How To Smoke Ribs
Getting the great taste of summer in your backyard may not come easy to you. But, with a bit of knowledge and a few tips on how to smoke ribs, you can rule the backyard barbecue. Let us help you. After all, our goal is getting you to the “next level of flavor.”
Keep reading to boost your grill master skills, no matter your current level of expertise.
Knowing Your Meat: A Primer on the Types of Ribs
Differences in beef and pork ribs turn out to be a matter of preference. However, some styles of ribs are better suited for the novice griller and others test your technique. Let’s get the nitty gritty on what we are talking about so you can choose the ribs best suited to you.
Do You Like Beef or Pork?
– Beef: Beef short ribs require long, low temperature cooking methods to retain their flavor and tenderness. Genetic factors and the older ages of cattle at slaughter mean more collagen which enhances the meat’s flavor. Beef ribs prove to be less forgiving than pork versions — they challenge even the top pitmasters.
– Pork: Typically, pork ribs are more common and less expensive. They also offer versatility to grill, smoke or slow cook. The mild taste of this meat allows barbecue flavors to stand out. And, more marbling renders a moist, meaty rib. In many parts of the South, pork and barbecue mean the same thing — beef is not invited to the stage.
In a Thrillist survey, barbecue stars weighed in on the beef vs. pork debate to reveal, “Texans and those heavily influenced by the Lone Star State went beef (with one notable exception), and the rest of the Deep and mid-South voted hog.”
Still, Tiffani Faison of Sweet Cheeks Q says, “I don’t think barbecue is totally about the choice of beef or pork, but more often about the quality of the animal, the choice of cut and execution of the cooking process.”
What Style of Ribs Do You Prefer?
The style of ribs also weighs in on your choice of what to smoke for your next neighborhood gathering. Some types of ribs only come from cattle, others only from pigs. Some prove to be lean and others more fatty. Check it out:
Baby Back Ribs: Always pork, these favorites come from the lowest rib section on the back of the pig. Cut from this loin section, they are sometimes called loin ribs. Baby backs are shorter and offer smaller portions. They are less fatty, more tender and more expensive than other cuts.
Short Ribs: Similar to pork spare ribs, short ribs are cut from the sixth to tenth rib (the front part) of beef cattle. The meat lies over, not between, the bones. And, they are larger and fattier than spare ribs.
Spare Ribs: Cut from the chest or sternum under the belly around the side and behind the shoulder of cattle or pigs, spare ribs can be either beef or pork. They contain 11 to 13 bones and are the most inexpensive cut. Variations you may know include St. Louis and Kansas City style.
Country Style Ribs: While their name says otherwise, these “ribs” are a pork loin sliced into strips. Taken from the blade end of the loin, behind the upper shoulder butt, country style ribs are like a fatty pork chop. Fat runs between layers of less marbled meat.
Wondering Where to Begin: Ways to Smoke Ribs
While the traditional method of smoking ribs brings to mind a smoker, you can smoke ribs several ways with minimal investment. Below is a quick list and links to tips for using these methods.
Smoker: The Smoker King tells you how.
Electric Smoker: Char-Broil explains two methods for fall-off-the-bone ribs.
Oven: Read here for tips on oven smoked ribs.
Charcoal Grill: Check out this P&G article, How to Smoke Meats Without a Smoker.
Campfire: For the ultimate outdoor experience, cook your ribs over the open fire. The KOA and Foodidude share recipes and ideas.
Learning the Basics: Techniques to Smoke Ribs
No matter which way you choose to smoke your ribs, a few general tips help you get a delicious end product. Mouth-watering ribs come with practice and patience. Prep work and long cooking times yield melt-in-your-mouth results for the grill master. Follow these tips:
- Choose a good cut of meat — one right for smoking.
- Trim the brisket bone (on spare ribs) and any side bones.
- Remove the membrane so the seasonings penetrate the meat more fully.
- Cut away extra hunks of fat outside the bones. Leave the fat between the bones.
