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How to Smoke Perfect Pork Ribs for Beginners

July 2, 2020
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Smoking the perfect rack of ribs is a right of passage for anyone looking to master the art of good barbecue. It takes practice, attention to detail and the right equipment. This guide will give you all the knowledge you need to confidently smoke ribs that will be the talk of the neighborhood. We will discuss how to season the ribs. How long to smoke the ribs and what temperature to smoke ribs along with lots of details to up your barbecue game.

1. Remove the Membrane

To some this may seem obvious but I wanted to talk about taking the membrane off the back of the ribs. There is a thin membrane on the back side of the ribs that won’t break down when you cook the ribs and can be chewy. You can remove it by using a paper towel to pinch a corner of the membrane. It may take a little practice but you’ll get better at it in no time. Once you have separated enough of the membrane to get a grip gently pull until the membrane is fully removed hopefully in one piece. If it tears simply pinch at it again and remove any small pieces left behind.

2. Season the bone side first then the meat side

Once the membrane is removed it’s time to season the ribs. I like to put a very light coating of oil or mustard on both sides of the ribs to help the seasoning stick. Always season the back side of the ribs first. I like to go just a bit lighter on this side and I let the seasoning sit for about 5 minutes before I flip the rack over to the presentation side. This allows the seasoning to fully absorb and not fall off when you turn the ribs over.

After flipping the ribs to the presentation side you can season a little more aggressively. Hold the seasoning from a higher point so you get even distribution across the entire rack of ribs. If you miss any spots you can go back and season those areas. Don’t stack racks of ribs on top of each other because the rub will wipe off or stick to the other racks and clump up.

3. Put ribs in the fridge for 30 minutes before smoking.

Because ribs are much thinner than a brisket or a roast I like to start my rack of ribs as cold as possible so they have plenty of time to absorb smoke and develop a nice bark. After seasoning I put the ribs in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes or even in the freezer for 10 minutes.

4. Don’t mop too soon

There is a balance between keeping the meat moist and developing a nice bark or crust on the ribs. After the ribs have smoked for a few hours the rub will begin to dry out and a crust will develop. Lightly drag your finger over the ribs and see if the rub sticks or comes off on your finger. That will tell you whether it’s time to mop or not. If the rub comes off simply continue smoking until it racks up and adheres to the meat completely. If the bark has developed then is time to mop or spray. I use a simple mixture of water, bbq sauce and apple cider vinegar. If you have a spray bottle don’t use the sauce unless you strain it or you’ll clog the sprayer. I simply dab the ribs gently with a mop brush making sure to just lightly moisten the ribs.

Mop Mixture

  • 2 cups water
  • ¼ cup apple cider vinegar
  • ¼ cup bbq sauce
  • 1 tbsp dry rub

5. When to Wrap

I make the decision when to wrap my ribs based on two factors, color and temperature. If I’m happy with the color of the ribs and how the bark looks then I may decide it’s time to wrap to maintain that color and not darken the meat any further. The second factor is the temperature because around 160-170 degrees F the ribs have taken on all the smoke they can and it’s time to wrap so that the meat can choke up on the bone and become more tender.

6. Foil or Butcher Paper??

I will use both depending on what kind of ribs I’m smoking. Foil is better for ribs that I intend to sauce later and want the bones to choke up. If I’m cooking beef ribs or pork ribs that I’m going to leave dry I prefer butcher paper because it lets the meat breathe and doesn’t steam the meat near as much. Both methods work and have advantages and disadvantages. Your third opinion is not to wrap at all. This will give you the best bark by far but will probably have a much darker color and the most intense smoke flavor. 

When I do choose to wrap my goal is to only wrap the meat long enough to push the tenderness to my desired point then unwrap to preserve as much of the bark as possible. When wrapping ribs wrap then meat side up so they don’t sit in the juices and wash off the rub. I always double wrap using foil or butcher paper and wrap so that I can open them up easily to check the meat.

