point during the smoke (to keep the juices in), try not only smoking it with applewood, but also throwing some apple juice inside the foil wrap next to the pork.
Applewood takes its time to permeate the meat with its flavor, so giving it a helping hand with some apple juice helps to elevate that mouth-watering sweetness.
Can be used on its own, if smoking over a long enough period of time, or with hickory, oak, or mesquite for a quicker, smokier roast.
- One of the best flavor combos out there for pork.
- Easy to handle, as takes time to permeate meat (good beginner’s choice).
- Perfect for low and slow cooking.
- One of the fruitiest woods available, may be too sweet or fruity for some.
- Takes a long time to permeate the meat, so not ideal for quicker smokes.
Taste profile: hickory-family, but milder; smokiness more rounded; very sweet.
Mix with: hickory, oak, or mesquite to bring down its sweetness.
Best cuts: rib chops, loin, neck.
For true Southern-style barbecue, you’ll be wanting pecan.
Homely, comforting food, Southern-style barbecue takes the rich bacon flavor of pork and pairs it with a nutty, intense sweetness, just like that you’d get from a good old pecan pie.
Compared to applewood it has a much stronger, more distinct flavor, which makes it ideal for those slightly larger cuts of pork like rib chops, loin, and neck, though you could absolutely use this on shoulder and shank, too.
Pecan gives a great color to your meat, and its flavor intensity falls nicely in between fruitwoods and its cousin, hickory.
- The only way to cook pork in the true Southern-style!
- Really well-rounded flavor profile: smoky, nutty, and sweet (sweet and savory).
- Middle-ground smoke intensity makes it perfect for those tricky-to-perfect middle-sized cuts.
- Very sweet, to the point that it may be too sweet for some (though remember, you can always pair it with something stronger to neutralize that intensity).
- One of the few woods I wouldn’t recommend pairing with fruitwood, since the sweetness could become overpowering.
Taste profile: rich, hearty, sweet and savory (a little like bacon); a mild nuttiness, like pecan.
Pair with: any fruitwood, to elevate its sweet side; mesquite or oak (sparingly) for savory.
Best cuts: pork shoulder, neck, shank, chump.
Hickory is a wickedly tasty wood for smoking. The only problem is, too much hickory can leave a bitter taste in the meat.
When it comes to a delicate meat like pork, I highly recommend only using hickory in combination with another, usually subtler-tasting wood.
The exceptions to this rule would be when cooking larger cuts, like shoulder or shank, or indeed a whole hog. With the latter, you can’t do much better than burning hickory down to use as your coal base for the long cook.
Doing so, you’re going to subtly and slowly infuse your hog with a rich, sweet and savory, bacon-like taste, whilst adding a little extra sweetness and tartness with a fruitwood during the smoke.
- The most popular wood in South and Midwest American BBQ.
- Wide and varied flavor profile lends itself to a wide range of cuts and uses.
- Ideal pairer for subtler woods, to give them a smoky kick.
- Perfect for cooking a whole hog when burned down to coals.
- Too much hickory leaves your meat with a bitter taste.
- Too strong to use on its own with anything but the largest pork cuts.
Taste profile: sugary and sweet without being fruity, light-to-mild smokiness.
Pairs with: cherry or apple to enhance the sweetness; oak or mesquite for an extra kick.
Best cuts: short ribs, rib chops, belly, trotter.
If you prefer sweetness in your meat, rather than a rich smokiness, then maple could be the wood for you.
This is especially true if you’re not a huge fan of pairing fruit with meat, but still want to infuse the pork with a little sweetness. Maple is a naturally sweet wood, producing one of the sweetest syrups there is.
And just like pancakes, bacon, and maple syrup are a match made in heaven, maplewood and small cuts of pork is a match made for the pit master.
There’s very little smokiness to maple, so if you still want that authentic barbecue taste, then you could always pair this with a little oak or mesquite (just go easy on them!)
- Unique sweetness, without the fruity tang.
- Classic combination (bacon and maple syrup).
- Very gentle, subtle smoke, makes it easy for beginners to use and perfect for pairing.
- Too light and subtle for larger cuts, and too sweet for others.
Taste profile: very mild, very sweet, barely smoky.
Mix with: just about anything; good with oak, mesquite, or hickory to mellow the harsher flavor.
Best cuts: short ribs, rib chops, belly.
Second in subtlety only to maplewood, peachwood is a very smooth, very delicate, truly delicious smoke.
In Georgia, they’ll use peachwood in almost any smoke, so whilst we’ve recommended pairing peach with small cuts, you should most definitely experiment with larger cuts, too.
A uniquely tender, sweet taste experience, if you use peach and only peach, you’ll impart barely any smokiness to your meat at all. Not for everyone, but certainly worth a try.
- Georgia-style barbecuing, well worth a try.
- Very subtle, hard to add too much peach to a smoke (perfect for beginners).
- Lovely to pair with stronger woods, to cut through their harshness a little.
- Not to everyone’s taste, far too mild and sweet for those more used to smokiness.
- Less common to come across.
Taste profile: mild flavor, good strong smokiness, little tangy, citrusy sweetness.
Mix with: cherry, apple, pecan, or maple for added sweetness; hickory or mesquite for a kick.
Best cuts: any.
Arguably one of the most versatile woods for smoking pork, orange is not one I use very often, but when I do, the results are always exciting.
Like lemonwood, orange is of the citrus family, and as such imparts a sweet tang to your meat.
Good thing about orangewood, though, is that its sweetness still carries a strong smokiness, unlike maple or peach, say.
I’ve stated that it can be used with any cut of pork, and that’s true, but to clarify: I think it’s best to experiment widely with orange.
Since it delivers a fairly unique flavor, it’s important you work out for yourself how much of it you want to use at once.
- Unique flavor, you’ll surprise your friends time and time again with this wood.
- Light tangy sweetness isn’t as overpowering as apple, pecan or maple can be.
- Good all-rounder since it delivers a nice smokiness on top of its tang; versatile.
- May take some experimenting before you find the right intensity of orange smoke to suit your taste.
Taste profile: earthy, smoky, savory.
Mix with: any fruitwood, maple, or pecan for some sweetness.
Best cuts: pork shoulder, loin, rib chops, neck, chump, shank.
The last of the best woods for smoking pork (but certainly not the least) delivers the most classic, traditional barbecue smokiness, which, whilst preferable for any dark meat, has to be used tentatively for smoking pork.
Earthy, savory, smoky, oakwood tastes like… smoke. As such, it can either suit one’s taste buds perfectly, or just taste acrid like a bonfire.
Instead, I recommend using oak as a supplement to some other base, like pecan, apple, or orange, in order to elevate the savoriness, whilst packing a smoky punch.
- Extremely versatile, can be paired with almost anything (especially fruitwood).
- The classic barbecue taste, whilst much more palatable than mesquite.
- Easy to get wrong and overpower the meat, beginners beware!
- Smokiness can taste acrid and unpleasant to fans of a sweeter smoke.