Best Pellets for Ribs: What’s in Your Hopper Today?

Last update:
Seasoned Ribs

Whether you’re smoking pork ribs or beef ribs, you have a ton of options when it comes to which smoking wood to use. 

Beef and pork are both hearty enough to hold their own against rich-tasting smoke, which adds another level of complexity to the meat. But you can also use a milder wood if you prefer a more mellow smoke taste. 

Let’s take a look at which types of wood make the best pellets for ribs. 

Best Pellets for Ribs

When pork ribs are on the menu, I often reach for the bag of apple pellets. The smoke it produces is fruity and mellow, and pairs perfectly with the sweet pork. For beef ribs, I opt for oak with a bit of hickory mixed in, because the meat itself is so rich. You can use the same blend for pork ribs if you’re looking for a bolder smoke flavor.  

Beef Ribs vs Pork Ribs

In the interest of being thorough, I’m going to discuss the best types of smoking wood for both beef and pork ribs. While pork ribs are more ubiquitous, beef ribs are also delicious when given the full-fledged smoker treatment. 

All ribs benefit from the low-and-slow treatment because they contain a great deal of fat and connective tissue. During the long stint in the smoker, the meat becomes nice and tender while the fat renders slowly, allowing the ribs to remain moist. 

Some ribs are leaner than others. Baby back pork ribs, for example, aren’t as fatty as spare ribs because they’re taken from the top portion of the rib cage rather than the belly. 

Similarly, beef back ribs aren’t as meaty and flavorful as short ribs, which come from the bottom section of the rib cage. What it comes down to is that ribs from the belly have a higher concentration of fat, because the area doesn’t get as much exercise.  

Burning Wood in Grill

Why Pellets?

Why are we talking about the best pellets for ribs instead of the best smoking wood in general? In truth, you can use these types of wood in whatever form you find. 

I like to use a pellet smoker for ribs because the process is more carefree than smoking the meat with charcoal. On a charcoal or electric-powered unit, you have to keep replenishing the wood chips or chunks as they burn out. With a pellet smoker, the wood is the fuel and not just a flavor enhancer. 

Feel free to substitute the flavors I’ve listed below in chip form, or even in chunks or logs if you have a smoker large enough to accommodate them. But pellets, made from compressed hardwood, offer a smoking experience that’s largely hands-off. 

Best Pellets for Ribs: A Guide 

Pork Ribs

I’ll start with listing the best smoking woods for pork ribs, since these are easier to find and a popular choice for the smoker. It doesn’t matter if you have baby back ribs or spare ribs, but as a general rule, leaner meats pair better with mild-tasting smoke. 


Apple is a fruit wood with a sweet, subtle smoke flavor that goes well with all types of pork, from tenderloin to Boston butt. It won’t overpower the meat or the seasonings, but the flavor will stand out enough to turn your ribs into a memorable meal. 

To get the full effect, try brining your ribs in a saltwater solution with apple juice or cider. If you soak the ribs in vinegar to tenderize them before smoking, use apple cider vinegar. 


Oak wood provides a rich, clean smoke that complements just about any type of meat, including pork ribs. If it’s a traditional smoke flavor you’re after, oak will deliver every time. 

You won’t have to worry about oak overpowering the taste of the pork, the way you might with hickory (see below). However, the taste isn’t as subtle as what you’d get from a fruit wood, either. I would say that oak is a good middle-of-the-road option in terms of intensity

Oak Wood Logs


Some pitmasters shy away from hickory because the earthy, bacon-like flavor can turn bitter if you’re not careful. While I avoid using it for fish and poultry, it’s a great match for pork ribs. 

I don’t always go full hickory when smoking cuts of pork, though. It’s a good idea to add some oak to the mix in order to mellow out the flavor. A 50-50 blend works well. 


As you might have guessed, pecan wood gives off a smoke with a slight nutty edge. It’s a bit heartier than apple, but it has a complex sweetness that complements the pork nicely. You can also blend it with a tangy fruit wood, such as cherry or orange, to add another layer of flavor. 

I’m a big fan of using pecan wood when I have a batch of baby back ribs for the smoker. The taste goes better with tomato-based barbecue sauces than the ones from the Carolinas. Go for a simple seasoning rub that will allow the pecan smoke to take center stage. 


If you’re a fan of maple syrup, you ought to love what maple wood brings to the table. It’s sweet and sugary, with a complexity that’s hard to pin down. The smoke flavor will be subtle yet noticeable, especially when used to smoke baby back ribs. 

Try pairing your maple-smoked ribs with a mustard-based sauce. The vinegary kick of the sauce offers the ideal counterpoint to the sugar-tinged maple smoke. 

Maple is also a great smoking wood for ham. Since the pork is cured before smoking, the sweetness of the maple will balance out the salty edge. 


Looking for a fruity wood with a tangy kick? Cherry is a great option. The smoke has a floral tinge that cuts through the richness of the fatty pork. It’s especially good with spare ribs, since the wood is mild-tasting enough for long cooking applications. 

Be aware that cherry smoke will dye your pork red. The results are eye-catching, but they trick some beginners into thinking that the meat isn’t fully cooked. Use a meat thermometer to determine when the meat is done, rather than relying on color. 

Beef Ribs

The next time you’ve gotten your hands on a batch of beef ribs for the smoker, fill the hopper with one of these pellet types—or better, yet, a blend. 


Beef ribs are heartier than pork ribs and can stand up to the bold taste of hickory smoke. Again, you can mix it with a bit of oak if you want to tone down the intensity, but it’s fine to use it alone if you prefer. 

This video illustrates how hickory can enhance the taste of ribeye steaks. Give it a try if you want to experiment with this richly flavored wood. 


Speaking of oak, I did mention that it goes well with just about everything you want to put on the smoker. Post oak, which grows in central Texas, is a staple of the local barbecue scene. If you’ve ever enjoyed authentic Texan barbecue, you should appreciate what oak has to offer. 


Mesquite Wood Smoke

There aren’t many cuts that can hold their own against mesquite. The smoke is very intense, with a sweet edge that overwhelms lean meats like poultry. But beef ribs, with their high fat content and rich beefy flavor, are up to the challenge. 

Again, it’s a good idea to pair bold-tasting woods like mesquite with mellower ones to provide a bit of balance. Since oak has a straightforward smoke flavor on its own, it’s a good option. Fruit woods might be a little too sweet and mild to offer much help. 

Final Thoughts 

Smoked ribs are delicious no matter what kind of pellets you use. Have fun creating different flavor combinations. You don’t have to stick with any one type. One of the best things about pellet smokers is that they encourage you to experiment.  

Happy grilling!

Darren Wayland Avatar


Leave a Comment