Ribs are a staple of classic barbecue. This delectable meat can come in a wide variety of types, like Spareribs, St. Louis style ribs, or Baby Back ribs, depending on the cut and where on the animal it comes from. All of which, if cooked properly, result in mouth-watering tenderness and flavor. They can also be finished with an array of different flavors depending on what regional barbecue style you are trying to achieve.
Experienced pitmasters know the ins and outs of how to smoke ribs perfectly. But, if you are fairly new to outdoor cooking or you haven’t quite mastered the process, it may be a little intimidating. As with any kind of barbecue smoking, some important tips should be followed.
Just like when we shared insider tips on smoking brisket, we’ve picked the brains of World Champion BBQ pitmasters and found out the insider tips on how to smoke ribs. Soon, you could be enjoying perfectly smoked barbecue ribs that you are proud to show off. Let’s take a look:
Meat selection is just as important as the smoking techniques when it comes to cooking great tasting ribs. Pork, which is what is mainly used when people refer to ribs, doesn’t have the same kind of grading specifications of beef, which goes by fat marbling. But, you can still determine good quality pork.
You want to look for lighter, bright red meat and some good fat marbling without large chunks of fat on top. Remember, the fat is what gives the meat its added flavor and tenderness. Also, look for an even thickness across the ribs.
As mentioned above, there are several different cuts of ribs. The two most popular being Baby Back, which come from the loin area near the spine, and Spareribs, which come from the loin area near the belly. St. Louis ribs are Spareribs that have just had the top cartilage-filled area cut away. Spareribs will usually be meatier and have more marbling between the bones, thus resulting in longer cook times. Many competition pitmasters prefer St. Louis Spareribs for smoking but it is up to you when determining your preference.
It is important to trim off the silver membrane (or “skin”) that runs along the backside of the ribs along the bones. If you don’t remove this, your ribs will have a dry, tough texture and you won’t be able to gently pull the meat from the bones.
Lay the ribs bone-side up and from one end, at the corner, use a knife to lift the thin, plastic-like membrane from the bone to get it started. Then just use a paper towel to hold the corner and peel it off from the rest of the rack in one go.
Source: Serious Eats
The species of wood you use for your fuel to smoke the ribs does make a big difference. And you definitely want to use wood to get the best results and flavor.
Fruit hardwoods, like Cherry wood or Applewood, are often the preferred varieties when smoking ribs because of their mild flavor. They also help you get a great flavorful brown “bark” on the outside of the meat. Pecan or Hickory can also be used. Just make sure you don’t get a strong hardwood that would overpower the meat.
One of the most important parts to preparing ribs, or any kind of meat for that matter, is to season it with your preferred seasoning. But, when cooking ribs, you can help the seasoning stick to the meat better and produce an even more flavorful result.
Before you sprinkle your rub onto the ribs, slather a light coat of either yellow mustard or olive oil on both sides to give the rub something to stick to. (The mustard won’t make them taste like mustard). Then, sprinkle your rub on both sides of the meat. Do not rub it into the meat.
Some pitmasters will argue that you should then let your ribs sit overnight for the best flavor. It is a good idea to let them sit for no less than an hour after seasoning.
Source: The Meatwave
When you are mastering how to smoke ribs, it is important to remember is patience is key. You’ll often hear the term “low” and “slow” when it comes to barbecue. Lower heat and slower cooking times is the way to go. The key is to maintain a consistent temperature and smoke your ribs over indirect heat away from direct flame.
There are many different methods/variations of cooking times, with some allowing for more braising time, but the initial three hours of smoking are critical and temperatures should be kept level. Remember that some cuts, like Baby Back ribs, will cook faster than others.
One of the factors of keeping temperatures consistent when smoking ribs is to maintain your fire. It’s crucial to maintain thin, blue smoke instead of billowing black smoke to avoid over-smoking the meat and ruining the flavor.
Start slowly when building your fire and keep an eye on it throughout the cooking process. It is much easier to stoke the fire more than calm a raging fire to bring down temperatures.
Source: San Antonio Express-News
A common method to use is wrapping the ribs after they have smoked for a few hours and let them braise for several hours. This method, known as the “Texas Crutch,” helps make the meat more tender and juicier by locking in the moisture. It also helps the meat through the “stall” in the cooking process, which we describe in our “How To Smoke Brisket” article.
But, if you are going to wrap, in either aluminum foil or Peach Paper, it is critical to wrap them right. You want to make sure you wrap the ribs tightly so they don’t steam and you end up with a soggy exterior bark. You want to braise and not steam.
When you go to wrap the ribs, include a little “juice” to help impart flavor and braise to perfection. Braising is the cooking process where the meat sits partially submerged in a liquid which transmits the heat to the meat. This process does speed the cooking slightly.
Pitmasters use a variety of things, like a combination of apple cider vinegar and apple juice, or honey/brown sugar/apple juice, or butter and honey. Also, experiment with wrapping ribs with rib candy and pepper jellies. There are numerous flavors, with Apple Cherry Haberano being the most popular. Craig's Texas Pepper Jelly has well over 20 different flavor profiles to choose from.
If you are a fan of saucy ribs, it is important to know when is the right time to sauce the meat. Of course, many Memphis-style purists will tell you that’s never. This Tennessee regional style relies on a paprika-based dry rub with sauce only served on the side.
When wanting to use barbecue sauce, you want to wait until the ribs are almost done cooking and start mopping the sauce on only 30-45 before pulling them off. Do this a couple of times during this last period of cooking time and you’ll have a great saucy finish.
When smoking ribs, it’s important to learn that you shouldn’t just rely on cooking time or your meat thermometer to gauge if the meat is done cooking. Great pitmasters know how to “feel” for doneness.
There are several ways to do this with ribs. One common way is the “bend test”. Use your tongs and lift the rack at one end and they’ll bend just slightly. Usually, if the ribs are done cooking, the meat will just slightly start to split across the top. Another method is using a toothpick to test the tenderness of the meat. If the toothpick slides into the meat quickly without resistance, the ribs are done. This method is a good way to check the meat across several points because the rack might not be cooked evenly across.
Some may argue this point, but you don’t necessarily want fall-off-the-bone tenderness. When it comes to competition barbecue cooking, judges prefer a bit of a bite to the ribs versus the meat just sliding off the bone. Technically, if the meat is falling off the bone, it is overcooked.
You want to find your preferred point between the meat being undercooked and still somewhat hard to pull from the bone and it being so cooked and tender that it is falling off. Unless, of course, that fall-off-the-bone tenderness is the way you prefer it at home.
An added tip for overall tenderness is to let the ribs rest for 10 minutes or so before slicing to let the juices move from the center back across the entire slab.
With the tips laid out above, you’ve got a head start on learning how to smoke ribs just like a World Champion pitmaster.
This is just the beginning of what you’ll learn from the pitmasters and grillmasters we have teamed up with here at BBQ Champs Academy. Want to master barbecue, cook great tasting meat every time, and learn directly from the pros? Check out our All-Access pass to get the full inside look. You’ll learn, on stunning high definition 4K video, how to smoke competition-worthy ribs, detailed step-by-step by World-Champion barbecue pitmasters.