Smoked pork ribs are the pinnacle of great barbecue. The best barbecue ribs are tender and juicy with a deep smoky flavor on the inside and a nice crisp bark on the outside, finished with a touch of barbecue sauce that highlights 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 pork 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.
This versatile smoked ribs recipe works for both baby back ribs and spare ribs, whether they’re being smoked on a charcoal grill, electric smoker, pellet grill, or regular old smoker.
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 a longer cook time to achieve the same level of tenderness.
When choosing pork ribs, look for ones that are well-marbled with meat that has a dark reddish hue or an almost bright pink color. They should also be as fresh as possible and have an almost sweet smell.
One of the most economical ways to buy ribs is when they are on sale and then freeze them. Ribs that have been frozen work as well as fresh ribs. Frozen racks should be completely defrosted before smoking.
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 between the bones and come from the back of mature pigs. They’re referred to as “baby back” 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 ribs 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 takes longer to cook than a rack of baby back. When using this recipe, we recommend using a smoking time of 6 hours for baby back ribs and 8 hours for spare ribs as a general guideline.
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 rectangle shape. The uniform shape makes them easy to cook the same way each time they’re made.
A good rule of thumb when deciding which ribs to serve is that baby back works much better as finger food, making them ideal for parties or picnics where guests will be moving around and eating with their hands. Spare ribs are a better 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 getting a rack of 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. Some people consider this an optional step and 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. A trick is to use a paper towel to grab hold of the very slippery silver skin while pulling on the corner.
Best Pork Rub for Ribs
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. Our All-Star Pork Rub has deep barbecue flavors and can be added a day or two to the ribs before smoking.
The rub was specifically designed for pork ribs and pulled pork, using 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.
What makes this dry rub for ribs so delicious is how the combination of spices enhances the pork’s flavor while complementing the rich barbecue flavors in our preferred sauces. This barbecue rub is also delicious with pulled pork, smoked pork shoulders, and grilled pork chops.
The time and temperature we recommend for smoking pork ribs are 225℉ (107℃) for 6 to 8 hours before finishing them on a hot grill using the flip, fire, and paint method.
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 delicious meat pulls away from the bone with each bite.
The term “fall-off-the-bone ribs” is often used to describe well-cooked ribs. It can also be an example of too much of a good thing and is one of the reasons we do not recommend using the 3-2-1 smoked ribs method.
The meat on perfectly smoked pork ribs should easily pull away from the bone – whether you’re using your teeth, fingers, or, theoretically, a fork. It should also still be juicy and have a succulent texture and flavor.
Often, ribs that have been overcooked or braised in aluminum foil will have had all of the fat cooked out of them, resulting in tender meat that falls off the bone while tasting slightly dry with a stringy texture.
According to BBQ Beat, when it comes to competition ribs, “A properly cooked BBQ Rib should be moist and tender yet yield just enough so that when you bite into it you see a rounded bite mark with the bone turning white almost immediately. There should be no sooty, charred, or creosote flavor.”
Prepping the Smoker
The first thing to do when smoking ribs is to choose the type of wood used for smoking. For pork ribs, the best types of smoking wood are mesquite and hickory, which give the final dish a clean, rustic smokey flavor without overpowering it.
If mesquite or hickory isn’t available, try using lighter wood like pecan or fruit woods like apple or cherry. Avoid heavier woods such as oak, which are better for smoking beef.
When using a charcoal grill to smoke, always use lump wood charcoal and wood chips that have been soaked in water before being added to the coals. This produces more smoke for a longer period of time.
A number of manufacturers have made metal rib racks that are essentially roasting racks that have been inverted to allow for lots of ribs to be smoked vertically as if they are standing at attention. Rib racks are helpful when there isn’t enough room for the ribs to lay flat on a grill grate.
They are particularly helpful in charcoal smokers when the offset method is used to heat the grill. We don’t recommend using them when there’s enough room in the smoker for the racks of ribs to lay flat without touching each other.
We recommend using 6 to 8 hours of smoking with a cooking temperature of 225℉ (107℃) as a guide. There is always some variation when cooking with fire that comes from different types of smokers and weather conditions; other variables include the quantity and type of food being smoked.
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℉ (107℃) and the ribs will easily be fully cooked.
Using a smoking temperature of 225℉ (107℃) allows for the flavor from the smoke to penetrate the ribs and for the connective tissue to break down without overcooking them.
The long cooking time is about developing amazing flavor and tenderness in the ribs, not about bringing them to a specific temperature.
If the ribs are being cooked for less time or using a different method, the minimum internal temperature for the ribs to be considered safe to eat is 165℉ (74℃). To unlock the tenderness in the meat and break down the connective tissue, the final internal temperature should be around 200℉ (93℃).
