In an overwhelming multitude of wood options for smoking your favorite ribs, how do you pick one? Or do you even have to?
The good news is that you don’t have to guess!
Because we’ll share with you all the secrets you need to know about the best types of wood for smoking ribs—you’ll be a master in no time!
We put together a comprehensive guide to help you ace your way into choosing the right wood for your smoked ribs.
- Here’s a brief guide on what type of wood to use for smoking ribs:
- Why do you even smoke meat in the first place?
- What ribs are you trying to smoke?
- What flavor profile are you going for?
- List of Woods with a Strong Flavor Profile
- List of Woods with a Mild Profile
- List of Less Popular Smoking Woods:
- Avoid these Woods:
- What size of wood is appropriate for your smoker?
Here’s a brief guide on what type of wood to use for smoking ribs:
1. The type of meat you are using and the flavor profile you are going for greatly determine which wood type is most suitable.
2. The kind of smoker you have will tell you whether you will use wood chips or wood chunks.
3. Trust your taste buds more than anything. Be adventurous in trying out different flavors and blends.
We use the term “smoking” or “barbecuing” here to refer to the painstaking process of low-heat cooking using wood smoke to impart flavor and texture to meat.
Why do you even smoke meat in the first place?
Smoking meat does not come easy especially when you are just starting out.
It will require a lot for you to master— a great deal of effort and a long time of trial and error needs to be invested.
But when you finally master this art, you end up with crusted, melt-in-your-mouth meat packed with plenty of great flavors, wouldn’t you say it was well worth the investment?
Slow cooking under low heat allows smoked meat to have a desirable dark, flavorful outer crust, also called the bark, while keeping the inside moist and tender.
This is only possible because the moisture evaporates slowly and the collagen and fat in the meat renders gradually.
In meats quickly cooked under high temperatures, the collagen tends to dry out and toughen up making it hard to chew.
What ribs are you trying to smoke?
Are you going to use beef or pork ribs? Spare ribs or baby back ribs?
The type and cut of meat will give you a general guideline how much time you need to smoke it and what smoker and internal temperature to go for.
Get yourself a meat thermometer and use this cheat sheet as guide:
In general, the tougher and fattier cuts, which also happens to be the cheaper cuts, are great for smoking.
Just make sure you use high-quality meats from your local butcher to ensure that the meat is fresh and free from fillers.
- Be generous with your dry rub, start and maintain a moist meat surface once you start smoking for best results.
- The tiny bits of meat rub provides an extra surface for smoke to adhere to.
- Spraying some water every now and then will also help the smoke stick to the meat.
- You can later finish off the smoked meat with your favorite bbq sauce.
What flavor profile are you going for?
Are you looking for a strong smoky flavor or a light smokiness with sweet, fruity notes?
Different woods have different flavors and aromas that they impart to the meat so you have to be familiar with the flavor profiles of the most common smoking woods.
List of Woods with a Strong Flavor Profile
These woods are very versatile as they can be used with a lot of meats, including beef ribs and pork ribs.
- Hickory wood.
This is the most popular smoking wood in Southern and Midwestern cooking.
It imparts a strong smoky flavor with sweet and savory notes and a mildly nutty flavor that is associated with the taste of bacon.
Because this wood produces a lot of smoke, you also have to be careful how much you use to avoid the meat (especially smaller cuts) from having an overpowering bitter taste.
In general, you have to use this wood sparingly and mix it with another type of wood with a mild flavor profile.
- Mesquite wood.
This wood is a great choice for quick-cooking of meats, such as steak, unless you desire an intense, earthy, dark, and rich-tasting punch.
Because it contains high amounts of lignin, much smoke is produced even in little amounts.
Pork shoulders, ribs, and poultry can be easily overpowered by their flavor.
Like hickory, it is best used in combination with milder woods. In fact, it is rarely used on its own because of the harshness of its flavor.
The flavor profile of red oak wood sits in between mesquite and hickory, and the fruitwoods.
The good medium-strength smoky flavor allows it to be used alone or mixed with other woods.
Adding hickory will intensify the smoky notes while combining with cherry or apple creates more depth and subtle flavors.
Aside from the bold savory woody notes, you can also get a rich shiny golden finish with this wood.
Recently, white oak barrels used for aging whiskey are gaining more attention as smoking wood.
The complex subtle sweet aroma of the whiskey combines well with the medium smokiness of the oak to give a unique overall profile.
List of Woods with a Mild Profile
These woods are often mixed with the previous types of food to add more depth to the flavor of the ribs,
This has an intoxicating mild, fruity flavor that is also sweet and smoky. It works best for pork but will work on beef as well.
- Cherry wood.
