How To Smoke Ribs (from Beginner to Expert) – The Ultimate Guide
Last Updated: February 28, 2022
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Achieving that great taste of summer at your backyard barbecue with perfectly smoked ribs may not come easy to you. That’s OK, because smoking ribs wasn’t meant to be easy — if it were, everyone would be doing it, right?
Don’t despair: With a bit of knowledge and a few tips on how to smoke ribs, you can rule the neighborhood’s backyard BBQ scene.
Keep reading to boost your Grill Master skills, regardless of your current level of expertise! These tips on smoking ribs are useful to everyone from first-time rib smokers to those who have been doing it for years.
We’ll discuss the differences between beef and pork ribs, the different cuts of ribs, the various styles, the different techniques for smoking ribs, the best woods to use when smoking ribs, and even answer some common questions that most people have when it comes to smoking your beef or pork ribs.
Knowing Your Meat: A Primer on the Types of Ribs
Differences in beef and pork ribs turn out to mainly be a matter of preference.
However, some styles of ribs are better suited for the novice griller, while others are guaranteed to put your smoking technique and skills to the test.
After we explore the nuances below, you’ll be in a much better position to choose the ribs that are best suited to you based on skill level, taste preferences, budget, and cooking equipment.
Beef Ribs vs. Pork Ribs
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.
It’s also important to note that in general, beef ribs often prove to be less forgiving than pork versions — they challenge even the top pitmasters.
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, greater marbling than beef ribs leads to a moist, meaty rib.
In many parts of the South, pork and barbecue mean the same thing — because in the South, 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 beef/cattle, others only from pigs. Some prove to be lean and others more fatty.
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’re less fatty, more tender and more expensive than other cuts.
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’re larger and fattier than 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.
Racks of spare ribs typically contain 11 to 13 bones and are the most inexpensive cut.
St. Louis Style Spare Ribs
For spare ribs to earn the designation of “St. Louis style,” it’s all about the preparation: The sternum bone, cartilage and rib tips are removed, which results in a more uniform rack that’s rectangular in shape.
Kansas City Style Spare Ribs
Kansas City style spare ribs are very similar to the aforementioned St. Louis style, but with one minor difference: the cartilage is left on the rack.
Country Style Ribs
While their name seems to imply otherwise, these “ribs” are actually just a pork loin sliced into strips.
Taken from the blade end of the pork loin (behind the upper shoulder butt), country style ribs are like a fatty pork chop. You’ll find that the 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, usually with minimal investment. Below is a quick list of links to tips for using these methods.
- Traditional Smoker: The Smoker King tells you how in this article.
- Smoked Ribs on a Charcoal Grill: Visit our Ultimate Guide to Smoking Meat at Home to learn about smoking with your existing charcoal grill, or check out this article from Kingsford.
- Smoked Ribs in an Electric Smoker: Char-Broil explains two methods for fall-off-the-bone ribs.
- Oven-smoked Ribs: This article from AmazingRibs.com has tips on oven-smoking your ribs.
- Campfire-smoked Ribs: For the ultimate outdoor experience, cook your ribs over the open fire! The KOA shares a recipe for your next camping adventure.
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:
Preparing Ribs for Smoking
- Choose a good cut of meat — one right for smoking.
- Trim the brisket bone (on spare ribs) and any side bones.
Not sure what to trim? Ribs are bones, and will not flex when you try. If the bottom portion flexes, you’re dealing with a rib tip, and can trim it off if you’d like (it’s all about preference).
- Remove the fatty membrane (aka silverskin).
If you don’t remove this, your ribs will be tough and chewy. Plus, removing the silverskin allows your dry rub and seasonings to penetrate the meat more fully, creating more complex and deep flavor profiles.
- Cut away extra hunks of fat outside the bones.
Leave the fat between the bones. Again, trim to your preference! If you enjoy a fattier rib, trim conservatively. If you don’t want any fat, trim liberally.
- Apply multiple layers of flavor.
First, use a dry rub or marinade and apply it 12-24 hours before you want to start smoking the ribs.
Second, choose a type of wood which adds to the flavor profile you’re trying to achieve.
Third, use a spritz of 50/50 apple cider vinegar and water, or a dedicated mop sauce, throughout the smoke cycle for added flavor and to retain moisture.
Finally, apply barbecue sauce as a glaze in the final 15-30 minutes of cooking.
Tips for Smoking Ribs
- “Low ‘N Slow.” Smoke for 4 to 6 hours at low temperatures, and shoot for 200 – 250 degrees (more on this below).
- A gentle stream of clear or white smoke, not billowing white 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 that clear or faint white smoke that tells you everything is on point.
- 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 (if you’re lookin’, you ain’t cookin’!).
- A good rule of thumb is that your ribs are done when the 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: What’s 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.
Sweet, fruity and mellow, applewood takes longer to permeate meat than most…but it’s always worth the wait.
Very fruity and mild, cherry wood combines well with other woods like hickory, oak or pecan. It imparts a vibrant mahogany color to meats.
The most well known, popular and versatile wood, hickory burns slow. It’s a sweet, savory and hearty flavor that imparts a hint of bacon when you’ve smoked it right — but beware, as too much smoke tends to make the meat bitter.
Light and sweet with a mild smokiness, maple offers one of the most subtle flavor profiles when used to smoke ribs.
This intense, unique flavor may become overpowering for large cuts requiring longer smoking times. And, its oily nature makes it easier to burn.
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.
Mildly fruity and nutty, pecan wood burns cooler and works well when smoking larger cuts of meat.
Honorable Mentions: Other Woods for Smoking Ribs
You may also want to try ash, alder, pear and plum the next time you smoke ribs. Again, it’s all about experimentation and achieving the flavors that YOU enjoy the most.
Important: Woods to Avoid
When smoking ribs, we suggest you avoid using elm, cedar, cypress, pine and sycamore.
Why? These woods have overpowering flavor profiles when used to smoke meat. The strength of these woods will essentially destroy the flavor of the meat on your ribs, a big no-no.
Finally, you may want to consider using 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 true Grill Master, let’s answer a few of your top questions — that is, some of the more frequently asked questions by folks are planning to smoke ribs.
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 (some folks suggest adding a few knobs of butter on top, along with a flavor enhancer like honey, then wrapping the ribs tightly and placing back on the grill, meat side down to let the butter and honey work its magic).
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 always free to experiment…and should.
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. Plus, the fat will render and melt 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.
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