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How to Smoke Barbecue Ribs

Time needed: 6 hours

  1. Barbecue Ribs

    Barbecue Pork Ribs are one of the most popular items to be cooked in the backyard. For those well versed in burgers, steaks, and chicken, this can be a bit of a challenge. If you own a smoker, you have a great excuse to smoke barbecue ribs. This step by step is easy to follow, and with effort, you will have the best barbecue pork ribs you’ve ever eaten. Remember, all good things take time. 

    First things first, I am going to leave many of the decisions up to you. Don’t let anyone tell you that you aren’t doing things right. If you like the result, then that is the method for you. You get to choose if the rib meat is falling off the bone or staying put. If there is sauce applied to it or not, or if those slabs have an extra crispy surface. 

    Plan your time accordingly. This method can take up to six hours. Read through all of the instructions and make any adjustments before starting the process. If you are using Baby Back Ribs, the cooking time will be less. 

    What you will need to Smoke Barbecue Ribs:

    Racks of ribs (I’m working with spareribs, but you can use baby back ribs)
    A Smoker of Pellet Grill
    A good barbecue Rib Rub
    Fuel or power for your smoker
    Wood Chunks or Chips
    A reliable meat thermometer
    Heavy-duty aluminum foil
    Barbecue Rib Sauce (If you want sauce on your ribs)
    A large, sharp knife

    This method is done in a backyard meat smoker and will work in any kind of smoker. If you don’t have a smoker, then use my techniques for:

    Barbecue Ribs on a Gas Grill
    Barbecue Ribs on a Charcoal Grill

    Pork Spare Rib Whole Rack

  2. How to Smoke Barbecue Ribs – Preparing the Smoker

    Start with a clean smoker that is ready to cook. You will need to maintain a cooking temperature of 225 degrees F (110 degrees C) for up to six hours. Make sure you have sufficient fuel for the duration. To begin, you will need a good amount of smoke. Meat will absorb less and less smoke as it cooks. If you desire a strong smoke flavor, use several large wood chunks and keep adding them as needed. If you want a lighter smoke flavor, stop adding wood during the second half of the cooking time. 

    Different types of smokers use different types of wood. Charcoal smokers work best with large chunks, while electric smokers use wood chips. Of course, pellet grills and smokers do not need to have wood added. Make sure you are using the recommended kind of wood for your smoker. As far as wood flavor goes, choose the wood that you prefer.

    Start the smoker as described in your user manual. Make sure that the smoker is in a safe and secure place and can be left uninterrupted during the full cook time. 

  3. How to Make Barbecue Ribs – Preparing the Rack of Ribs

    When selecting ribs, look for a rack that has an evenly distributed thickness. The color should be bright. You can smoke as many racks of ribs as your smoker will hold. Adding more racks won’t affect the cooking time as long as the airflow through the smoker is not interrupted. Do not stack the racks. They must be fully exposed to the smoke. 

    Typically the ribs you buy at the store are already trimmed, but you might need to do some additional cutting on them. Remove any loose or hanging pieces of meat. If you are using spare ribs, you will find them sold as either St. Louis cut or full spares. St. Louis cut is uniform and rectangular. The untrimmed rack is larger and has a lot of cartilage along one side. There is no rule that you can not smoke the full rack. Competition cooks use St. Louis cut because it has better presentation and contains only the bone sections. 

    Uniform thickness is important. On the bone side of a rack of spares, you might find a flap of meat that folds over onto the bones. It is best to remove this as it will take longer to cook. The most important part of preparing the ribs, spares, or baby back, is to remove the membrane. This is a thin layer of tissue that covers the bones. The membrane prevents smoke and seasoning from reaching the meat and yields a tougher rib. 

    To remove the membrane, use a dull knife or another flat object. Starting at the end of the rack, lift the membrane away from the bone until you have enough to grip onto. Using a paper towel, grab the membrane, and pull it away from the bones. If you are lucky, it will come off in one piece. Otherwise, continue working its way until all of the membrane is removed. With a little practice, you can do this quickly and easily. 

