The absolute best wood for smoking pulled pork in my opinion is moderately intense wood, like hickory or oak. Lighter woods are an acceptable choice too. If you are confused by pit master jargon like “lightness” and “intensity,” then this guide is for you.
I’ve worked under pit masters who are very meticulous about the type of wood that goes into the smoker. I was told that food like pulled pork absorb the flavor (as well as impurities!) of the wood. Some wood can even change the hue of the cooked meat.
Considering all that, this guide will help you understand how to pick the best wood for pulled pork. I’ve also included several tips about what not to do. Read on:
There is some debate among professional pitmasters about the best wood chunks for pulled pork. This is largely a regional conflict.
Some Southern pit masters never use anything but peach wood chunks for smoking, even for pork. Others beg to differ. I do think that Southern traditional wood chunks really are the best for smoking pork. However, peach is not the only option. Here is what’s considered the best wood for pulled pork:
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Pit masters of the South, like Myron Mixon, recommend fruit woods for smoking pork. Why? Because these wood chunks have a mild flavor that doesn’t overpower the taste of the pulled pork.
Fruitwoods are massively popular for smoking pulled pork because of ease of use. I recommend these for beginner or casual chefs. These wood chunks are widely available. You can always bank on the sweet fruity flavor too.
Peach, particularly Georgia peach, wood chunks are the go-to choice for smoking pork among chefs in the South. You might not be able to get Georgia peach wood chunks out of the state. In that case, just regular peach wood chips would do.
You can get a mild, but not too light, flavor profile with peach. The smokiness complements the taste of pork without overpowering it. Peach smoked pulled pork is traditionally served with vinegar-based sauces to give it a tangy kick.
Apple wood chunks are a solid choice to smoke meat. Just like peach, this wood gives a subtle flavor that won’t mask the taste of the pulled pork.
I prefer to use apple wood chips for smoking pork when I’m serving savory sides. I like how the wood adds a gentle smoky texture to the tenderness of pork. For those serving pulled pork with the usual sides like BBQ sauce and bread, apple wood is a safe choice.
I would not use cherry wood to smoke beef. Pork is a different matter. Beef has a strong flavor that can easily overwhelm the mild smokiness of cherry wood. Pork lacks an overpowering flavor so it pairs quite well with cherry wood.
Some people avoid cherry wood chips because of the cooking time. You will need to smoke pork longer than usual to truly infuse the cherry smoke flavor. I think it’s worth it to make the meat tender. But if you prefer a more pronounced taste and maybe slower cooking times, the below options might be better:
While lighter woods are popular choices, moderate intensity wood chips are really the best for smoking pork. I love the mildly intense smoke profile you can get with these wood chunks.
Personal taste can always differ of course. That’s why I separated the wood by general flavor. If you want to go for a more traditional taste for your pulled pork, there are excellent middle-ground choices:
Oak is my favorite wood for smoking pork. White oak in particular is great for introducing a strong enough smoky flavor to pork without being overly intense. All oak varieties are great for smoking pork. You don’t have to worry too much about which type you use.
Another great reason to use oak:
Oak adds a lovely mahogany color to pork that makes the meat look crispy and absolutely delicious. The color is noticeable even after you pull the pork.
Smoking with oak doesn’t take long either. White oak is for low and slow smoking. In general, oak is a reliable choice even for busy home cooks who want great taste with little hassle.
Hickory wood is the go-to choice for many pit masters (not in the South). Here’s the reason:
Hickory gives meat a very strong bacon flavor. So it’s pretty much the ultimate wood to smoke pork with.
Not everyone prefers this though. Hickory introduces a rather heavy smoky flavor to pulled pork. However, if you know what you’re doing, the smokiness won’t overwhelm the pork flavor.
Hickory too gives pork a rich brown hue that looks totally mouthwatering. Beginners might need some practice with hickory. It would be totally worth it once mastered.