An easy way to tell the ribs are ready is using a pair of tongs, grabbing one end of a rack, and bending 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 smoking the ribs to perfection instead of using the overrated 3-2-1 method. This is where the ribs are cooked in a smoker for 3 hours, wrapped up tight in sheets of heavy-duty aluminum foil, and braised for 2 hours with enough butter, sugar, and sweets that you might as well be making a candy bar before they are slathered with sauce and cooked for another hour.
There’s nothing wrong with this technique; we just prefer to focus on serving amazing ribs that have been smoked for a long-time and find cooking ribs for too long with sauce on them hides their natural flavors, giving them a mushy texture and mealy flavor.
If you want to learn more about how to smoke ribs, roasts, and more, read The Best Meats to Smoke & How to Make them Taste Delicious.
Tips for Smoking Baby Back & Spare Ribs
The best way to get the deep smoky flavor that is the hallmark of great barbecue when smoking ribs is to smoke them the whole time they’re cooking. It’s a lot simpler than wrapping the ribs in foil or trying to use the oven to steam them for a couple of hours which will never produce amazing barbecued ribs.
There are several ways to help keep the ribs from drying out while they smoke. The first option is to use a smoker with a built-in water pan or to place an aluminum foil pan in the smoker filled with water.
The ideal place for the pan is between the heat source and the ribs. As the water evaporates, the moisture helps regulate the smoker’s temperature and keeps the food being smoked nice and juicy. For more information on how to smoke pork, read A Complete Guide to Smoking Food.
A second option is to use a spray bottle filled with equal amounts of water and apple cider vinegar that can be used to spritz the ribs every few hours.
Here are a few tips for delicious pork ribs with a deep smoky flavor.
- Using brown sugar in the pork rub helps the outside caramelize on the grill.
- The ribs should be smoked meat side up and 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 mealy texture.
- 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 and are done at the same time.
- Finishing the ribs on the grill is the best way to crisp them up on the outside without drying them out.
- Use a silicone basting brush to paint the ribs with sauce in thin layers.
- Do not over-sauce the ribs while they are cooking. Over-saucing is the leading cause of gummy tasting ribs.
- An easy way to reheat leftover ribs is in a covered baking dish placed in a 300℉ (149℃) oven for 25 to 35 minutes. They can also be reheated on a medium-high grill.
A few of our favorite rib recipes include Korean BBQ Short Ribs, which can be done quickly on a hot grill, and Bacon Infused Pork Ribs, which are a bacon lover’s dream.
Finishing Pork Ribs with the Flip, Fire, and Paint Method
The best way to finish smoked or grilled pork ribs is to use the Flip, Fire, and Paint method. This technique lets you apply thin layers of sauce using the heat from the grill to quickly sear the barbecue sauce, crisping up the outside while sealing the juices inside.
Applying the sauce in thin layers allows it to caramelize, adding flavor and texture without allowing it to chunk up or turn gummy.
The reason this method works so well for ribs cooked in a smoker is it uses the intense heat from the grill to create an incredible crunchy bark on the outside while not applying so much heat that the ribs dry out. None of which can 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 BBQ chicken to another dimension.
Start by placing the ribs on a medium-high gas grill, using a grill brush to lightly paint a thin layer of 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 Smoked Pork Ribs.
Cooking ribs in a smoker is an easy way to feed lots of people. This is an easy recipe to double or triple when making ribs for a large party or backyard barbecue.
To make your ribs truly stand out, serve them with a homemade barbecue sauce like our Old No. 44 BBQ Sauce 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 ribs are Smokehouse Potato Salad, Quick Pickled Carrots, and Taco Salad.
If you’re mixing cocktails, try making Mezcal Margaritas or Classic Old Fashioneds. It also never hurts to have a couple of pitchers of Homemade Lemonade on hand.
A great way to cut through the heaviness of barbecue when it comes to desserts is to make ones that feature fruit, such as Homemade Blueberry Pie or Rhubarb Shortbread Bars.
- 2 racks of pork ribs, baby back or spare ribs
- 1 to 2 cups BBQ Sauce
- 2 tbsp brown sugar
- 1 tbsp Kosher salt
- 1 tsp smoked paprika
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- 1 tsp onion powder
- 1 tsp black 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.2 racks of pork ribs
- Mix the spices and generously coat the ribs on both sides, rubbing the spice mixture into the pork like you mean it.2 tbsp brown sugar, 1 tbsp Kosher salt, 1 tsp smoked paprika, 1 tsp garlic powder, 1 tsp onion powder, 1 tsp black pepper, 1 tsp Ancho chili powder, 1 tsp cumin, 1/2 tsp mustard powder
- Smoke the ribs at 225℉ (107℃) for 6 to 8 hours. The lower and slower you go, the better the ribs will be.
- The ribs are done when the meat starts to easily pull 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 them 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 per side before flipping them over and repeating the process three times for each side.1 to 2 cups BBQ Sauce
- Take the ribs off the grill and let them rest for 5 to 10 minutes before slicing.
- To serve the ribs, slice them in ones or twos with a sharp knife along the bone, and serve with a good barbecue sauce for additional dipping.
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