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How to Master Smoked Pork Ribs

smoked pork ribs 1000

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Hello newsletter friends and welcome to this special edition of the smoking meat newsletter where we will take a long, hard look at how to master smoked pork ribs. In this article, we are going to look into the different methods of preparing and smoking ribs to make them turn out super tender, juicy and flavorful beyond words.

Pork Ribs just happen to be my absolute favorite thing to cook in the smoker and over the years, I have learned a few tips and tricks that have helped me to turn out great ribs almost every time I cook them and I am only too happy to share what I have learned.

Pork ribs are not hard to master and getting them to that perfect state of tender and juicy is something that anyone can do with a little know-how. There are also a lot of incorrect methods for doing ribs and so it is important to be careful who you listen to when it comes to advice. I use the term “incorrect” very loosely since, I suppose if you like flavorless meat drowning in sauce then it might not be so “incorrect” for you.

Parboiling is the one method that a lot of non-smokers use to get ribs tender and I have had quite a number of folks tell me that this is THE way to make  tender ribs. They usually follow this up by telling me to pour a bottle of my favorite sauce over the ribs.


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I have to agree that this will yield very tender ribs, and I guess they will be very saucy but let me help you with a much better way;-)

Let’s start by showing you how to prepare them.

Prepare the ribs for smoking

Baby backs are a little easier when it comes to preparation as they do not need any trimming. Both spares and baby backs do have a thick membrane on the bone side that should be removed.

For the spares, the first thing to do is to remove the flap of meat on the bone side.

Spare ribs

Cutting off the flap

Once the flap is removed, I like to go ahead and remove the brisket bone and “St. Louis” them. If you run your hands over the top side of the spare ribs, you can tell where the main rib bones end. Using a very sharp knife, make a cut along the length of the ribs removing this section leaving you with ribs that closely resemble baby backs in size.

Locating the brisket bone

Cutting off the brisket bone

Brisket bone removed

Note: Don’t throw the brisket bone away. Coat it with my original rub and smoke it just like you do the other ribs. Slice it up then freeze it and the next time you do beans or a soup, throw it in for some great smoky flavor.

For baby backs and spare ribs..

Remove the membrane by using a knife or other sharp object. Lift up on the membrane starting at about the 2nd bone from the end and once you have a firm hold on it, pull it clean off.

Starting to pull off the membrane

Finishing pulling off the membrane

Note: if you have trouble getting a good grip on the membrane, use a paper towel or even some catfish skinning pliers to help you out with this. Once you’ve done this a few times, you’ll be ripping them off in seconds.

Adding some Flavor

A good dry rub goes with ribs like salt goes with fries.. it does not cover up the great flavor of the ribs but compliments them and let’s them reach their full potential.

I use my original rub  every time I make ribs whether it’s spares or baby backs and it never let’s me down. I do recommend using something to help the rub to stick such as mustard, oil, even honey or jam.

In the picture below, I used 2 parts seedless blackberry jam and 1 part dijon mustard mixed together to create a great base for the rub to stick to. Just a thin application is all that is required.

You will also notice that I place the ribs down in a pan before adding the rub. This aids in cleanup and gives me a way to carry the ribs out to the smoker.

2 parts seedless blackberry jam with 1 part mustard

Light coat of mustard/jam

Jeff's rub applied to ribs

You can also just use straight mustard (yellow or dijon work great) without the jam if you want to.



Preparing the Ribs Ahead of Time

I get asked all the time if ribs can be trimmed and rubbed the night before and the answer is yes. I can’t say that it creates a better flavor or that they end up more tender but you can definitely do that.

Dealing with Limited Space on the Smoker

When we start thinking about smoking the ribs, unless you have a really big smoker, space could be an issue and there are solutions that work very well at making the most out of limited space.

One thing you can do to help with space is to use rib racks. These can be found at Amazon.com, Lowes, Home Depot, Ace Hardware, just to name a few and they are simply racks that are made to hold 3-5 racks of ribs in a vertical position. This takes up a lot less space and they cook up just fine this way.

Another option requires no racks and involves simply rolling the racks of ribs into a barrel shape. You can put a long wooden skewer through the ribs to hold them that way or you can tie them around the middle with some butcher string (which is what I like to do).