    Trimming Pork Spare Ribs

  4. How to Make Barbecue Ribs – Adding the Rub

    A barbecue rub is nothing more than a mixture of spices. There are hundreds of recipes out there, but generally, they add salt, sweet, heat, and color to the meat. It is this seasoning that provides most of the flavor to barbecue ribs. Use it generously.  Apply the rub to the ribs before they go into the smoker. If it is added too early, the salt in the rub will cure the meat and give it a ham-like flavor. I prefer to apply the rub and put the ribs onto the smoker within a few minutes. Doing this will allow the spices to cook into the meat.

    There are many great rubs to use. When it comes to selecting one, it’s best to consider sweet versus the heat. While some rubs combine both, most people tend to opt for sweet. Now it is your turn to make a decision. 

    Once you have the smoker heating up and the ribs trimmed, it is time to apply the rub. Pat the ribs dry with a paper towel and then sprinkle the rub over the meat. We may call it a rub, but there is actually no rubbing involved. Coat the ribs evenly. Any rub that sticks to the meat is the right amount. Do not use too much. It will cake onto the meat and create an unpleasant flavor. Let any excess rub fall away once you have finished applying it. 

    Handle the racks carefully now so that the needed rub says put.

    Pork Spare Rib BBQ Rub

  5. How to Smoke Barbecue Ribs – Putting the Ribs in the Smoker

    With the ribs ready, it is time to check on the smoker. It should be holding a steady 225 degrees F. (110 degrees C). Up until now, it hasn’t been important to add wood for smoking. Once the ribs are on the smoker, you will add that wood. 

    When placing a rack, or several racks of ribs on the smoker you want to achieve even cooking and maximum airflow around the meat. This will allow the racks to cook uniformly with the most smoke possible. Make sure to place the racks bone side down. With even heat, there will be no need to turn or move the ribs during the cooking process. If your smoker runs hotter on one side than the other, it might be necessary to rotate them halfway through the cooking time. 

    If you want to cook a lot of ribs and your smoker doesn’t have space, then consider purchasing a rib rack. These accessories allow you to stack the ribs on their edges and cook several at a time. However, most smokers can handle two full racks at the very least. 

    A pitmaster tip with ribs is to place them onto your cooking grate and compress the racks together. Meat shrinks as it cooks and pulling the racks wide can cause them to come out a little tough. By pushing the ends together, the meat will contract naturally. 

    Once the racks are on the smoker, add any smoking wood you need for the fire. Now is the time to get as much smoke into the cooking chamber.

    Our cook time is around six hours. Watch the smoker to make sure that it is maintaining its temperature. Add additional wood to the fire as desired. Otherwise, leave them to smoke for the next three hours.

    Smoke barbecue ribs on the Smoker

  6. How to Make Barbecue Ribs – Spritzing

    Technically, a rack of pork ribs is cooked at 145 degrees F. We are taking our ribs to 195 degrees F. This isn’t overcooked, it’s barbecue. Only at this temperature are our ribs going to be tender enough to be called barbecue. The problem is, that cooking for this long and to that kind of temperature can cause the ribs to dry out. One strategy to prevent this is by applying moisture to the ribs as they cook.

    This is best done later in the cooking process. Once the ribs reach a temperature around 165 to 170 degrees F, it is time to add this extra moisture. In the past, people used a mop, and that works fine. However, we don’t want to drown the ribs, we just want the lightest coating of liquid. Using a spray bottle to apply a quick, even spritz will do the trick best.

    As for the liquid, it should be a combination of sweet and sour, meaning sugar and vinegar. Of course, it must also be a pure liquid or it will clog the spray bottle. My preferred spritz for pork is equal parts of apple juice (sugar) and apple cider vinegar (sour). If you want to avoid the sour part, you can, by using a fine oil instead. The sweet, however, is going to add flavor and moisture.

    Spritz several times during the cooking process. The surface of the meat should appear shiny, but not damp. The liquid should not be running off the ribs.

    Pork Spare Ribs Spritz

  7. How to Make Barbecue Ribs – Wrapping (Optional)

    After three hours, the ribs will have absorbed the smoke it needs. The truth is, you can take the ribs out of the smoker and finish them off in the oven.  But, what would be the fun in that? Keep in mind that they will need to reach the final cooking temperature of 195 degrees F. (See When Are Pork Ribs Done.) Doing this will keep them moist and tender.

