How to Smoke Ribs for the First Time
Let me be clear about something right up front. I am not here to tell you the “right” way to smoke ribs. Nor is this the “best” way to smoke ribs. This is not a recipe for competition ribs. If you make ribs with this recipe you will not be invited to Memphis in May. This is for someone who has just purchased a smoker and wants to make ribs that will empower them to go forward and start to develop their own preferred style of ribs.
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These are basic, fundamental ribs the way we make them at our house. Every step of the way you should consider this a flexible and adaptable advice and not a set of commandments.
Ribs are personal, people, and I try not to hate on someone’s tastes. So, I will try wherever possible here to be sure and let you know where adjustments can and should be made to ensure that the ribs you end up with are ribs you like.
It’s OK if you are a novice at smoking ribs and have never really tried. Or if a previous attempt has gone awry, this method will put you back on your rib-smoking feet. Because here is the thing to know about smoking ribs: Ribs are delicious and this is not brain surgery.
If your rub isn’t a secret blend passed down from the generations, but is just a store-bought mix with someone else’s face on the package? That’s fine. Ribs are delicious and no one will die. If you make a personal sauce so good someone should bottle it, or you buy a bottle of pre-made sauce? Ribs are delicious and no one will die. If you use pellets instead of wood, heavy smoke or light, if they come out a bit chewy and toothsome or if they go too long and they fall of the bone? Ribs are delicious and no one will die.
Notice how I keep saying smoking. This is important. These are not grilled ribs. These ribs are not going to be (and I can feel my Kentucky-bred husband shuddering as I type this) parboiled and baked in an oven. These are not fast or last minute. And sauce is an optional condiment for after the ribs are cooked, but more on that later.
These ribs take three days total, and the cooking takes 6-8 hours of active time. They are also, and this is equally important, not difficult. I promise.
Time consuming is not the same as complicated, and at the base of things, smoking meat over low heat for a long time is both easy and forgiving. It also creates a lovely opportunity for conviviality and community, invite people to hang out and keep you company, fill a cooler with beers and water and put out some snacks and let everyone enjoy the building anticipation as the ribs cook.
This is a recipe to use with a smoker, or a grill that has a smoker attachment. If you don’t currently own a smoker, there are a ton on the market. The one we use at home is a Cuisinart 36” vertical smoker. This is a propane-fueled compact smoker that takes up very little room, and since we have a small back porch to cook on, it fits nicely next to our Weber grill but is also easy to move around. It's easy to store because of its size, and with the propane, very simple to use even for a beginner. The price seems to vary from place to place, but they are pretty much always under $200. If you have a barrel smoker or an egg, this technique will be the same.
So, here we go!
The gear you need
A smoker or a grill with a smoker attachment
A pan for the chips and water
Wood chips or chunks
A bucket of water
Grilling gloves or oven mitts
Instant read digital meat thermometer
Foil or butcher paper
Basting bucket and brush or spray bottle
Some notes on the gear
If your smoker came with a pan for chips and water, use it. If not, go disposable for easy cleanup. The chips and water are kept separate, and many smokers have one pan with compartments for both, or use two disposable pans.
The heat might be low for the meat, but it is hot for your hands, so be sure your gloves are good ones.
Long tongs are best, but not so long you cannot control them well since ribs are heavy and unwieldy. Anything over 14 inches is too long for good control.
Rib racks are a good and inexpensive investment if you love making ribs. Ribs will cook better and more evenly and will require less manipulation if you cook them vertically. If you don’t have rib racks, but do have a roasting rack, flip it over to see if you can fit ribs between the slots, a lot do double duty.
Basting bucket. The juice we make to mop our ribs (which is optional) had a tendency to stain plastic, so we keep a tub just for this use. Your personal mop might be less colorful. The key is that you want something sturdy that is taller than it is wide so that you get depth to dunk your brush in and not a shallow puddle.
Basting brush. We use a wide bristle natural wood handle paint brush from the hardware store, and we buy a new one every time because getting them truly clean is just more than we can handle while in a pork coma. They are about $3 at the hardware store.
Spray bottle. You can, if you strain it, put the basting liquid in a clean new spray bottle. It is faster than brushing, which helps keep the time the smoker is open to a minimum and makes the heat and smoke rebound time shorter. We do a combo of spray basting and brush basting, alternating between a good brushing and a quicker spray so that we aren’t losing the heat and smoke the same every time.
