One of the great things about pork is that it’s hearty enough to stand up to bold-flavored smoking woods, yet not so rich that it gets in the way of the flavor profile you’re trying to create with the smoke. It’s no wonder, then, that pork is such a popular option for the smoker.
My guide to the best smoking wood for pork should answer any questions you have about your options—and how to make the most of them.
Best Smoking Wood for Pork
If I had to choose, I would say that apple is the best overall choice for smoking pork. It’s sweet and mild, with a fruity taste that complements the natural qualities of the meat. For something heartier, try oak or hickory. You can also experiment with other fruit woods like cherry and peach, or go for a more complex taste by using maple wood.
Which Cuts of Pork are Best for Smoking?
You can smoke all kinds of pork, but the process works best with rich, fatty cuts such as pork butt, shoulder, and spare ribs.
The reason for that is simple: These cuts benefit from long, slow cooking applications due to the high amount of fat and connective tissue involved. During the long stint in the smoker, the meat will have a chance to absorb copious amounts of smoke flavor.
When selecting leaner cuts like pork loin, tenderloin, and chops, I tend to reach for mild-flavored smoking woods. They don’t have as much flavor as their heartier counterparts and can easily be overwhelmed by woods like hickory, or even oak.
Best Smoking Wood for Pork
If you’re looking for a smoking wood that will complement just about any cut of pork, I would recommend apple.
The smoke flavor it provides is subtle, with just the right amount of sweetness. Since apples and pork are a classic combination, this shouldn’t come as a surprise.
I especially appreciate the mellow, fruity notes of apple wood when combined with smoked pork loin. This is a relatively lean cut, with a mild taste that allows the smoke flavor to shine through.
One of the best things about milder fruit woods is that they won’t overwhelm your seasoning rub or marinade. You’ll still get that smoke-tinged taste, but the other ingredients won’t fade into the background.
When you’re planning to make applewood-smoked pork, try putting the meat in a brine that includes either apple juice or cider. That will rev up the intensity of the apple flavor.
Personally, I love the taste of hickory smoke. It’s one of the stronger smoking woods, but it has a savory kick that’s reminiscent of bacon, making it ideal for hearty cuts of pork.
The trick is not to overdo it. Hickory has earthy, musky notes that can cross over into bitterness if you use too much of it. That’s one of the reasons why I usually combine it with oak, which has a cleaner taste. You can also mix hickory with wood that has a milder flavor profile.
Opt for hickory—or a blend—when you’re smoking pork butt. Most of the time, smoked pork butt translates into pulled pork, which is unforgettably delicious when seasoned with hickory smoke. What’s more, the smoky goodness will come through even if you coat the meat with barbecue sauce.
Hickory is a traditional choice in many southern barbecue recipes. That should tell you all you need to know about its benefits. If there’s one thing to be said about the American South, it’s that they know their way around barbecue.
I tend to reach for oak when I can’t decide which smoking wood I’m in the mood for. It has a middle-of-the-road intensity with a traditionally smoky taste that pairs well with just about everything.
Since it’s so versatile, you can use oak for any cut of pork. Shoulder, Boston butt, baby back ribs, spare ribs, chops, tenderloin—oak will distinguish any and all of them.
Does it matter which type of oak you choose? I don’t think so. Post oak is popular in central Texas, where it grows in abundance and where barbecue is practically a religion. Its flavor profile is slightly sweet, and it burns hot and clean.
Want to learn more about post oak? Take a look at this video tutorial.
Red oak is another option. It’s not quite as sweet as post oak, but you might be able to detect some subtle vanilla notes in the flavor. There’s also white oak, which is similar in flavor but burns a bit hotter due to a slight variance in its composition.
If you like sweet, nutty undertones in your smoked food, then give pecan a try. The wood is mild to medium in intensity, with flavors that mimic the nuts themselves. Though pecan is great with pork, I love to use it when cold-smoking cheeses as well.
Smoked baby back ribs fare especially well with this type of wood. Since these ribs are leaner than spares, you want to select a wood that falls somewhere in the middle of the intensity scale. The nutty, almost floral taste pairs well with tomato-based barbecue sauces as well.
Pecan wood can be blended with a citrusy fruit wood like orange or cherry for a refreshing change of pace. The flavor difference should be subtle yet satisfying, with a tangy finish that will keep you coming back for more.
