Today’s topic is selecting the best wood for pulled pork from the nearly two dozen varieties of popular smoking woods.
Making your own pulled pork from a perfectly smoked shoulder is one of the great joys of the craft. You can do almost anything with it — you can stuff it in sandwiches, tacos, and fajitas, pile it on top of poutine, or use it as a condiment for hot dogs and burgers.
And, naturally, you can just enjoy it the way it is! Sometimes, I won’t even bother with a fork.
Anytime we smoke meat, though, we have to think about what wood to choose as it can dramatically change the flavor.
To take away some of your stress, we’ve put together a list of the best and most popular wood for smoking pulled pork. We’ve also got some alternatives for mixing things up, and we check in with some of the biggest names in barbecue to see what’s in their smokers.
We’ll also look at logs, chunks, chips, pellets, and sawdust and tell you which type of wood is right for your smoker or grill.
But first, let’s talk about why we’re here in the first place.
Contents (Jump to Topic)
- 1 Why Add Smoke When BBQ Pulled Pork?
- 2 Preferred for Pork — Slightly Milder Woods
- 3 Stronger Tasting for Real Smoke Lovers
- 4 Truth Be Told, Many Other Woods Work Too!
- 5 Pair Different Woods to Get the Best of Both Worlds
- 6 What the Experts Use
- 7 Logs, Chunks, Chips, Pellets Or Dust?
- 8 Final Thoughts
Why Add Smoke When BBQ Pulled Pork?
There’s just something about char-grilling meat that brings out that luscious, meaty flavor and makes you glad to be a carnivore. Try eating a fried burger and then a grilled burger one after the other. There’s no comparison.
Adding smoke takes that to the next level, an upgrade of an upgrade, if you will.
I think it awakens some ancient memories of when humankind first discovered how friggin’ delicious mammoth meat tasted after roasting it over a fire. Smoke flavor is part of the true barbecue experience and adds depth and complexity to your food.
Preferred for Pork — Slightly Milder Woods
Pork on its own has a mild flavor. Using woods that put out a lot of heavy smoke may overpower the meat, and that’s not necessarily what we want.
For many, fruit woods are the way to go. With their more subtle smoke flavor and hints of sweetness, they not only allow the pork flavor through, but they also complement many sweet rubs and sauces commonly used for pulled pork.
Here are four go-to fruit woods for smoking pulled pork:
A staple of Southern BBQ, peach has a classic mild and sweet flavor ideal for smoking pork and leaving the pork flavor intact.
Peach is a terrific choice for those who want to taste the pork or love fruit-based sauces and injections.
While it lacks the fruitiness of the other woods in this section, maple adds moderate smokiness and sweet notes to whatever you smoke, and it’ll work great with brown sugar-based rubs.
It’s tough to overdo it with maple, so it’s popular with novice smokers.
This common wood is a favorite right across North America for the sweet and fruity flavor it adds and for delivering just a hint of smokiness. If you’re not sure if your crowd is into smoke, default to apple for pulled pork.
Plus, what could be more classic than apple and pork?
The prince of fruit woods, cherry brings home a trifecta of goodness: sweetness, mild smoke, and adds a lovely red color to the surface of meats smoked with it. They say we eat with our eyes — try smoking with cherry, and you’ll see how true that is.
The flavor is mild but appealing, and you could easily serve your pulled pork naked after a cherry wood smoking.
Stronger Tasting for Real Smoke Lovers
Some among us, myself included, have a hankering for intense smoke flavor in their food. If you’re with us, give these varieties a try.
Easily one of the most popular smoking woods, hickory is what you might call medium-high on the smoke scale. It has some sweetness to it, though, and it’s a match for almost any barbecue sauce you care to name.
Consider pairing it with fruity sauces and sides.
Though some consider oak generic in terms of flavor, it’s a crowd-pleaser and provides a lot of smoke taste. This leaves you free to create any flavor profile you want with your sauce and/or rub.
This is a controversial choice, as some chefs think it’s too strong for pork. But, the smoke is delicious, and it pairs well with bold sauces, so if you plan to slather it on, this could work for you.
Newbies take heed: mesquite smoke can get out of hand in a hurry; reduce the time your meat spends in the smoke or risk having your pulled pork taste like you rescued it from a forest fire.