This recipe is for pork spareribs, although everything about it will work fine for beef ribs. The timing will take longer for beef, and the sweet spot for the temperature will be slightly higher.
I like a St. Louis cut of ribs, which includes the top part that when removed becomes rib tips, and the flap on the back. They are wider than baby back ribs, and a little messier to eat, but we love the extra meat and don’t mind working around the bits of cartilage, etc. But if you prefer the baby backs or cannot get St. Louis style, say it with me, the ribs will still be delicious, and no one will die.
Here is the key: you want to ask for “3 and under” ribs. This means the rack of ribs is 3 pounds or less. The reason is that these will be from a younger pig and with more tender ribs. Larger racks come from older animals and can be a bit chewier and will take longer to cook.
Ask your butcher to remove the membrane from the underside of the racks. This can be done at home but it's a pain, so don’t be shy about having them do it. If you leave the membrane on it can make the ribs curl during cooking and prevents the rub and seasoning and smoke from penetrating.
If you need to do it yourself, slide a thin flexible blade knife under the thin membrane that covers the bones on the underside of the ribs and pull up a small piece. Using a paper towel or clean tea towel, grab the piece and pull firmly and slowly, like peeling a stubborn sticker off of a recent purchase. You should be able to get it off in one piece. Or just cook them with the membrane on, since it will help keep them moist and you’ll get plenty of smoke and seasoning on the top.
While good quality meats often don’t need more than salt and pepper and smoke to make them delicious (Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue in Austin only uses this formula on his award-winning food), adding some extra oomph is nice. A dry rub is our preferred method, and our personal recipe is below, but feel free to use a store-bought rub that you like. Some of our favorite blends are: Milwaukee Ave. from The Spice House, Cowboy Rub from Spicewalla, and Carribean Rub from The Cocoa Exchange.
If you are blending your own rub, think about a balance of salt, sweet, heat, and acid. We use both salt and MSG in ours, sugar, some spices, and fresh lemon zest. Taste some on a fingertip to be sure you have the balance right. If you are using a store-bought rub, consider adding some fresh citrus zest; it makes a world of difference.
To baste or not to baste?
We baste over here, because we like the flavor it brings to the party and the way it helps keep the meat from drying out. But it is optional, because while it is delicious, it is time consuming. It also extends the cooking time, because when you open the smoker to baste, you let out all the heat and smoke. You can easily add one to two hours to your cooking time just by basting every 45 minutes to an hour, so plan ahead. If you are going to baste, think broth and not sauce. Our recipe is below, a combination of beef broth, low-sugar apple juice, and some seasonings. Again, use it as a guideline, or go your own way. It should taste good to you straight.
To prep your ribs
Mix your rub. Pat your ribs as dry as you can with paper towels. Coat each rack in about ¼ cup of rub, about 1/3 of this on the underside, and the rest on the flesh side. Massage it in well.
Wrap each rack in cling wrap, then stack them up like Pringles and wrap the whole stack in more cling wrap, getting it as tight as you can.
Put on a sheet pan or in a roasting pan, or in a garbage bag in case of leaking, and leave in the fridge for a minimum of 24 hours, but we do it two days before the cooking day. We rub on Thursday for a Saturday smoke. Here’s why: The salt and sugar in the rub pull the juices out of the meat, which mingle with the seasoning and get pulled back into the meat. Two days is ideal for a seasoned meat. Any longer and you risk going a little bit jerky-ish texture wise and losing some of the actual flavor of the meat itself. We like the balance we get with two days, experiment to find your own preference.
Prep your smoker according to the directions that came with it, or look them up online if you have lost your booklet.
What about the wood?
Use real wood (chips or chunks, not sawdust or pellets) if you can. You will get longer burn and smoke and a purer flavor.
Here are your wood options: hardwood like hickory or pecan, or fruitwood like apple or cherry. You can use one or a blend. Hardwoods bring a more resiny flavor to the smoke, and fruit woods are softer and sweeter. We use a blend of about ¼ hickory, and then an even mix of pecan wood and apple wood for the rest. But a hardwood and fruit combo is always good, and apple wood if you can get it is particularly excellent for pork in our opinion.