This wood is known for its sweet delicate flavor profile. If you are planning to use a single wood, cherry wood is ideal.
In addition to its signature, subtly sweet taste and aroma, you can achieve a distinct color, rich deep mahogany, with this wood.
This is a good choice for ribs that not only taste good but also smell good.
This wood produces a medium sweet, woody flavor. It is not commonly used on its own and is in fact unpopular choice for smoking ribs.
The hint of peach it imparts is very light and can perfectly complement other strong woods.
- Pecan wood.
It belongs to the same family as hickory and shares the same popularity.
It will give your ribs a sweet, mildly smoky flavor with a heady taste that is stronger than other fruit woods but milder than hickory and mesquite.
- Maple wood.
This can also be used to impart a mild, subtly sweet profile to your smoked meat.
This is an excellent choice if you are planning on a sweet barbeque sauce. It will also leave behind a good brown tinge.
List of Less Popular Smoking Woods:
- Alder: This hardwood will leave behind a mild nutty smoky flavor.
- Pimento: This as smoking wood has a medium smokiness with an earthy profile.
- Orange: This wood also has a medium-strength smokiness but has tangy notes.
Avoid these Woods:
In general, avoid softwoods, painted, stained, or treated woods as well as moldy old woods.
Softwoods, such as pine, cedar, spruce, fir, and cypress, contain terpenes which when smoked give your meat an odd taste or worse make you and your friends ill.
Paints, treatments, and other wood treatments, as well as molds and fungus, on the other hand, may also release harmful substances during smoking.
Some woods can also be poisonous when burnt and should never be used for cooking food.
Laburnum, poisonous walnut, oleander, and yew are some examples that fall into this category.
TIP: Whenever you have doubts over the kind of wood and its origin, it is better to be safe and cook with woods that you are sure to produce clean smoke.
What size of wood is appropriate for your smoker?
Smoking woods also come in different sizes. The best size to purchase depends on the smoker you have available.
- Wood Logs.
Smoking logs can be up to 18 inches in length. These are best for commercial settings and large offset smokers.
The wood in this form can be both the main fuel source and the smoking wood. The downside for this it can take a while to burn down.
- Wood Chunks.
Chunks for smoking are wooden pieces that are about the size of a fist.
The length of this wood can be up to 14 inches.
It can be a great option for a variety of smokers such as smaller offset smokers, gas grills, water, ceramic, gas, and barrel smokers.
They don’t take much wood storage space and produce a lot of smoke quickly.
- Wood Chips.
These are pieces of wood that are roughly 1 X 1 inches with a thickness of around ¼ inches. These are used for gas, electric, and charcoal grills.
They are readily available, easy to store, and known for fast combustion.
You can prolong the smoke produced from chips without soaking the chips by wrapping them in aluminum foil poked with holes.
These are wood ground into a coarse powder and ideal for handheld, stovetop, and electric smokers.
You will generate wood smoke instantly from sawdust due to its small size. For this reason, you cannot use it as a heat source.
These are made from compressing sawdust, which can come from different types of wood, into a flat disk shape.
They are the ideal smoking wood for electric smokers where smoke will be produced readily.
These are very similar to disks, the difference is that the sawdust here is formed into cylinders that resemble chicken feed in both shape and size.
These are to be used for smoke generators, pellet smokers, and grate smoking boxes.
What wood is best to smoke ribs?
Hickory is usually the most preferred and fool-proof choice for smoking your favorite ribs.
You can use it in various forms such as logs, chunks, or chips. It imparts a characteristic strong smoky flavor that best complements the ribs/ natural flavor.
Is hickory or mesquite better for ribs?
Although mesquite also does a good job for lamb, duck, beef brisket, and wild game, it can overpower ribs, fish, or pork shoulder.
Hickory is better for ribs. Hickory remains to be more versatile and appropriate for pork and all red meats.
Is applewood good for smoking ribs?
Yes, Applewood leaves an intoxicating characteristic sweet flavor when used for smoking ribs.
It imparts a complex, layered taste with a subtle hint of smoke in a way that is not too powerful for the ribs.
It will eventually boil down to your flavor preference if you are considering using applewood over hickory or mesquite.
What wood pellets are best for ribs?
High-quality hardwood pellets are the best choice for smoking ribs.
To ensure you get that best flavor, do away from using just any old wood chips but use filler-free 100% hardwood pellets.
Hickory works best if you desire that classic BBQ taste while black cherry or applewood is the way to go if you want a lighter smoke.
Armed with this general knowledge on types of meats, woods, and smokers, you can now start blending different woods and experimenting your way to the perfect smoked rib recipe.
Use the guides to avoid fatal mistakes and wasting food but always trust your taste buds!