In North America and most places across the globe ribs are a de facto rights of passage for BBQ purveyors of all types. A simple google search will turn up pages of concise evidence that people not only enjoy eating BBQ ribs but more so the art of cooking them. There’s just something to be said about a seasoned PitMaster who can effectively cook a slab or two of ribs.
Regardless of where or what they came from ribs always seem to pronounce flavor better than any other cut of slow smoked BBQ meat. It’s almost like they exist within a super dynamic BBQ paradigm where we’ve all come to agree that there really isn’t just one correct way to prepare them. While some regions may not agree with each other, I think we can all agree that ribs are the premier meat of BBQ. While there are a number of ways to prepare ribs outside of smoking them, this site is about BBQ so today we’ll going through the best practices of smoking sweet succulent ribs of all varieties.
My theory on exactly why pretty much all ribs taste so damn good involves a few different components. Unlike other parts of the living animal, the rib sections get nearly zero work. In comparison, the leg and shoulder areas are responsible for supporting the weight of the animal while it’s living. Due to the lack of work there is often a higher concentration of fat in the rib areas. When you factor in the flavor retention that occurs with bone-in meat it becomes even more apparent how all of these components work together to make ribs cut from any animal downright delicious!
If you have ever boiled ribs prior to smoking or grilling them, by reading this document you agree to never ever allow that to happen again. Adversely if you have ever boiled ribs and plan on ever doing it again, go ahead and stop reading now. There’s nothing here for you and the information contained within cannot help you!
Since I was a kid there has always been this looming theory that boiling ribs would make them not only tender but also easier to cook. While it may make things easier, this is NOT how it should be done… EVER! Save the boiling for eggs, grits or anything but ribs. Don’t sacrifice the deliciousness that is ribs by boiling away half of the flavor!
Before you get started with your desired cut of ribs you’ll want to make sure that you have some specific tools on hand an readily at your disposal. While some are a little more important than others they all work in tandem to make your rib smoking adventure a breeze and something that you’ll want to do over and over again.
No one likes the taste of kerosene or lighter fluid so the most cost effective way to get your charcoal started is with a charcoal chimney. Once you have one all you’ll ever need is a couple of pages of newspaper and of course, charcoal.
Depending on the type of smoker you’re using and the amount of space you have to work with you may be best suited to purchase a rib rack. This will allow you to stand most ribs upright, thus creating more space for more slabs.
When the time comes to test the doneness of Baby Back Ribs you’ll be thankful to have a good set of tongs on hand. By using the bend test you’ll be able to tell almost the exact moment that Baby Back Ribs are ready to enjoy.
Regardless of the cut of ribs you’re smoking there’s a good chance that you’ll benefit from spritzing them with some form of flavored liquid. Whether its apple juice, orange juice or beer, adding a little moisture to the equation goes a long way.
While the chances of undercooking ribs by smoking them is pretty slim you;ll still want to ensure everyone’s safety, but most importantly you have to make sure that the ribs are cooked to the appropriate temperature for optimal enjoyment.
When it comes to the type of wood you’ll be using you’ll be faced with a myriad of options. While it may seem like a lot of choices to decide through, the real decision will be based on the type and size smoker you’re using. If you have a typical home model smoker like an Oklahoma Joe or a Big Green Egg then you’ll do fine to source your wood from a retail establishment. There you’ll find the likes of chips, chunks and sometimes logs.
If you’re using a monster pit, you likely already know what you’re doing but nonetheless you’ll need to source your wood from a private party. In this case there are likely going to be a couple of different designations of wood to work with. The first of the two is splits. Splits are larger pieces of wood used to set the foundation of a longer, stronger burning fire. These pieces of wood are usually going to range in size from 4 to 5 inches thick and can be up to a foot long depending on the size of your firebox.
Super splits are about half the size of their larger counterparts. This designation of wood is great for helping to get a good fire started in the earlier phases. They are also useful when cooking with hotter, faster and more intense heat. A great example of when to use only half splits for a fire would be when you’re smoking chicken. Since we’re talking about ribs a good mixture of splits and half splits will be advantageous since we’re mainly looking for a consistent and even burn. At the end of the cook the main objective is to come away with a good balance of smoke flavor and outer char.
Fire, for several obvious reasons is the driving factor when it comes to making delicious BBQ ribs. Therefore it is imperative to understand how to not only build, but also maintain a quality fire for the whatever amount of time it takes to get them cooked the right way. I’ve found starting a load of charcoal with a chimney is the easiest way to get to work. Once the charcoal is completely ignited you can pour it into your fire box then arrange your wood from there. Adversely you can organize the wood first then apply the hot coals. Either way just make sure that you take the path of least resistance.