Bold, a bit sweet, and kinda nutty, like that kid from drama class you crushed on, pecan is excellent for pulled pork with a medium-heavy hit of smoke. Some people find it too sweet, though, so be sure your sauce or rub balances it out.
Truth Be Told, Many Other Woods Work Too!
The woods listed above are some of the best and most popular choices for pulled pork. They’re not the only ones that work, though.
Half the fun of barbecue is getting experimental, seeing what works, what could be better, and just learning what’s out there. If you’re the type who likes to think (and smoke) outside the box, give some of these fruit and nut woods a shot.
Pair Different Woods to Get the Best of Both Worlds
There’s no rule saying you can only use one kind of wood when you smoke. Why not try mixing and matching to develop unique hybrid smoke flavors?
A popular approach is to use a bit of one of the more intense woods, like oak, and add in some fruit wood, like apple, to sweeten it up. Other popular combinations are oak and cherry, for a strong flavor and fantastic color, or apple and cherry for a milder flavor and fantastic color.
By blending woods, you can tailor your smoke intensity and taste to match your sauce, a style of cooking for an entire meal, and even your beverage choices. And it’s just fun to see what you can come up with!
What the Experts Use
Here’s what some of the best barbecuers in the world have in their fire pits when pulled pork is on the menu.
Well, Steven must be a fan of big smoke because he cites hickory as his chunks of choice for pulled pork, but he’s also partial to fruit woods for pork. A fairly neutral smoke base of hickory allows Steven to build flavor with rubs, sauces, and toppings. If it’s in the Barbecue Bible, it must be the gospel truth.
The man behind How to BBQ Right also prefers hickory for pulled pork but adds some cherry to sweeten the mix. The sweetness will lend complexity to the final flavor when mixed with Malcom’s choice of a spicy BBQ rub.
One of the true Queens of BBQ, Melissa chose apple pellets to complement the sweet-with-heat rub she applied to her pork butt before it hit the smoker. The light, fruity taste blends nicely with the sweet brown sugar (like an apple pie!) standard in most rubs.
One of the all-time great champions of competition barbecue, tell-it-like-it-is Myron chooses peach wood for his pork shoulder before shredding into tender morsels. The sweetness and mildly smoky taste take a bit of the edge off the spiced-up mop and sauce he favors but won’t mask the delicious sauces with heavy smoke.
Logs, Chunks, Chips, Pellets Or Dust?
Now that you’ve decided what species of wood you want for smoking pulled pork, you may be wondering what form it should take. Here’s a quick rundown of which type of wood to use for your smoker or barbecue.
The largest pieces of wood used for smoking, logs are meant for large offset smokers and smoking pits.
Chop up a log with an axe, and you’ve got chunks. These will do the trick in smaller offset smokers, barrel or drum-style smokers, and ceramic and kamado grills. Create your charcoal bed, light them up, and lay a few chunks of your choice right on top.
Despite the name, you shouldn’t serve these with dip. Instead, you can scatter them over your charcoal for quick and easy smoke. They’re also ideal for smoker boxes or wrapping in foil packs for smoking on gas grills thanks to how easily they ignite.
Made of compressed hardwood powder and shavings, pellets are primarily used in pellet grills, including Traegers. You can also use them in some smoker boxes on your gas grill.
Wood dust is available as fuel for smoker guns and handheld smokers. Some folks use it in electric smokers, too. You probably don’t want to try sawdust for a long smoke session, but it’s great for a quick blast of smoke on grilled meats.
Sure, you can make a version of pulled pork in a slow-cooker. But, you’ll never replicate the authentic barbecue taste of natural hardwood smoke in a pot. And now that you know which woods are best, it’s just a matter of picking what sounds good to you and stoking up the fire!
Thanks for letting us share our thoughts on the best wood for smoking pulled pork. For more smoking suggestions, browse the site or try the search bar. The more you know, the more fun and delicious food will come your way.
First time smoking a pork butt. I am using your advice to guide me along. I usually do a lot of smoked salmon. Did a turkey this year for the first time. Turned out great. I like to mix up my wood selection. Being from the Pacific Northwest. “Alder” is a popular wood in the smoker. Thanks for sharing you recipe/advice.
Best of luck, Ken. You should do well, as a pork butt is very ‘forgiving’, and great to learn the ropes with. Let us know how you get on?