Pitmaster’s 7 Best Woods For Smoking Ribs: Flavor, Pros, Cons & More

The internet is full of confusing and conflicting advice when it comes to the best woods for smoking ribs.

But here’s the simple truth: provided you maintain a good, clean, oxygen-rich fire, and you’re conservative with the amount of wood you use (the number one rookie error in smoking is piling on too much wood), you can’t go far wrong.

However, there are differences in taste between woods, which you might want to explore. So, I put together this list of some of the best woods for smoking ribs.

Remember, taste is subjective, and the wood which works best for one person’s palate is not guaranteed to work for yours, so, I recommend you try each one in this list over time to find the perfect wood for you.

Best Woods For Smoking Ribs (Pork, Beef, Venison, and Lamb)

best types of wood for smoking ribs

Since taste is subjective, I’m not making this list of woods “from best to worst”. Instead, I’ll give you an in-depth look at each wood’s preferred uses, taste profile, and pros and cons. That way, you decide which wood you want to try.

Cherry Wood

Taste profile: mild, classic smoke with a subtle sweetness.

Mix with: oak, pecan, or hickory for a stronger flavor; apple or maple for something lighter.

Cherry wood is a real staple in smoking, but is known most famously for the deep mahogany red color it gives to the meat it smokes. The flavor of its smoke is, unfortunately, often overlooked.

And yet, cherry is one of the most versatile woods when it comes to smoking ribs (be they beef or pork).

Since cherry is a fruit-bearing tree, its smoke imbues meat with that nice hint of sweetness for which fruit trees are renowned.

At the same time, however, it is strong enough to impart a nicely rounded, earthier smokiness, without the fear of it ever overpowering the rib meat itself. 

Pros:

  • Gives meat a gorgeous cherry red hue.
  • Versatile and can be widely pared with other species.
  • Nice starting point for beginners, as difficult to overpower meat with cherry smoke.

Cons:

  • Flavor not necessarily as unique or complimentary as other fruitwoods.
  • Some folks find the taste of cherry wood smoke too mild for their ribs (though this could be a positive, if you’re new to BBQ).

Peach Wood

Taste profile: very mild, very sweet, barely smoky.

Mix with: just about anything; good with oak, mesquite, or walnut to mellow their harsher flavors.

You won’t find many pit masters enthusiastically praising the virtues of peach wood when it comes to smoking ribs, and that’s because peach has a very mild taste profile, which for some just doesn’t have enough of a kick for use in smoking heavier meats.

However, in the state of Georgia it’s a different story. Home to Peach County, and with the Peach as its state symbol, Georgia BBQ wouldn’t be the same without peach wood.

Since white meats like pork are delicate enough to pair nicely with fruity, sweet smokes, peach wood can lend a gorgeous, jammy taste to a rack or pork ribs.

By the same token, peach should not be used with beef, lamb, or venison ribs, as its subtle flavors will immediately be lost on these heavier meats. Best used when cooking low and slow.

Pros:

  • Really unique flavor, the sweetness a perfect combination with a delicately seasoned rack of ribs.
  • The only way to do Georgia smoked ribs! 
  • Versatile: can be paired with most anything else.

Cons:

  • Has very little actual ‘smokiness’ to its flavor profile.
  • Would be lost on darker meats, or on pork ribs with a really strong rub or glaze.
  • Not always easy to get your hands on.

Applewood

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.

Apple is another of those really traditional choices of wood for smoking ribs. Alongside cherry wood, it’s got to be one of the most versatile species out there.

It is also, no doubt about it, the fruitiest wood. Personally, I love the taste of applewood-smoked pork ribs.

The juiciness of them is full of that nice crisp, sweet flavor you get with apples, but is mellowed out so as to be more fruity than sweet.

It’s not the smokiest wood out there, though, so adding a little oak, hickory, or even mesquite (if you’re feeling brave) can deliver that perfect sweet and savory combo to which every grill maestro aspires.

Note that applewood takes a long time to impart its flavor.

Pros:

  • Lovely pairing for pork ribs; fruity without being too sweet.
  • Lots of pairing options.
  • Burns slowly, so perfect for those low-and-slow cooks.

Cons:

  • Burns slowly, thus not ideal if you’re looking for a quick turn around.
  • Fruitiest-tasting wood smoke, which may be unappealing to some.
  • Okay for beef, venison, or lamb, but would require mixing with something else for its flavor to really come through.