    There is another issue that happens when you smoke barbecue ribs. Often referred to as the stall, temperatures tend to reach around 145 degrees F. and stop climbing for a while. It happens with all barbecue meats, even ribs. Wrapping the ribs in foil will help shorten this problem, and it can reduce the total cooking time. Wrapping also holds in moisture. Some will say that this steams the ribs, but most agree that it helps keep the meat tender. Either way, it is an option, usually referred to as the 3-2-1 Method. 

    If you are going to wrap (also a secret to fall off the bone tenderness if so desired) it should be done after three hours. You do not want to lose heat, so quickly take the ribs from the smoker, wrap tightly in foil and return them to the smoker. They will stay this way for two more hours. 

    ]To make sure you understand the 3-2-1 method, please see the following:

    3 hours unwrapped in the smoker
    2 hours wrapped tightly (airtight) in foil on the smoker
    1 hour unwrapped on the smoker

    If you are using baby back ribs then the cooking time should be about 5 hours. If you want to wrap your baby backs, do so after 2 hours.

    Smoke barbecue Ribs Wrapped

  8. How to Make Barbecue Ribs – Saucing (Optional) 

    Once we get to the five-hour mark, the ribs are cooked, but not tender. Pork is done at 145 degrees F., but barbecue ribs are cooked to about 195 degrees F. After five hours we should be around 175 to 180 degrees F. If you plan on saucing the ribs, now is a good time to start. If you wrapped your ribs, remove the foil.

    Apply barbecue sauce in thin, even coats over the meat portion of the ribs. I did say there is no reason to flip your ribs on the smoker and I meant it. Put the sauce on one side and one side only. 

    One of the problems with saucing ribs is that it can reduce the temperature of the meat, which prolongs the cooking process longer than necessary. So, heat the sauce before using it. It should be at least as hot as the meat. 

    Apply the sauce several times, letting it dry down, and cook into the meat for ten to fifteen minutes between each application. This will give us the sticky, saucy ribs that we all love. Let the ribs cook for a good fifteen minutes after the last application before removing them from the smoker. It is essential that the smoker’s temperature remains low after applying the sauce. Barbecue sauces contain sugar, and it will burn at 265 degrees F. Keep the temperature below that. 

    Pork Spare Ribs Barbecue Sauce

  9. Crispy Ribs (Optional)

    Smoked ribs are tender, and while the combination of the smoke and rub can produce a crusted surface, some people prefer a crispy one. To achieve this, you will need to expose the meat side to a high, direct heat. This can be performed on a grill or in the oven, but not in your smoker. If you choose to go this route, do not apply the sauce first, it will burn. 

    When the ribs are nearly done, take them out of the smoker and place them under a preheated broiler or meat side down on a gas or charcoal grill. Let the surface cook for about five minutes. Anything more will cause excessive drying and burning of the meat.  After this is done, the meat can be sauced and served, sauced and returned to the smoker, or served as is. 

  10. How to Smoke Barbecue Ribs – Cutting Ribs and Serving

    The ribs are finished once the meat reaches a temperature of 195 degrees F. Testing ribs for doneness is a bit more complicated than a steak or a roast. The bone temperature is going to be different than that of the meat. Test temperature with a reliable, fast read thermometer by sticking the probe between the bones in several places on each rack. The lowest temperature is the one to consider. Once the meat reaches the desired temperature, remove it from the smoker, and serve. 

    If you are not serving the ribs immediately, cover and keep warm until serving time. The ribs should be held at 175 degrees F. This will prevent them from over-cooking.

    To cut the ribs, use a pair of tongs to stand the rack on its edge. Place the bones side toward you. You should be able to see them. Cut between each bone as evenly and equally as possible. When you properly smoke barbecue ribs they will cut very easily. If your ribs are fall off the bone tender, cutting might be a challenge. Cut gently and use a very sharp knife. 

    Once you have had a chance to enjoy the ribs, take some notes. How did they turn out? Did you like the flavor? Were they as tender as you wanted?  Writing this down will help you improve your rib game. After a few tries and with some useful information about your particular cooker and method, you will have perfect ribs every time. 

    Pork Spare Ribs Cutting

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