–Cross Hatch Stack Pattern
Believe it or not there is an art to the way that you stack wood in or around a good fire. One of my go-to stacking methods is the cross hatch stack pattern. Think of it like building a structure with Lincoln Logs. Add two pieces of wood at the base. These should be seperated about 6 to 12 inches. Then lay two more pieces of wood on top of those in the opposite direction.
The cross hatch stack pattern allows the fire to weave in and out of several pieces of wood. In my experience this is the best pattern to get and keep a fire going with several larger logs. The wood won’t have to fight for oxygen as there is a perfect amount of airflow through the natural openings.
–T-Pee Stack Pattern
A secondary go to for me is the T-Pee stack pattern. This pattern looks just like it sounds… like a T-Pee. Start with one larger log and build around that log with smaller ones. This method is great for longer cooks as you can easily add new logs whenever the older ones are just about burned down. This is also advantageous because you can really take your time to build a longer lasting fire by adding one piece of wood at a time. As the logs burn you’ll be left with nice sized embers that are great for creating a good amount of thermal heat. If for any reason you find your fire getting choked out, try repositioning the wood to create more airflow.
When the time finally comes to analyze the smoke situation, there are two distinct things to avoid at all cost. One is too much smoke. This is usually the result of too much wood. Resort back the previous section and first figure out how much wood it’s taking to keep your pit at the necessary temperature. The second thing, and the most imperative thing to look out for is dirty smoke. Since ribs don’t contain as much meat as other slow smoked meats you need to be especially careful about exposing them to dirty smoke. Dirty smoke is the result of a fire that’s not getting the right amount of oxygen. Ultimately the keys to good smoke are patience, air and execution.
Before we dive into the meat of this article let’s take a few moments to dispel a few incorrect assumptions that are often times associated with ribs. The first false assumption is that ribs “fall off the bone”. If you hear “fall off the bone” just know that this means that they’re overcooked. Some folks like them that way and that’s perfectly fine. However true BBQ purveyors want to experience the taste and texture of a job well done. So this means that when you enjoy ribs from a BBQ competition or an authentic cookout the ribs are going to be somewhat chewy. This lends a greater sense of gratification in those areas of taste and texture.
The second false assumption revolves around the marketing of ribs in today’s supermarkets. While you may come across what looks to be a really good deal from time to time, be very weary of multiple racks of ribs that are packed together in cryovac. Often times this is a method for the supermarket to package two puny racks beneath one great looking rack of ribs to give you, the consumer, the false perception that you’re getting an awesome deal of some sort.
Believe it or not, usually when a supermarket puts meat on sale it’s not because they’re in the giving spirit. More often than not this just means that there is a surplus of inventory and given the reality that meat has a limited shelf life the supermarket must get rid of it before they have to toss it out. Long story short if you come across a great deal on ribs outside of a national holiday just be judicious about what you’re really buying.
Rub vs. Sauce
It is highly debated whether or not you should apply a thick slather of BBQ sauce to ribs during the final stages of the smoking process. In my opinion there really isn’t a right or wrong opinion on the matter. I find myself playing the middle of the road on this one. In some instances I want too much sauce and in other instances I’ve come to appreciate eating ribs and savoring just the flavor of the dry rub, smoke and meat.
Either way you slice it is always good practice to apply some sort of dry rub to your ribs prior to smoking them. Using a good binder is critical in order to retain the most flavor that your rub has to offer. In most cases stick to either Extra Virgin Olive Oil or just regular old Yellow Mustard. Begin with the binder then rub your ribs to your own specifications. I find that a heavier dose of rub on both sides typically yields the best results when it comes to flavor when it’s all said and done. Depending on the type of ribs you’re smoking, the rub is often times best applied the night before smoking. This is true for pork or lamb ribs. Beef Ribs behave a lot like beef brisket, in which I have never noticed a discernible difference in applying the dry rub right before it goes into the pit versus the night before.
A wet rub is nothing more than a glorified dry rub that has been introduced to some form of liquid prior to application. That liquid can be oil, vinegar, beer or bourbon. In my experience the best option for liquid is almost always oil. Due to the solubility of oils, especially extra virgin olive oil you can always count on an enhanced flavor profile whenever you use it as a base.
BBQ sauce exists as a sort of subset of wet rubs. The only difference is the time in which you’d apply a traditional wet rub versus BBQ sauce. The best time to apply BBQ sauce is closer to the end of cook as opposed to the start. For Baby Back Ribs specifically, the most opportune time to apply BBQ sauce is during the 1 portion of the 3-2-1 method. In translation this will be the last 30 minutes to one hour of the cook. Since one of the main ingredients in BBQ sauce is sugar you’ll want to be cautious about over caramelization. Other than that feel free to over indulge in the sauce if that’s your thing.