7. Everything you need for preparing the best ribs

  • Ribs...duh
  • Smoker or Grill...Oven if you must but I hope you’re saving up for a smoker!!!
  • Mop Brush
  • Basting Brush
  • Aluminum Foil
  • Butcher Paper
  • Probe Thermometer
  • Barbecue Sauce
  • Dry Rub
  • Mustard or oil
  • Honey
  • Butter
Smoked spare ribs with Utz works honey q bbq sauce

8. Temperature and times to look for.

I'm sure you have seen the 3-2-1 rib cooking method which is a fine method especially for beginners but don’t think of this as a hard number that you have to stick to. The size, thickness and type of ribs will affect your cook time greatly. Always cook by look and feel over time and temperature. Use times and temps as markers to check your meat and loose guidelines. The tenderness of your meat will never lead you astray and the look of the ribs will tell you more than any temperature reading. Master these skills and you will have a much better understanding of how ribs cook and what you prefer in a perfect rack of ribs.

9. Smoked Rib Timeline

  • Preheat your smoker to 200 degrees F.
  • Trim and season ribs then refrigerate for 30 minutes
  • Place ribs on the smoker and don’t open the door for two hours.This is the time when the ribs will absorb the most smoke
  •  Check the ribs to see if a bark has developed. If your rub has adhered to the meat gently mop or spray your ribs for the first time. Cook for another hour.
  •  Mop ribs for a second time and check temperature. If you’re happy with the color and the meat has an internal temperature of 160-170 degrees F. Then you can wrap in foil or butcher paper.
  • Continue smoking for another hour. If you would like you can raise the temperature as high as 275 degrees F. To speed up the cooking process because the meat is protected by the foil or butcher paper.
  •  Gently unwrap and probe the meat. Generally ribs are ready to eat at an internal temperature of 200-210 degrees F depending on personal preference. More important than the temperature, use the probe thermometer to test for tenderness. Poke the meat in between the bones to see if the ribs are tender. The probe should go into the meat with very little tension. If the meat still seems tough wrap the ribs back up and continue cooking for another 30-60 minutes and check again.
  • Once the ribs are tender you may serve them dry or sauce them. If saucing unwrap the foil and fold over to create a tray to hold the juices so you can sauce the top.  Brush on a thin layer of sauce and smoke for another 30 minutes. You can sauce a few times depending on how saucy you like your ribs. Allow time for the sauce to adhere to the meat before slicing the ribs
  • When cutting the ribs it’s easier to turn the rack upside down so you can see the bones better and make clean cuts. You may lose a little sauce but you can always baste a little extra on top when you turn them over.
  • A perfect bite of ribs should be taken right in the center of the rib holding it like you would an ear of corn. The bite should leave a half moon bite mark and expose clean meat off the bone. If the whole rib falls off or doesn’t leave a clean bite it’s likely over cooked. It may have been wrapped too long. Still tasty and delicious but you may want to reduce your wrap time in the future. If the bite seems tough or the meat doesn’t come off the bone clean you probably didn’t cook the meat long enough. In the future adjust the time accordingly

10. Perfection Takes Practice.

If you end up with perfect ribs the first time than bravo to you my friend. If you don’t, please don’t be discouraged. Most every pitmaster or backyard bbqer I know has messed up just as many ribs as they have perfected. Over time you will learn each smoker cooks just a little different.

Whether you're using an offset stick burner, a ceramic smoker or a pellet grill each one has a distinctive personality, with hot spots and erratic tendencies. Take the time to learn your smoker. Make mental notes, hell I know plenty of people who actually journal. Each cook and take notes on the weather conditions. Times, temperature and ingredients used for each cook. Look at each rack of ribs before cooking. Are they meaty and thick or seem thin and smaller than normal. Analysis of the ribs before cooking will help you make the necessary adjustments as you cook.


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