Woods are a good place to experiment as well. But if you can only get one, hickory would be a safe bet for a hardwood that won’t overpower the meat. Kingsford makes a bag of chips called Premium Blend Smoking Chips that is a combo of hickory, oak, and applewoods that we often use when we don’t want to bother mixing our own. (This is a very long way of saying that for our personal palate, Mesquite doesn’t make the cut for ribs. If you feel differently, add it into your mix.)
Notes on heat
Low and slow is the mantra you often hear, and the reason is that it is great for making tough cuts tender and fully rendering fat. Your ideal temp is between 225-250 F for the smoker. Lower than this will take forever to cook, higher will cook faster and give you less control over the tenderness. The good thing is that this low and slow method is very forgiving, so you don’t have to worry about burning, and you have a wider window of time for a great result.
Control your heat via the vents on your smoker. If temp starts getting low, open the top vent to pull in more air and build heat. If the temp gets high, shut all vents down until the temp drops. Without oxygen to feed it, the heat will subside. If you stop seeing smoke, add more chips. The gauge on the front or top of your smoker is NOT PRECISE. Assume a 25-degree difference on either side. This is why your target temp window is between 225-250 on that gauge. If your actual temp is 25 degrees higher or lower than this range you are still in a safe place, although shoot for the lower end if possible, and if you are hovering at 250, maybe try and lower your heat a bit.
If you think you want to get a bit serious about your smoking, either buy a temp gun to temp the inside of the smoker for more precision or drill a small hole in the top of your smoker and drop in a probe. But again, don’t sweat it, keep your heat in the safe range on the gauge that came with the unit and have another beer or bottle of fizzy water and relax.
THE RIBS WILL BE DELICIOUS AND NO ONE WILL DIE.
Smokers either have a water pan and a chip pan, or a combo pan for water and chips. The water helps keep the environment humid so that your meats don’t dry out and get leathery. Keep your water pan monitored. Ours needs refilling about every hour or so; some will need it less often.
If you have a combo pan, the smaller compartment is for the chips, the larger for water. Because water will evaporate faster than chips will burn down. If you reverse this believing you’ll get more smoke flavor, you’ll have to refill your water every fifteen minutes and your heat won’t stay constant.
You can use plain water, but we use a 50/50 combo of water and low-sugar apple juice just for a bit more oomph. And since water evaporates quickly, we often add a second pan of water on the lowest rack of the smoker if we don’t need it for meat. This means we have to refill less often. Check your water level after the first 45 minutes to see how you are doing on evaporation to give you a sense of how often you will need to refill it. Keep your water in a pitcher at room temp so that it isn’t cold going into the smoker. If you go to check and find that your water has completely evaporated, don’t worry, just refill and check a bit sooner next time.
How long will it take?
Five hours minimum is a pretty good bet, but plan on up to 7 or 8 depending on how many racks you are doing, your heat level, and if you baste and open the door.
Ribs are done when the ribs say they are done, not when you say so, so this is not a dish to plan for a specific dining time. Err on the side of starting earlier than you think you need to; it is better to finish early and hold cooked ribs in a low oven to wait for guests than to serve dinner at midnight to drunk people. Start taking the temp of your ribs about 4 hours in, and then every hour until you are within 20 degrees of your desired temp, and then every 20 minutes.
In terms of rib temperature alone, 145 is safe but sort of chewy, 200 is a little too far, your sweet spot target is between 175-190. Temp at at least two to three different places on a rack and be sure that your thermometer is only in the meat and not touching a bone. They should look like mahogany, but not leathery or jerkyish.
When they hit 160, check twice over a 20-minute period to see if they are holding temp or rising. Sometimes ribs just plateau and hang out there for a while. If they are holding, wrap in butcher paper (if not near a flame) or foil (if too close to a flame), and put them back until they hit the proper temp. If they are still rising, you don’t need to wrap them at all, just leave them be.
If you don’t have a rib rack and need to cook them flat, flip every 30-45 min. If you choose to baste, do so every 45 minutes to an hour. If something distracts you and you go 90 minutes without basting, do not despair. RIBS WILL BE DELICIOUS AND NO ONE WILL DIE.
Once the ribs hit temp, remove the, from the smoker and tent with foil until you want to serve. If serving more than 30 minutes later, you can hold in a 200 oven for up to two hours.