Hickory Wood

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; oak or mesquite to elevate the savory.

If you’ve eaten BBQ anywhere in the Midwest to the South of the United States, chances are you’ve been eating hickory-smoked BBQ.

Rich and dependable, hickory is the perfect wood for smoking almost any meat, and can be paired with (honestly) anything. When you think of that classic smoky BBQ taste, you’re pretty much thinking of hickory smoke.

It rides the line between sweet and savory with such precision that it carries the taste of bacon, and is therefore unsurprisingly excellent with pork ribs (in moderation).

Equally as good with those darker meats, you only have to be careful that you don’t let this wood overpower pork.

As such, I suggest using it in combination with a fruitwood for pork ribs, or adding it to your fire for only half the cooking time.

Pros:

  • Supremely versatile: can go with all meat, and be paired with any wood.
  • Classic BBQ bacon-like taste.
  • Strong burner, will burn for a long time and give your meat plenty of flavor.

Cons:

  • Exposing pork ribs to hickory for too long will overpower the meat, turning it bitter.
  • Too strong for some palates, though still not as strong as oak or mesquite.

Pecan Wood

Taste profile: similar strength to hickory, but milder; smokiness more rounded; very sweet.

Mix with: hickory, oak, or mesquite to bring down its sweetness.

Speaking of hickory, here’s a wood which is in the hickory family: pecan. Like the classic American pecan pie, this is a family BBQ favorite across the southern United States.

Of the nut family, its smoke carries a little nuttiness, whilst its full-bodied smokiness is cut through with bold sweetness (too sweet for some!).

If you’re looking to cook Southern-style ribs, this is the wood for you. It has a really diverse flavor profile, but can be an acquired taste. Essentially, pecan is the middle-ground between hickory and fruitwoods.

Pros:

  • The only way to smoke your ribs Southern-style!
  • Diverse flavor profile.
  • Gives really great color (second only to cherrywood).
  • Strong enough to compliment beef, venison, or lamb, whilst not so strong that it would run the risk of overpowering pork (like its stronger sister, Hickory, would).

Cons:

  • Too sweet for some.
  • An acquired taste.

Maple Wood

Taste profile: sugary and sweet without being fruity, light-to-mild smokiness.

Pairs with: hickory to enhance the sweetness; oak or mesquite for an extra kick of smoke.

Like peachwood, you’d be hard pressed to come across maple in the fires of many pitmasters, and yet it’s a fabulous wood for beginner-smokers to start out with.

That’s because maple is so subtle (one of the subtlest flavors out there) that it’s really hard to overdo it (i.e. to overpower your meat).

Even making the rookie mistake of adding too much wood to the first shouldn’t be a problem with this species.

Perfect for fish and poultry, it can be used with pork ribs, but only if they’re not already rubbed or slathered in powerful sauces or spices.

Pros:

  • Perfect for beginners learning how to smoke meat.
  • Very subtle flavor makes it fairly versatile as a pairing wood.

Cons:

  • Only good for pork ribs, and even then only if the rub/glaze you’re using isn’t overly strong, otherwise the maple flavor will be lost.
  • Next to no smokiness whatsoever; not a very traditional BBQ taste.
  • Too sweet for some, and no fruitiness to level the sweetness out.

Oak Wood

Taste profile: earthy, smoky, savory.

Mix with: any fruitwood, maple, or pecan for some sweetness.

Whilst a traditional Texas BBQ would prefer to use mesquite, we’ve chosen to include oak rather than mesquite as the final member of this list.

Mesquite has a very strong, pungent taste, which is overpowering to seemingly anyone except a born-and-bred Texan. Oak, on the other hand, is a really great-flavored wood, with a classic smokiness perfectly suited to the BBQ.

Easy to control, making it ideal for beginners to use (alongside maple), oak is nonetheless quite powerful a flavor, and so whilst great for beef, venison, and lamb ribs, it should be used sparingly with pork.

Pros:

  • Easy to handle, great burner.
  • Classic smoky BBQ flavor without being as pungent as mesquite.
  • Can be used to smoke all types of rib.
  • Very easy to come by.
  • Can be paired with lots of milder, sweeter woods to compliment its smokiness.

Cons:

  • Strong smoky taste, too overpowering for some.

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