Smoked pork ribs are the pinnacle of great barbecue. The best BBQ ribs are tender and juicy with a nice crisp bark on the outside, have a deep smoke flavor that compliments a flavorful dry rub and uses a little barbecue sauce to highlight the pork’s natural flavors.
In this piece, we cover what to look for when you’re picking out ribs, how to prepare them, the best way to smoke the ribs, and how to finish them with our very own flip, fire, and paint technique that is the best way we’ve found to crisp up and carmelize the outside of the ribs without drying them out.
In this piece
Types of Pork Ribs
The two main types of pork ribs are baby back and spare ribs. The different cuts are generally interchangeable with the more robust spare ribs needing to cook longer.
When choosing ribs look for ones that are well-marbled with meat that has an almost bright pink color. They should also be as fresh as possible and have an almost sweet smell to them.
Baby Back Ribs
Baby back ribs come from the area around the loin, which is the muscle that runs along the pig’s back on either side of the spine. They are also called loin back ribs and are known for having lots of lean meat on top and in between the bones and come from the back of mature pigs. The reason they’re referred to as “baby back” is because they are smaller and shorter than spareribs.
A rack normally includes 10 to 13 ribs that are 3 to 6 inches long, weigh between 1-½ and 2 lbs, and generally feed two people. Here in the midwest you sometimes find country-style ribs which are baby back ribs with a part of the loin still attached. This style of rib is more like a chop with a larger piece of meat attached to a smaller piece of bone that needs to be cooked a bit longer.
Spare ribs come from the area around the pig’s belly after the belly has been removed to make delicious things like bacon and pancetta. Spare ribs are generally larger and meatier than baby back ribs.
A rack of spare ribs can usually feed three to four people and take longer to cook than baby back. With this recipe, we recommend cooking spare ribs closer to 8 hours, rather than the 6 hours that we recommend for baby back ribs.
The most common variation of spare ribs is Saint Louis style, which are spare ribs that have been cleaned up and cut into a uniform rectanglor shape. The uniform shape makes them easy to cook the same way each time they’re being made.
A good rule of thumb when you’re deciding which ribs to serve is baby back works much better as finger food, making them ideal for parties or picnics where guests are going to be moving around and eating with their hands. Spare ribs are a good choice when people are going to be sitting down and have the option of using utensils.
How to Smoke Ribs
The first thing to do when you’re getting the ribs ready for the smoker is to remove the silver skin on the back. The silver skin is a thin membrane on the backside of the ribs that can become chewy and give the ribs a grainy taste when cooked. Removing it is optional and some people leave it on because it helps hold the rack of ribs together while they are cooking.
To remove the silver skin, slide the tip of a sharp knife underneath the membrane alongside one of the bones on one end of the rack and lift up with the knife until you can grab hold of it and slowly pull it until it comes off. Sometimes it will come off all at once; most of the time this process has to be repeated several times for each rack.
Use a Flavor Packed Dry Rub
As delicious as pork ribs are by themselves, the best way to smoke unforgettable ribs is to use a dry rub packed with delicious flavors. The rub can be added to the ribs up to a day or two before they’re cooked.
Our rub uses brown sugar to add a touch of sweetness and to help the ribs caramelize at the end. The smoked paprika and ancho chili powders give the ribs a more complex smokiness while adding a little bite. The garlic and mustard powder infuses the meat with their flavors making each bite as delicious as the next.
The time and temp we recommend for smoking pork ribs are 225℉ for 6 to 8 hours before finishing them on the grill.
Ribs made this way have enough time to develop a beautiful smoke ring, are still tender and juicy on the inside, and are so succulent that the meat pulls away from the bone with each bite.
The best types of wood for smoking pork are mesquite and hickory, which give the final dish a clean smokey flavor without overpowering it. If mesquite or hickory aren’t available try using apple or other fruitwood.
If you’re using this smoked ribs recipe the ribs do not need to be cooked to a specific temperature. Cooking them in a smoker for six hours at 225℉ and the ribs will easily be fully cooked. If you’re cooking them for less time or using a different method the ribs should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165℉. The long cooking time is about developing flavor and tenderness in the ribs, not about bringing them to a specific temperature.
An easy way to tell the ribs are ready is using a pair of tongs, grab one end of a rack and bend it upward so the rack starts to flex. The ribs are done when the meat starts to pull away from the bone. The ribs have cooked too long, but should still be delicious when you do this and the rack just breaks in two.
