You’ve got your delicious pork butt, shoulder, or ribs ready for the smoker. An excellent BBQ sauce or rub is on standby, waiting to add an extra zing of flavor. All is set for a tremendous barbecue—except you can’t quite decide the best kind of wood to give that great foundational flavor to the pork.
Read on to discover how to select the best types of wood for smoking pork butts, Boston butts (pork shoulder), and pork ribs.
Fruit woods all provide a subtler flavor to your pork and are generally (though not always) a little easier to use than some of the stronger woods listed later.
Apple is a staple for just about all kinds of barbecue. It is a versatile wood that works well on pork for the following reasons:
- Subtlety – Apple produces a flavor that does not overwhelm the natural taste and juices of pork. It offers just a tinge of sweetness that, when cooked correctly, is an accent to the taste and not the dominant sensation.
- Smokiness – For a fruit wood, apple offers a mild taste of smokiness. Again, this is very subtle, especially when compared to some of the stronger woods.
- Efficiency – Apple burns consistently and, as such, rarely gets too hot or too overwhelming for more delicate meat like pork.
- Availability – Apple is easy to find and relatively inexpensive.
The one drawback of apple wood is that it takes a long time for its flavor to permeate the meat because of its subtle qualities. While low and slow is always a good rule for barbecue, you usually need to reduce the temperature and let the apple burn a little longer than most of the other woods on this list. Otherwise, by the time the wood flavor sticks to the meat, your pork has overheated, drying out the meat’s natural juices.
Cherry wood has many of the same properties as apple wood, including the tendency for its flavor to take longer to penetrate the meat. There are a couple of significant differences:
- Flavor – Every fruit wood provides a slightly different taste. While cherry is subtle as well, its flavor is a unique combination of tanginess and fruitiness that separates it from the others.
- Color – Cherry often can change the outward color of the meat (particularly for ribs) to a beautiful mahogany layer that can make your mouth water even more!
- Pairing with Spicy Rub – Any wood can be paired with a suitable rub, but cherry is very well suited for those who like their rubs a little on the spicier side.
Other Fruit Woods
Other types of wood you can consider for smoking pork, although not as common, include the following:
- Orange – Orange provides a little more smokiness than some of the other fruit woods. It is also great for pairing with a stronger wood.
- Peach – The unique quality of peach is that it is less acidic than the other fruit woods, which allows its taste to come across as a bit more floral.
- Pear – Pear burns similarly to apple but provides a slightly sweeter and more woodsy taste than the other fruit woods.
These next wood types are those that provide a heartier flavor. The challenge with most of them is to make sure they do not overwhelm the flavor of your pork. (A great solution to that problem is to pair them with a lighter wood.)
Hickory is widely regarded as one of the finest woods for smoking pork because of these factors:
- “Traditional” Flavor – If you have a picture of a classic barbecue taste in your mind, you are likely thinking of something that has smoked over hickory. Its flavor is bold and savory, even having the sensation of a touch of bacon in it.
- Easy to Obtain – Because of its popularity, hickory is one of the most readily available and cheapest types of wood to buy.
- Absorbs Well – Part of its flavor impact comes from its ability to soak readily into meat, especially Boston butts.
The primary caution is to understand that hickory is best in moderation, particularly on thinner cuts of meat like ribs. It is also an excellent wood for pairing with a milder or fruitier wood.
Maple is a great option both for its light smoky flavor and the fact that it is not quite as overwhelming as hickory. In fact, it is common to pair hickory and maple as the latter can modulate the intensity of the hickory just as well as a fruit wood.
Some of the other characteristics of maple include:
- Sweetness – If you like a sweet taste without fruitiness, maple is an excellent option for you.
- Mild Smokiness – Some people like smoked pork without an overwhelming smoky taste. Maple again here serves as a great middle-ground for those who want a nice balance of smokiness and taste.
- Harder to Find – While none of the woods on this list are rare, maple is not always found as readily as some of the others. As such, it can also be a little more expensive when you do find it. But its ability to serve as a great pairing wood and bridge between the bolder and fruitier woods make it worth the little bit extra you will spend!
Other Strong Woods
Other less common—but very suitable woods—to use in this category include:
- Pecan – Pecan is remarkably similar to maple in its “middle ground” qualities, although pecan does not provide the same kind of sweetness as maple does. It is a great pairing wood, but it is often best to pair with fruit woods so that the meat can obtain some level of sweetness.
- Oak – Oak is a readily available hardwood whose greatest attribute is the smokiness it brings to the meat. While it is not overwhelming, it provides more smokiness than maple or pecan. It is also enhanced by pairing it with a fruit wood.
Best Wood for Smoking Boston Butt (Pork Shoulder)
As you’ve read through this list, keep in mind that an excellent consideration for the proper wood to use is what kind of pork you are smoking. Here are the woods that work best with Boston butts (including the pairings that work best):
- Hickory – Again, the “traditional” barbecue taste of hickory is a great base wood for smoking pork shoulder. The shoulder is large enough to absorb the taste of the hickory, although pairing it with maple still modulates the intensity of hickory while imbuing the wood with a hint of sweetness.
- Maple – Maple by itself is an excellent option for those wanting less smoke.
- Apple – Apple provides a good fruity base on its own, but it is a great option to pair with hickory or oak for a little more robust taste.
- Pecan – Like maple, pecan provides a great base by itself but works well when paired with another wood, particularly apple, orange, or cherry.
Best Wood for Smoking Pork Ribs
Keep in mind that ribs, as they are thinner cuts, can burn and dry out quicker than Boston butts. As such, woods with more subtlety are usually better choices. Here are a few of the woods that work well for ribs:
- Maple – This is such an excellent wood for ribs because it provides a rich barbecue flavor without the worry of getting saturated with smokiness.
- Cherry – Remember the mahogany coat that cherry provides? This works particularly well, not just for the appearance but for the taste of ribs.
- Hickory Mixed with Fruit Wood – Hickory is also a great choice here, but it is essential to make sure it is mixed to avoid an overwhelming flavor. The best recommendations for ribs are with apple or orange.
The most crucial step in adding the right taste and proportion of flavor to smoking pork is selecting the right wood. In some ways, selecting the right wood is a matter of personal taste as there are no terrible wood options. But some woods are easier to manage, some provide a subtle but succulent fruity flavor, and others are overpowering in the right quantities.
Luckily, you have an abundance of great choices and combinations for smoking your pork. Ask yourself before cooking whether you want a bold, sweet, smoky, or fruity flavor (or some combination thereof). Once you decide, go out and buy your wood and begin creating that incredible pork masterpiece!