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Should I marinate my pork before smoking?

Marinating pork before smoking is a common technique used by many pitmasters and backyard barbecue enthusiasts. The main benefit of marinating pork is that it helps to tenderize and flavor the meat before cooking. There are some important factors to consider when deciding whether to marinate pork that will be smoked.

Benefits of Marinating Pork for Smoking

Here are some of the top reasons why marinating can be useful when smoking pork:

  • Tenderizes the meat – Marinades often contain acidic ingredients like vinegar, wine, yogurt or fruit juices. These help to slightly break down tough muscle fibers in pork.
  • Adds flavor – A marinade is a great way to impart extra flavor into the pork. Common marinade flavors include sweet, savory, spicy or ethnic profiles.
  • Keeps pork juicy – The liquid in the marinade helps pork retain moisture during the smoking process.
  • Forms a crust – Sugars, salts and acids in a marinade can help form a flavorful crust on the exterior of smoked pork.
  • Enhances smoke absorption – Wet surfaces on marinated meat allow smoke to better adhere during smoking.

Best Cuts of Pork to Marinate

The ideal cuts of pork to marinate include:

  • Pork shoulder – Whole or cuts like the Boston butt are well-suited for marinades.
  • Pork loin – The loin will pick up great flavor from a marinade.
  • Pork chops – Marinating helps keep chops juicy when smoking.
  • Pork ribs – Marinades with starch tenderize ribs when smoking low and slow.
  • Pork tenderloin – Quick cooking tenderloin benefits from extra flavor.

Thick, fatty cuts with connective tissue like the shoulder absorb a marinade best. Lean tender cuts also benefit from the extra moisture.

How Long to Marinate Pork for Smoking

Most pork cuts should be marinated for at least 2 hours, but longer times up to overnight are ideal. Here are some marinating time guidelines:

  • Pork shoulder – 8 to 24 hours
  • Pork loin – 4 to 8 hours
  • Pork chops – 2 to 4 hours
  • Pork ribs – 4 to 8 hours
  • Pork tenderloin – 2 to 4 hours

The thicker the cut of pork, the more time needed to let the marinade penetrate deep into the meat. Refrigerate the pork while marinating to allow flavors to properly permeate and for food safety.

Best Marinade Ingredients for Smoked Pork

Marinades for smoked pork should have a good balance of flavors. Here are some of the most important ingredients to use:

  • Acidic liquid – Vinegar, wine, yogurt, fruit juice or buttermilk. Helps tenderize.
  • Oil – Vegetable, olive or other oil. Adds moisture and carries flavors.
  • Seasonings – Salt, smoked paprika, garlic, pepper, chili powder, cumin, oregano.
  • Sweeteners – Sugar, honey, maple syrup, brown sugar.
  • Savoriness – Soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, hoisin sauce.
  • Herbs and spices – Rosemary, thyme, cilantro, sage, ginger.

Aim for a marinade that balances flavors like salty, sweet, spicy and savory. The acid helps tenderize while the oil moisturizes and carries the flavor. Season well with herbs, spices and seasonings.

Sample Marinade Recipes for Smoked Pork

Here are 3 recommended marinade recipes that work great for different pork cuts that will be smoked:

Jamaican Jerk Marinade

  • 1 cup orange juice
  • 1/4 cup lime juice
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tbsp brown sugar
  • 2 tsp thyme
  • 1 tsp allspice
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg

Blend all ingredients in a blender until smooth. Pour over pork shoulder, ribs or chops. Marinate 8 hours or overnight.

Asian Hoisin Marinade

  • 1/2 cup hoisin sauce
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 inch ginger, grated
  • 2 tsp sesame oil
  • 1 tsp Chinese five spice

Whisk together all ingredients in a bowl. Use to marinate pork loin, ribs or chops 4-8 hours.

Maple Apple Cider Marinade

  • 1 cup apple cider
  • 1/4 cup maple syrup
  • 2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tsp mustard powder
  • 1 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • Pinch cayenne pepper

Stir together all ingredients. Marinate pork shoulder, chops or tenderloin for 2-4 hours.

Tips for Marinating Pork

Follow these tips to get the most out of marinating pork that will be smoked:

  • Make lots of marinade – Pork absorbs a lot, so make about 1 cup marinade per pound of meat.
  • Marinate in fridge – Keep pork chilled at 40°F or below while marinating.
  • Use a Ziploc bag – Marinate in a sealable plastic bag to evenly coat meat.
  • Turn the bag – Occasionally massage bag and turn meat over for even coverage.
  • Pull off excess marinade – Pat pork dry before smoking so exterior won’t be mushy.
  • Reserve extra marinade – Use leftover marinade for basting if it hasn’t touched raw meat.

Should You Marinate Before Smoking?

Marinating is really a personal choice that provides some benefits but isn’t absolutely necessary. Here are some final pros and cons to consider:


  • Extra flavor penetration
  • More tender and juicy meat
  • Forms a tasty crust
  • Helps meat take smoke flavor


  • Takes extra time and planning
  • Can make exterior mushy if not patted dry
  • Can mask natural pork flavor


Marinating pork destined for the smoker can provide some advantages when done properly. The extra flavor, juiciness and tenderness benefit many cuts like pork shoulder, ribs, chops and more. While not strictly necessary, marination is a useful technique in a pitmaster’s toolkit to boost flavor and moisture when smoking pork. Just be sure to allow ample time for the marinade to work, pull off any excess before smoking, and balance flavors appropriately.