Just about all cuts of pork respond well to a very diverse assortment of flavor agents. You can start with just the basic coarse salt and coarse black pepper but you will definitely want to add in several other flavors to really get the best benefit from Pork Ribs. Fat and flavor go hand in hand and if you’ve had any experience with pork you already know that there’s plenty of fat to go around. I really can’t think of any of the major flavor profiles that just won’t work with pork. Therefore you’re in the clear to make up something that involves one or all of the following; sweet, bitter, hot, savory or sour.
+Baby Back Ribs
When most people hear of or think about ribs, there’s a great chance that they’re referring to Baby Back Ribs. Pork Baby Back Ribs are pretty much the de facto face of all things ribs, and for damn good reason. With just the right amount of fat and meat Baby Back Ribs present not only a tasty BBQ meal option but also a fairly simple and efficient meat to cook. Thanks to their rather compact size the cook time won’t take all day to achieve amazing results.
Always, always, always remember to remove the membrane when dealing with Baby Back Ribs. Otherwise you’ll be dealing with a sticky rubbery like texture on the back end of every bite. Instead of using a knife to get the membrane peel started, use the point end of a temperature probe. slide the temperature probe between the first bone and the membrane and gave it a slight wiggle. This will create enough room to allow your fingers to get the peel started. Once you have enough membrane that you can comfortably grip onto, use a paper towel to pull the entire membrane off the back of the ribs.
The Spare Ribs are cut from the lower portion of the pig, near the pork belly. Pork Spare Ribs are slightly overlooked in comparison to their Baby Back counterparts. Honestly I would have to say that I prefer Spare Ribs due to the fact that they typically contain considerably more fat. This helps in the areas of flavor and juiciness. They tend to take a little longer to cook to their optimal consistency but that usually means just something in the neighborhood of an additional hour.
When searching for cooking techniques for either of the two most common types of Pork Ribs you’re likely to come across several sets of numbers that resemble math equations. Depending on where you’re from, who you are and what you like will be the best determining factor for which of the methods you ultimately utilize. The most common is the 3-2-1 method which calls for smoking your ribs straight in the pit for three hours. After that the best thing to do is lay them flat in a sheet of heavy duty aluminum foil. Before wrapping them up, apply a generous amount of honey, apple juice, butter and some additional dry rub. They then go back into the smoker for two more hours before getting unwrapped and finished on the smoker bare for the final hour.
The optimal smoking temperature for Pork Ribs is going to sit somewhere between 225 and 250 degrees fahrenheit. The precise temperature is quite as important as the consistency. Just work to avoid large spikes in heat. Due to the slight size difference between Pork Ribs it is best practice to use the 2-2-1 method for Baby Back Ribs and the 3-2-1 method for Spare Ribs. Temperature probing is usually not necessary to figure out when Pork Ribs are done. Rest comfortably knowing that the time and temperature required to cook Pork Ribs to the correct consistency will be more than enough to mitigate any safety concerns.
Stick with some of the more traditional flavorings when handling Beef Ribs. Large grain, coarse kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper will be your best friends when smoking Beef Ribs. Consider adding in the likes of granulated garlic and onion to add in a little extra flare. You can pretty much add whatever extended flavors you’d like, just be conscious of how those flavors work with other cuts of beef. For instance, I don’t know that I would recommend incorporating any type ginger or orange peel as these flavor pairings may over power the natural goodness that beef has to offer.
+Beef Short Ribs
Though they may not be the most readily available cut of Beef Ribs, Short Ribs are by far the most prominent of ribs sourced from cattle. Short ribs are located near the brisket and chuck plate on the lower half of the steer. For these reasons Short Ribs are to be smoked just like beef brisket. That’s typically going to be Low and Slow for up to or around eight hours. The fat behaves just the same between the two cuts, meaning that there needs to be an adequate amount of time and low heat before all of the intramuscular fat will render and yield the desired smoked beef consistency.
+Beef Back Ribs
Back ribs are often regarded as the red headed step child of Beef Ribs. This is mainly due to the way they are butchered and how they are ultimately marketed. Simply put, back ribs are the leftovers that remain after a standing rib roast is removed from the bones. Though they will often yield great flavor there typically isn’t very much meat to be enjoyed. This is due in part to the fact that the attached ribeye fetches much more value at market. For butchers it doesn’t make fiscal sense to skimp on the ribeye in favor of the back ribs. More often than not beef back ribs are cut so close to the bone that there just isn’t enough meat on them. In cases where the back ribs are left with a significant amount of meat you can bet that there will be a delicious meal to enjoy.