Using higher temperatures or cooking them for too long can dry the ribs out giving them a stringy texture – which is incredibly disappointing when you’ve spent the whole day waiting to eat them.
We’ve intentionally chosen to develop a recipe focused on cooking the ribs to perfection instead of using the over-popular 3 – 2 – 1 method where the ribs are cooked in a smoker for 3 hours, braised for 2 hours, and then cooked in sauce for another hour. There’s nothing wrong with this technique, we just prefer to focus on what the smoker can do and find cooking the ribs with sauce for too long can hide the ribs’ natural flavor and give them a mealy texture and gummy flavor.
If you want to learn more about how to smoke ribs, roasts, and more read Smoking Food as a Cooking Technique.
Tips for Smoking Baby Back & Spare Ribs
A few tips for delicious pork ribs straight from the smoker.
- Cook the ribs meat side up.
- The ribs do not need to be flipped.
- The ribs should be cooked dry with any sauce being added at the very end. Adding sauce too early can result in the ribs having a gummy texture.
- Using brown sugar in the rub helps the ribs caramelize on the grill.
- If you’re making a lot of racks at one time, it can be helpful to move them within the smoker from hotter to cooler areas every few hours so the racks cook evenly are done at the same time.
- Finishing the ribs on the grill is the best way to crisp the ribs up on the outside without drying them out.
- An easy way to reheat leftover ribs is in a covered baking dish placed in a 300℉ oven for 25 to 35 minutes.
Finishing with the Flip, Fire, and Paint Method
The best way we’ve found to finish smoked or grilled pork ribs is to use the Flip, Fire, and Paint method. This technique lets you apply BBQ sauce in thin layers using the heat from the grill to sear the BBQ sauce on, crisping up the outside while sealing the juices inside. Applying the sauce in thin layers gives it a chance to caramelize adding flavor and texture.
The reason it works so well for ribs cooked in a smoker is it provides a way to carmelize the sauce at the end of the cooking process creating an incredible bark on the outside while sealing the juices in. Something that can’t be done using the low heat of the smoker.
It’s a simple technique for finishing anything that has been slow-cooked in a smoker or on the grill. One that completely elevates chicken to another level.
Start by placing the ribs on a medium-high grill, using a grill brush to lightly paint the BBQ sauce across the ribs. Once the sauce is on, flip the ribs over and paint the other side, cooking them for 2 to 3 minutes a side before flipping them over and repeating the process three times for each side.
Make it a Party – What to Serve With Delicious Ribs
Cooking ribs in a smoker is an easy way to feed lots of people. This is an easy recipe to double or triple whenever you’re making ribs for a large party or backyard barbecue.
To make your ribs truly stand out serve them with a homemade BBQ sauce like our Old No. 44 or Ancho Chili and Honey BBQ Sauce, they are surprisingly easy to make and much tastier than store bought sauces.
A few of our favorite side dishes to serve with these ribs are Smokehouse Potato Salad, Quick Pickled Carrots, and Taco Salad. If you’re mixing up cocktails try making some Mezcal Margaritas or Classic Old Fashioneds. It also never hurts to have a couple of pitchers of Homemade Lemonade on hand.
- 2 racks of pork ribs, baby back or spare ribs
- 1 to 2 cups BBQ Sauce
- 2 tbsp brown sugar
- 1 tbsp salt
- 1 tsp smoked paprika
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- 1 tsp onion powder
- 1 tsp pepper
- 1 tsp Ancho chili powder
- 1 tsp cumin, ground
- 1/2 tsp mustard powder
- Start by removing the silver skin from the back of the ribs by sliding your fingers or a sharp knife underneath it to get a hold of an edge and pull it off.
- Mix the spices together and generously coat the ribs on both sides, rubbing the spice mixture into the pork like you mean it.
- Smoke the ribs at 225℉ for 6 to 8 hours. The lower and slower you go the better the ribs will be.
- The ribs are done when the meat easily pulls away from the bone.
- To finish the ribs use the flip, fire, and paint method to sear the sauce onto the outside of the ribs without burning it or drying them out.
- Place the ribs on a medium-high grill, using a grill brush lightly paint the BBQ sauce across the ribs. Once the sauce is on, flip the ribs over and paint the other side, cooking them for 2 to 3 minutes a side before flipping them over and repeating the process three times for each side.
- Take the ribs off the grill and let them rest for a few minutes before slicing.
- To serve the ribs, slice them in ones or twos along the bone, and serve with a good barbecue sauce.