Ribs - whether beef or pork - are one of the most popular smoked barbecue foods. Like all aspects of barbecue, something that's brought up a lot is the species of wood used to smoke certain foods.
While the amount of smoke you introduce to ribs is entirely subjective, I find that the woods that pair best with pork ribs are cherry, pecan, and hickory. In terms of beef ribs, I find that post oak, pecan, and hickory work best.
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A lot of resources for barbecue tend to lead beginners to smoking meat in the wrong direction. Often they'll create resources - much like this article - and essentially tell the reader to use X Species of wood with Y type of meat.
Truth be told, "smoking" meat doesn't really work like that. More or less, wood smoke exists on a spectrum from mild to strong.
Mild woods include fruit-woods like apple, cherry, and peach. In the middle lies oak, pecan, and hickory. At the end of the spectrum is mesquite, which most people would call strong.
The articles on the web will then start to become super nuanced describing various "notes" like they're a Sommelier describing wine.
Even more complicating is the fact that the chemical byproducts of wood combustion are not universal and depend on the species, age, and mineral composition of the soil; Meaning, wood grown in New England will taste different than wood grown in California. The Forest Encyclopedia tells us that soil composition has the biggest impact on mineral composition.
There are also several different species of wood. For example, Oak can include: white oak, red oak, black oak, etc. Meaning, telling someone to use Oak wood doesn't help you.
I think you get the idea.
Your goal should be to burn clean, thin blue smoke - that's it. Even in my article on smoking pellets, the main reason I say to use whatever is cheapest is because most folks can't and won't taste a difference between brands, let alone wood species.
In my opinion, you should invest in a Mild fruit-wood as well as a stronger wood - Pecan is lighter than hickory and Oak is lighter than Pecan. Buy whatever is cheapest and in closest proximity to you.
Be sure to read my guide to the types of hardwoods used for smoking meat - it should help to shed some light on the more popular types of wood.
In my opinion, the best hardwoods for smoking pork ribs are cherry, hickory, and pecan - Of those options, I use Cherry wood almost every time. If I don't have Cherry, I usually use Pecan or Hickory, whatever is in my barn.
As outlined in my baby back ribs guide, Cherry wood is by far my favorite type of wood to use for pork ribs. A lot - and by a lot, I mean almost all resources will tell you to use Applewood for pork ribs, however, in my opinion there is no perceivable benefit to using apple - apart from maybe availability?
Both Apple and Cherry offer mild smoke. After using Cherry enough and testing tons of hardwood, I can usually pick-up on a slight sweetness with cherry. Some might argue that this is the power of suggestion as cherries are sweet - however I can definitely tell you that cherry has a sweet aroma. Since flavor involves both taste and odor, when these odor particles enter your nose they also enter your mouth.
Something that cherry wood smoke does offer food-stuff is that it tends to give food a deeper mahogany/red color - rather than using Paprika in your dry rub, just use cherry wood.
Almost all rib recipes on the internet will tell you to use paprika in the dry rub - in most cases people use a low-grade paprika that offers nothing to food other than promoting a red color to your food.
If you're someone who does use Paprika, consider checking out Burlap and Barrels Paprika - you can actually taste the sweet peppers and add the benefit of color.
Pecan works great for pork ribs - it also doesn't tend to burn as long as Hickory or Oak which is perfect for shorter cooks (like ribs).
Pecan is stronger than fruit-woods but what I'd deem milder than Hickory - a perfect in-between. Some folks will even go as far as describing pecan smoke as spicy/nutty.
I've had great success mixing Pecan and Cherry for pork ribs; The combination results in great color and smoke flavor.
When I first got started smoking meat, I used my electric smoker with Hickory wood chips to smoke pork spare ribs - nearly 15 years later, not much has changed.
Hickory offers a stronger smoke than fruit-woods. As long as you're burning clean smoke, you won't need much either.
If you're someone who likes a pronounced smokey flavor, hickory is a great choice. Some folks like to even equate it to the richness of bacon.
Traditionally, beef ribs are smoked with a nut-wood species rather than fruit-wood. However, fruit-woods work equally well in my opinion - again, Cherry wood is absolutely killer for imparting color onto certain cuts of meat, including beef ribs.
Post oak is very traditional to Central Texas barbecue. In my opinion, Oak goes well with pretty much any barbecue food - whether it be pork or beef ribs, poultry, game meat, and more.
Oak is stronger than fruit-woods like Apple, Cherry, and Peach. However it's lighter than Hickory and Pecan.
If you're smoking beef ribs for someone who likes smoke but finds Pecan and Hickory too strong, Oak is a great middle-ground.
In terms of smoking beef ribs, most sources would tell you to use hickory.
Much like cherry, hickory will aid in the formation of bark by helping to impart a deep mahogany color to smoked foods. Most folks eat with their eyes first - meaning bark is important.
Pecan wood reminds me a lot of hickory smoke but is what I'd deem milder. This isn't surprising though as Pecan (Carya illinoinensis) is a species of Hickory (Carya).
I'd say the smoke is more similar to Oak in terms of smoke but with it's own distinct aroma/flavor.
Keep in mind: When buying wood that's labeled as "Hickory" - there is a chance the wood is actually Pecan. I typically buy my Wood chunks from Western Premium BBQ Products as they're at my local Runnings.
In their FAQ on their hickory page we're told:
"We buy trees from all over the US, that we wouldn't be able to give you an exact species."Julie - Western Premium BBQ Products
Just for the sake of comparison, some folks might find it useful to know what other Pitmasters use to smoke ribs.
A lot of the Pitmasters you find will tend to use offset smokers and use sticks - for this reason they're apt to use whatever is local. For example, Myron Mixon is from Vienna, Georgia and smokes almost exclusively with peach wood.
Here's a quick table for reference:
|Pitmaster||Type of Rib||Type of Hardwood|
|Myron Mixon||Baby Backs / Spares||Peach|
|Aaron Franklin||Beef plate ribs||Oak or Hickory|
|Melissa Cookston||Baby back ribs||Apple and Cherry|
|Heath Riles||Baby back ribs / Spares||Pecan or Hickory and Cherry|
|Malcolm Reed||Beef ribs||Pecan and Hickory|
As you can see, it's sort of the same opinions. You should try any number of woods and see what you prefer.
Again, fruit-woods tend to have lighter smoker and nut-woods tend to have heavier smoke. For both pork and beef ribs, a great middle-ground is Pecan.