Like the sap that creates the syrup we all know so well, maple wood has a distinctive flavor that’s difficult to define. You can definitely detect the sugary notes, although the smoke flavor itself is relatively mild. But you aren’t likely to confuse maple-smoked meats as anything but what they are.
Maple-smoked pork ribs are also excellent, especially when slathered with a mustard-based barbecue sauce. In fact, mustard and maple go well together in general, so it shouldn’t be surprising that the wood is also a good foil for ham. Many folks refuse to eat ham at all unless it’s accompanied by their favorite mustard.
Should you find that the sweetness of maple is too much for you, try mixing in some oak or hickory. Oak will tone down the sugary vibe while boosting the smoke factor. Similarly, hickory will provide backbone to the maple and offer an intriguing contrast in flavors.
Peach is another great fit for smoked ham. I like to use it as an alternative to apple because the flavors are similar, but peach has citrusy undertones that make it more complex.
Unlike orange wood, which gives smoked foods a sharper tang and a hint of acidity, peach gives off a smoother smoke flavor. If you find hickory-smoked ham to be too intense for your palate, peach offers a milder alternative.
Fruit woods like cherry give off a mellow smoke with fruity floral notes. They’re great for beginners because it’s difficult to overdo it when the smoke flavor is so mild. Cherry goes particularly well with pork butt and spare ribs because it has a slight tang that cuts through the fatty richness.
Bear in mind, though, that the wood from cherry smoke will dye the pork red. Depending on the length of the cooking process, the hues could range from dark pink to a deep mahogany. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—in fact, I think it gives the smoked meat even more eye appeal. But it can be off-putting for amateurs who don’t know what to expect.
I don’t seek out orange wood very often, but when I do, it’s because I want to use it to smoke pork. With a floral fragrance that carries hints of spice, it’s a unique and enticing choice.
If you can find it, use orange wood to smoke a pork butt, then use the pulled pork to make tacos or burritos. Many recipes for authentic pork carnitas call for orange juice, which balances out the pork’s richness with a lovely acidity. Orange wood will offer similar benefits, but with more smoke and greater subtlety.
How To Create the Perfect Blend
Blending two or three smoking woods will create layers of flavor that will enrich your smoked pork even further.
When you mix wood types, it’s best if you combine flavors that complement each other without matching. For example, blending apple and peach wouldn’t really create a new flavor combination, because they’re too similar for you to notice much difference.
Instead, mix a mild wood like apple with a bolder one, such as oak, to bolster the flavor. Tone down the strong earthy notes of hickory by combining it with a fruit wood like cherry. A small bit of mesquite, which is extremely strong, goes a long way when blended with a less flavorful wood type.
Avoid mixing more than three types of wood together. Your goal is to create an interplay of tastes, not a mishmash. If there are too many different flavors involved, they’ll drown each other out instead of playing off each other.
Woods To Avoid When Smoking Pork
There are some woods that I would gravitate toward when pork is on the menu, and others I might shy away from. None of these will ruin the pork, but they won’t allow it to shine the way my top choices would.
Alder is one wood type I would avoid. Its smoke flavor is very subtle—enough so that it gets drowned out by the pork’s natural sweetness. More importantly, it doesn’t bring anything to the table, so to speak. You want the smoke to contribute to the flavor profile.
I wouldn’t use mesquite by itself either, although it’s fine when blended with hickory or oak. The taste is too intense for most cuts of pork, with an earthy sweetness that will overwhelm the meat’s best qualities.
Finally, never use softwoods to smoke meat. This list includes—but is not restricted to—cedar, fir, pine, and spruce. These wood types contain too much moisture and sap to be used in the smoker and will impart a bitter taste.
The Bottom Line
I hope you’ve come away with some good ideas regarding the best smoking wood for pork. Which one you choose is up to you, but it’s better if you understand what the various wood types have to offer before you make your decision.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!
Hi there! I’m Darren Wayland, your BBQHost. My love of great barbecue inspired me to curate this site as a resource for all my like-minded fellow pitmasters out there. When I’m not researching and learning all I can about the latest tips and techniques, you can find me at the grill—that is, if you can spot me at all through the clouds of sweet-smelling smoke. And since you asked, yes, that probably is barbecue sauce on my face. Welcome to the party!