My grandmother used to smoke pork butt with pecan wood chunks. This is a reliable all-rounder that gives a stronger smoke flavor than fruit woods, but milder than hickory or oak.
I think pecan wood chunks give pork a subtle character. The smokiness tends to linger on the tongue longer. Pecan is easier to work with than hickory too.
If you want a pronounced smoke flavor for your pulled pork, but not too much, this is the best choice:
Smoking with walnut is an adventure on its own. Walnut introduces quite a heavy smoke flavor to pork. It can be even more intense than hickory! Therefore, most pitmasters use walnut in blends. However, you can still use this wood on its own.
Walnut is probably the best choice when you want the harshest smoke profile for your pork without going overboard to mask the taste. I love smoking with walnut wood in cold weather, when people prefer harsher tasting pulled pork sandwiches.
The smoky flavor you get with barbecuing exists on a spectrum. It goes from mild and fruity to harsh and intense. For a red meat like pork, you want to go with a flavor that’s not too intense but is not too light either.
This moderate flavor goes well with the texture and juiciness of pulled pork. If you make it too harsh, you won’t be able to taste the meat. If the smokiness is too light, it won’t taste like it has been barbecued.
Some pitmasters like to mix and match intensities with different blends of wood. You may have noticed this trend at Southern barbeques. It’s doable and you can read about acceptable blends below.
I know plenty of pitmasters who use wood blends for smoking. Fair warning: This is an advanced technique that’s not for everyone.
The aim of the wood blends is to mix up the intensity of the flavor. So pitmasters usually mix light and fruity flavor wood chunks with intense varieties for an interesting mash up of taste.
Here are several wood blend suggestions for pulled pork:
I use this blend the most, especially with pork shoulder. Oak has quite a heavy smoke profile and maple is very light and subtle. The oak infuses well with the pork. Maple wood infuses well with veggies and condiments like barbecue sauce. You can get a rich flavor profile that goes well with the whole meal and not just the pork.
This is a popularly used blend among many pit masters. You can counterbalance the harshness of hickory with a sweet fruit wood like apple or cherry. This blend offers excellent texture in my opinion.
The safest fruit wood pellets to use here are apple, cherry, and maybe peach. However, I’ve known pitmasters to use orange too. Orange wood totally changes the smoke profile by introducing a citrusy flavor. Only try it if you have guests willing to try new things.
Yes, there’s such a thing as wood you should never use for smoking. Bad earthy taste is only one concern. More importantly, certain woods can introduce toxins to your food.
Here are a few types of wood you should never use for smoking:
Conifer wood comes from trees like pine, cedar, spruce, sycamore, fir, and redwood, among others. They are also called softwoods. Conifers contain a lot of tar and sap that is not suitable for human consumption.
When you smoke conifers, even after pre-burning, there’s a risk that these chemicals can get into your food. The wood you use for smoking should always be resin free.
Besides, conifers give pulled pork a weird taste. It’s not palatable at all and could make people sick.
It’s quite impossible to determine what type of wood lumber is. Therefore, it’s generally advisable to avoid using lumber when smoking pulled pork.
Ensure that the wood that goes in the smoker doesn’t have any traces of paint. Paint may contain potentially hazardous chemicals. This is a major risk with old paint in particular. So if the wood looks stained, avoid using it.
Never use chemically treated wood for smoking. The chemicals are most likely hazardous. If you won’t put the chemicals in your mouth, don’t put it in the smoker either.
You may think that the heat in the smoker would destroy anything harmful in moldy wood. Not quite.
Some mold releases toxins when heated that can go into your pulled pork, and then your stomach. As you can never be sure with fungi, it’s another thing that’s best avoided.
To wrap up, use moderate intensity wood for your pulled pork for an excellent smoke flavor. Light, fruity woods are a great choice too. You can try a wood blend if you are highly comfortable with smoking. Don’t forget to keep things healthy by avoiding wood with toxins