If you’ve ever spent an entire day smoking a big old beef brisket then you’re likely familiar with the concept of the Texas Crutch. While some may not believe in it when working a brisket, there are immense advantages to implementing it for smoking Beef Ribs. Beef Ribs are typically loaded with fat which is a really good thing, it just takes a lot of time to get them cooked perfectly. In order to speed this process up as well as ensure great tenderness I will always advocate wrapping Beef Ribs in peach butcher paper. Unlike heavy duty aluminum foil butcher paper is porous meaning that air will be able to make its way into and out of the wrapping. This will help maintain the crunchy bark exterior but also accomplish the feat of getting the ribs done in a reasonable amount of time.
As with any other authentic BBQ, patience and time are critical for a great set of Beef Ribs. Low and slow, somewhere between 225 and 250 degrees fahrenheit will get the job done in due time. Beef Short Ribs will benefit from an occasional temperature probing as there isn’t much evidence beyond acute feel that will let you know when they’re ready to be enjoyed. Beef Back Ribs on the other hand are a little more tricky. Since there’s typically more bone than meat probing them is going to be nearly impossible. The odds of having to use your intuition are far greater when dealing with Beef Back Ribs. You’ll do good to keep them moist with occasional spritz of apple juice or beer. After about six hours you’ll be able to touch them and determine how tender they are. With that touch you’re looking for a soft consistency. If you see juices flow out of the ribs you can rest assured that the fat has begun to render properly and your Beef Back Ribs are close to the finish line.
In general, lamb typically works best alongside flavors associated most closely to Greek cuisine. These flavors are generally include fresh herbs (rosemary / sage / thyme), fresh garlic, a variety higher quality salts and fresh black pepper. Unlike its beef and pork counterparts, the flavor enhancers are best suited when they’re fresh as opposed to dried. One thing to take into consideration with lamb ribs is the simplification of flavor as lamb provides more natural flavor than just about any other available meat.
+Rack of Lamb
Rack of Lamb is a highly sought after cut of meat, and rightfully so. In most parts of the world it is regarded as a delicacy due to its unique and incredible flavor. Rack of Lamb is similar to Pork Baby Back Ribs and Beef Back Ribs. Like the aforementioned cuts of beef and pork the Rack of Lamb is located at the top half of the animal. A unique characteristic of a Rack of Lamb is its inclusion of the loin muscle. Since lamb is a much smaller and leaner animal the loin and ribs are left intact which ultimately yields a much more juicy and flavorful full bodied experience.
The counterparts to Rack of Lamb are referred to as simply, lamb ribs, or Lamb Spare Ribs to avoid confusion. Lamb Spare Ribs are cut from the lower part of the rib cage near the belly of the animal. While Rack of Lamb is often the most expensive cut of lamb, Lamb Spare Ribs exist on the completely opposite end of the spectrum as the least expensive. For that reason, as well as their incredibly high fat content they’re not generally sought after by lamb connoisseurs. While fat is our friend in just about any other case, there is something off-putting about the overall flavor of lamb fat. It’s not that it’s completely bad tasting, it’s just a very strong and lingering gamey taste that’s a little hard to get by for most.
Unlike beef and pork, lamb ribs require much less time to cook to the the appropriate temperature. Generally speaking lamb ribs will take no more than a couple of hours to cook to a preferred medium-rare temperature. Due to the lower amounts of fat typically contained within lamb there just isn’t a need to break down very much connective tissue. In fact, most fat is best trimmed away prior to cooking.
The most widely accepted technique for smoking lamb ribs is actually a two step process which involves first searing the ribs for several minutes followed by a longer period of smoke until the ribs are cooked to the appropriate temperature. This technique all but guarantees the best of both worlds. You get the qualities of direct char along with the smoky elements that come as a result of the lower and slower approach. Rack of Lamb is best cooked to a medium rare temperature of 125 to 130 degrees fahrenheit while Lamb Spare Ribs are enjoyed best at slightly higher internal temperatures near 140 degrees fahrenheit.
In conclusion, ribs are a very diverse subset of cuisine that are easily and often enjoyed by all cultures. If you travel to other parts of the world you’ll find many of the aforementioned ribs cut in specific manners that will completely alter their purpose as well as the way they’re cooked. For instance, Korean BBQ is often made with Beef Short Ribs, except they’re cut across the bones, otherwise known as Flanken style. Even in our own backyard, native Missourians share an ecstatic admiration for rib tips which are the leftovers once Pork Spare Ribs are trimmed to St. Louis cuts. Any way you cut them, ribs are designed for pure enjoyment and it is my hope that you have at least gained some new information that will make your next rib experience your best yet!