- Apply multiple layers of flavor: First, use a rub or marinade. Second, choose wood which adds to your flavor. Third, use a mop sauce throughout cooking for flavor and moisture. And, finally, apply barbecue sauce as a glaze in the final minutes of cooking.
- Smoke for four to six hours at low temperatures.
- A gentle stream of smoke, not billowing clouds, is your goal. Black smoke means the juices are burning and tainting your food. Adjust ventilation and the position of the ribs to produce white smoke.
- Stay nearby to attend to the cooking process, apply mop sauce and check the temperature every 45 minutes to an hour.
- Open the lid only when needed so heat and smoke stay inside.
- Ribs are done when meat shrinks back from the end of the bones by a quarter to half an inch. A dark caramelized crust on the ribs says “Let’s eat!”
Sending Smoke Signals: The Best Wood for Smoking Ribs
Your location and factors like cook time and the size of the cut determine the best wood for smoking. Personal preference also plays into the equation. The best way to find your favorite or the hit of your community is to experiment. You can also mix wood types for a unique flavor blend.
Apple: Sweet, fruity and mellow, this wood takes longer to permeate meat.
Cherry: Very fruity and mild, cherry combines well with other woods, like hickory, oak or pecan. It lends a vibrant mahogany color to meats.
Hickory: The most well known, popular and versatile wood, hickory burns slow. A sweet, savory, hearty flavor with a hint of bacon comes from getting it right — too much smoke makes the meat bitter.
Maple: Light and sweet with a mild smokiness, maple offers the most subtle flavor.
Mesquite: This intense, unique flavor may become overpowering for large cuts requiring longer smoking times. And, its oily nature makes it easier to burn.
Oak: Great for the newbie, this go-to wood produces a medium to strong flavor without the risk of overpowering the natural flavor of the meat. It works great for longer smoking times.
Pecan: Mildly fruity and nutty, pecan wood burns cooler and works well for bigger cuts of meat.
You may also want to try ash, alder, pear and plum. But avoid elm, cedar, cypress, pine and sycamore. Their strength destroys the flavor of the meat. Finally, you may choose to use wood chips rather than chunks of wood.
Putting Out the Fire: Your Top Rib Smoking Questions Answered
Before we wrap up this discussion on how to smoke ribs like a grill master, let us answer a few of your top questions.
How Long Does it Take to Smoke Ribs?
Smoking ribs takes four to six hours depending on the thickness of the meat. This slow, low cooking method allows the flavors of the wood, rub and mop sauce to permeate the meat.
What is the Best Temperature to Smoke Ribs?
The common answer as to the best temperature to smoke ribs is between 200 and 250 degrees Fahrenheit. However, some experts suggest a slower cook at 160 to 170 degrees Fahrenheit. Either way, make sure you apply your mop sauce every 45 to 60 minutes.
Which Side of the Ribs Goes Up When Smoking?
Putting the meat side up during smoking allows the fats to baste the ribs as the meat cooks. If you wrap your ribs during the smoking process, the meat side goes down while wrapped to steam and tenderize the meat in the juices. After you glaze, return the ribs to meat side up.
What are the Best Ribs for Smoking?
Leaner ribs (like baby backs) work best for fast cooking methods, like straight grilling. Smoking may cook up a tough, dry dinner on leaner cuts. The high fat content of spare ribs makes them ideal for smoking. However, you are free to experiment.
How Do I Choose the Best Ribs?
Fresh, not frozen, pink-in-color ribs promise better results. Also, look for uniform size and fattiness in ribs for even cooking. Meat with fatty marbling remains moist and flavorful during long cooking hours. And, the fat melts away after hours in the smoker.
Getting the Party Started
Ready to play with fire, create some smoke and turn up the summer heat in your backyard? We hope these tips inspire you to step behind the grill and take charge. Armed with information and resources you are sure to be ready.
For more incentive, sign up for our monthly Grill Masters Club. Additional tips await you on how to smoke ribs, grill and more.