Moving the meat around
Our smoker, because it is vertical, has up to four racks that we can use for meat. Since heat and smoke rise, the meat at the top will get more of both, so when we open the smoker to baste or spray, we will move the meat at the top of the smoker to the bottom, and then move the others up one rack towards the top in a steady rotation for even cooking. You only need to do this if you are using multiple racks in a vertical smoker. In an egg or grill or barrel smoker, you only need to flip the meat top to bottom, or shift if you believe you have a hot spot.
Sauce is complicated. People who love true barbecue think that well-prepared meats don’t need any sauce at all. People from different regions have different ideas about what sauce should be made of.
I like sauce as an accompaniment. But you have to be careful about sauce inside the smoker. Because most sauce contains sugar, and that will burn. So, if you are determined to have that sauce-glazed rib thing, add the sauce only in the last 20-30 minutes of cooking. Our recipe for a good basic homemade sauce is below. Adjust to your taste or buy a good quality bottled sauce. We often use Rufus McTeague bottled sauces.
Here’s Your Hour-by-Hour Action Plan for Ribs
Two days before smoking: Rub ribs and wrap. Check to be sure you have all your equipment ready, chips bought, propane tank full enough, ingredients for basting mop and/or sauce, if you are making.
One day before smoking: Make the basting sauce and/or bbq sauce if you are doing this and refrigerate.
Day of smoking: This is my account of one actual day making ribs hoping for a 7-7:30pm dinnertime. Adjust backwards or forwards for your own preferred dinnertime window.
9 am: Put chips in large bowl with water to soak
10 am: Remove ribs from fridge to come to room temp
11 am: Strain chips and prep smoker according to the directions that came with your unit by adding chips and water in the right pans, placing your racks where you want them. If your smoker, like mine, is too small to accommodate a whole rack, cut your ribs racks in half and place in your metal rack and leave them uncovered at room temp on a sheet pan for easy moving.
11:20 am: Light your smoker
11:50 am: Check temp on your smoker, looking for that 225-250 range. You should have a fairly moist environment and the beginnings of smoke. If you are not there yet, check every ten minutes until you get there. Mine was ready.
12:00: Put ribs in the smoker and shut the door or lid.
12:45: Baste and check water level and chips—add both
1:30: Baste and check water level and chips—add water
2:15: Baste and check water level and chips
3:00: Baste and check water level and chips—clean out charred used chips and add new
3:45: Baste and check water level and chips—add both
4:30: Baste and check water level and chips and temp ribs
5:15: Baste and check water level and chips and temp ribs—add chips
6:00: Baste and check water level and chips and temp ribs—160
6:20: Baste and Temp ribs—164
6:40: Baste and Temp ribs—170
7:00: Baste and Temp ribs. If the ribs have hit between 175-179 on all racks, remove and place on a sheet pan and tent with foil, into a 200 F oven.
7:30: Serve ribs (which were delicious and no one died)
These measurements are per rack.
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon sugar (demerara is nice in this)
Zest of ½ lemon
1 teaspoon MSG (it’s not bad for you, and won’t give you a headache, just leave it out if you want)
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon ground cumin
If you like a little heat, add:
¼ teaspoon ancho chile powder
¼ teaspoon mild chili powder
How to Make It
Mix all together in a small bowl:
Rib Mop (for Basting)
This is enough for up to six racks of ribs.
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon mustard powder
1 bay leaf, crushed
1 heaping teaspoon chili powder
½ teaspoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon Tabasco or other hot sauce
½ cup Worcestershire sauce
½ cup cider vinegar
3 cups low sodium beef broth
2 cups low sugar apple juice
1/3 cup canola oil
1 tablespoon soy sauce
3 cloves garlic, crushed
How to Make It
Blend all ingredients in pan and bring to a boil. Let cool overnight in fridge before using.
This is enough to serve on the side for up to 4 people
¼ cup butter
1 onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 ribs celery, finely chopped
1 cup ketchup
½ cup cider vinegar
1 cup water
¼ cup Worcestershire sauce
3 bay leaves
1 teaspoon ground pepper
½ teaspoon chili powder
How to Make It
Sauté onion and garlic in melted butter until tender. Add rest of ingredients and simmer for 20-30 minutes. Remove bay leaves and blend in a blender or with an immersion blender. Let chill overnight before using. Bring to room temp or warm through and taste for seasoning before serving.