Smoked ribs is one of the best cuts of meat that you can cook outdoors. That fall-off-the-bone beautiful texture, and that beautiful taste represents everything good about outdoor BBQ cooking.
BBQ smoking involves a lot of steps, and so many variables that you can change to tweak your smoked meat to your liking. With this though some plenty of opportunity for error, particularly when it comes to choosing the right wood to use.
Get it right, and you’ll be able to pair some wonderfully beautiful flavors with your meat. Get it wrong though and you could end up with some really bizarre flavor profiles, and ruin the texture of your meat.
Here’s my guide to the 7 best woods to use for smoking ribs.
Hickory often makes its way onto any list of the best woods pellets for smoking, but it’s such a rich and dependable wood to use that it undoubtedly deserve its place.
It’s particularly popular in the South and Midwest of the USA, and chances are that if you’ve had any smoked BBQ from these regions then you will have had something infused with hickory smoke.
It has a really hearty, sweet and even slightly bacon-like flavor.
It’s a heavy wood that can generate a lot of smoke, so we need to be careful when applying it. Unlike smoked brisket, ribs don’t offer an awful lot of meat, so it’s important that we don't overexpose it to too much smoke otherwise all of the meat's natural flavors will be overpowered.
Beyond its smoky flavors, it has a real hearty feel to it that also offers some sweet notes. This makes it a particularly good option if you are also using some sort of BBQ sauce to glaze the ribs, as it’ll complement it perfectly.
Just be careful not to use too much hickory. It’s a wood that is easy to overpower the natural flavors of meat with, and can even lead to quite a bitter taste. As a result, you might find that it’s a good idea to mix it with another wood, in order to temper its flavors.
Along with hickory, oak has long remained one of the go-to woods for good BBQ smoking. It also generates quite a smoke, but does so with an earthy tone that adds a beautiful layer of flavor if done lightly.
This makes it a great choice of wood for beginners, because it has a strong flavor that is quite easy to control.
The problem is that when a cook goes overboard with the wood, it can really overpower and overwhelm the flavors of the ribs. It’d be a shame to go through hours of smoking and prep, only to ruin it by chucking in one too many piles of oak, so tread lightly.
Mesquite packs in a flavor that is simply perfect for ribs. It’s very strong and earthy, and can actually be quite intense, so definitely best to use in smaller quantities. It’s also relatively prone to burning up because of its natural oil content.
This is a favorite of people who prefer a sweet note to their wood, which goes superbly with ribs, especially if you’ve used BBQ sauce as a glaze.
It has a slightly more subtle and mellow flavor, particularly in comparison to mesquite.
One key consideration though is that because it’s so subtle, apple wood can actually take a while to permeate through the meat and infuse it with flavor. This can mean that it can slow down the cooking time for your meat as you will have to cook at a slightly lower temperature. As a result, I see apple as more of an advanced wood to use.
Much like apple, pecan is a very sweet-tasting wood. But where it differs is that it’s far richer in flavor, and also offers notes of nut underneath all of that sweetness.
If you’re looking for a wood to match and blend in with hickory, then I think is a fantastic option to go for as it’ll create a really good balance between earthy smoke, and a rich, sweet flavor.
Cherry is mild and fruity, and when mixed with other hardwood like hickory, the two flavors compliment each other well for an amazing result.
As well as added flavor, cherry can also help to color your meat. In the case of ribs this is fantastic, as it adds a really beautiful red and mahogany layer to it.
One of the most subtle smoking wood, maple is great for a sweet, light, mild smokiness.
Just like you’d assume with maple syrup, maple wood matches beautifully with ribs as it creates a really lovely sweet and lightly smoked flavor. If you like sweetness then this is a great option because it isn’t quite as rich as the other sweet woods.
What wood shouldn’t I use when smoking ribs?
As you can tell from the list above, a lot of the woods that go well with ribs are sweet in flavor, and also offer a subtle layer of smoke. These are all hardwoods. In contrast, what you really need to avoid is any kind of softwood, because these are resinous and can really harm your meat, even ruin it. These include woods like pine and cedar.
Also be sure to not to use any kind of briquette, as these tend to be cheap, and are not designed for smoking at all.