There are a lot of subtle tricks when it comes to making great barbecue. One of those tricks is picking the right smoke wood to go with the particular cut of meat. For example, there is pretty strong agreement that oak and hickory are the best woods for smoking brisket but it turns out they they have a too strong flavor for pork ribs.
So if oak and hickory are not the best choice for ribs then what is?
The best wood for smoking ribs are fruit woods such as apple, peach and cherry. You want a mild sweet flavor that is not going to overpower the ribs.
Why Are Fruit Woods Are The Best Choice?
There are many types of woods that have flavor profiles ranging from strong and almost bitter for Mesquite down to sweet and mild for Peach. Pork ribs have a naturally mild flavor and they turn out best when paired with the sweet and mild smoke woods that come from fruit trees.
Things get really obvious once you start to follow the money. There are professional competition barbecue teams that earn thousands of dollars per contest with their barbecued ribs. Some of these teams are extremely famous and have been generous enough to share the basics of their rib technique.
Let’s take a look at what wood the professionals use to cook ribs when there is serious cash on the line.
Myron Mixon Uses Peach
Myron Mixon is the “Winningest Man in Barbecue“. Myron has won over 180 Grand Championships and is a four time winner of the World Championships at Memphis in May.
Myron has published multiple barbecue books and has made it clear that when it comes to ribs he likes to use the sweet flavor from the wood of peach trees from his native Georgia.
Here is a link for Myron’s complete rib recipe (it’s a doozy!).
Melissa Cookston Uses Apple and Cherry
Melissa Cookston is the “Winningest Woman in Barbecue“. Melissa is a seven time World Championship winner including winning the Grand Championship twice at Memphis in May.
Melissa has also published her rib recipe and plenty of great barbecue tips in her books, Smokin in the Boys Room and Smokin Hot in the South. Melissa prefers mild woods such as peach and apple.
Mike Mills Uses Apple
Mike Mills is a four time World Champion including being a three time winner at Memphis in May. Mike Mills is known simply as “The Legend” on the competition barbecue scene.
Mike has published his rib recipe on multiple occasions including in his book, Peace, Love and Barbecue. Mike’s book was nominated for a James Beard Award is one of my all time favorite barbecue books. If you do not have a copy of this classic then grab a copy as soon as you can. By the way, a copy of this book would be a great gift for anyone who loves barbecue.
Mike Mills uses apple wood for ribs.
Tuffy Stone Uses Apple
Tuffy Stone runs the Cool Smoke barbecue team and is a six time World Champion. He is the only three time winner of the Jack Daniels Invitation and the 2019 winner of Memphis in May. Tuffy’s is known on the barbecue circuit as “The Professor“.
Tuffy has published his rib recipe in many places including his book, Cool Smoke: The Art of Great Barbecue.
Tuffy Stone uses apple wood to cook ribs. Here is a link to Tuffy Stone’s Rib Recipe
Just as important as which wood to use is the question of how much to use.
Tuffy Stone’s biggest piece of advice about using wood for flavor is that most people use too much smoke and that you should probably use less than you think you need.
If you are cooking on a charcoal fired cooker like a Weber Smokey Mountain then two to three fists sized wood chunks are plenty. You are also going to want to make sure your fire is burning clean and isn’t billowing out dirty white smoke as that will make the ribs bitter.
What Pellets to Use in a Pellet Smoker
Smoking ribs on a pellet grill like a Traeger is incredibly easy but also a little tricky. It is easy to dial in the exact temperature you want on a grill like this but getting the smoke flavor profile just right is challenging.
Pellet grills burn wood pellets very cleanly and do not produce a lot of smoke. Additionally, most wood pellets that say “Cherry” on the bag are actually blends that contain about 80% Oak and 20% Cherry. When you combine these two problems it makes it hard to get a good cherry flavor onto your ribs when you are smoking on a pellet grill.
If you want to learn where you can get wood pellets that are 100% flavor woods then read this post about the Best Wood Pellets for Smoking Meat.
What Wood to Use in an Electric Smoker
If you are smoking your ribs in an electric smoker like a Masterbuilt then I would avoid using pellets and go straight for fruit wood chips.
I never soak the wood chips as getting a good flavor from an electric smoker is already hard enough. Apple wood chips are usually pretty easy to find at any of the Big Box stores but the other fruit woods can be hard to locate.