Smoking the Ribs

This is where it seems like folks seem to have the most trouble and I get questions almost daily from folks asking me how to get the ribs to be “fall off the bone” tender. I know that many of you do not want them falling off the bone but there are many of you who DO like them this way, you’ve had them this way in restaurants and such and you’d like to reproduce this amazing phenomenon at home in your smoker.

I also get asked a lot about how to smoke the ribs so that they end up juicy instead of dry..

The answer to both of these questions is the 3-2-1 method of smoking ribs. If you have not tried this method then you really should. The numbers relate to steps in the process. The following will show the 3-2-1 method for spares followed by the 2-2-1 method for baby backs. Both yield the same results while taking into account that baby backs usually do not require as much cooking time as the spare ribs.

3-2-1 for Spare Ribs

Step 1: Place the ribs on the smoker grate unwrapped and let them smoke for about 3 hours at 225°F.

Step 2: Wrap the ribs in foil or better yet, place them into a foil pan and cover with foil over the top. Place about 1/4 inch of apple juice or other liquid in the bottom just before closing them up. Place them back in the smoker and leave them this way for about 2 hours.

Step 3: Remove the foil from around the ribs or simply remove the foil from the top of the foil pan that holds the ribs. (it is fine to leave the ribs in the pan as long as the top is open). Continue to cook the ribs this way for about 1 hour with or without smoke depending on what type of smoker you have.

2-2-1 for Baby Backs

Step 1: Place the ribs on the smoker grate unwrapped and let them smoke for about 2 hours at 225°F.

Step 2: Wrap the ribs in foil or better yet, place them into a foil pan and cover with foil over the top. Place about 1/4 inch of apple juice or other liquid in the bottom just before closing them up. Place them back in the smoker and leave them this way for about 2 hours.

Step 3: Remove the foil from around the ribs or simply remove the foil from the top of the foil pan that holds the ribs. (it is fine to leave the ribs in the pan as long as the top is open). Continue to cook the ribs this way for about 1 hour with or without smoke depending on what type of smoker you have.

How to Keep the Ribs from Turning Black in the Smoker

I have to tell you that if the meat you are cooking in your smoker is turing black and you are maintaining 225°F then you have 1 of 2 problems or both:

  • Your smoker thermometer is wrong and needs to be checked and calibrated
  • You are getting radiant (direct) heat from the fire or coals. Find a way to create a barrier between the heat and the food using a water pan or something similar.

Information on Popular Smokers

Here’s some information that I have written on various smokers. I hope to include more very soon.

Note: In colder weather, it is advisable to preheat the smoker at least an hour or more before you are wanting to use it. Keep the door closed as much as possible and even skip basting if necessary to maintain proper smoking temperatures.

Information on Smoking the Ribs

Maintain about 225-240°F when smoking ribs and for smokers other than wood smokers, try to keep the smoke going for the entire time or 3 hours minimum.

Saucy Ribs

So you are one of those who likes the ribs to be drowned in sauce or you just like them to be a little sticky then just start basting them with my original barbecue sauce  when the ribs are about an hour or two from being done depending on how much sauce you want on them.

Baste every 30 minutes or so until the ribs are done cooking.

Hint: my original barbecue sauce is thick and perfect on ribs for this occasion.

How to Know When the Rib are Done Cooking

It is nearly impossible to try and use a digital probe meat thermometer with ribs due to the close proximity of meat to bone. For this reason, you have use visual cues and tenderness to tell you when it’s done. Trust me when I say that the ribs are safe to eat temperature wise, long before they are tender so it is very safe to use this method.

First off the visual cue is that the meat should pull back from the bone about 1/4 inch or so. This is more prominent when they are cooked with higher heat but it does happen in the smoker as well and enough so that you can tell it’s happening.

Secondly, the ribs will be tender enough so that when you lift up one end of the slab with a pair of tongs, you will get 90°F of bend. You can also grasp 2 bones and pull them in opposite direction and see how easily it tears. The more easily it tears, the more tender the ribs are.

Third and my person favorite, when you feel that the ribs are tender enough, slice one off and give it a try. Biting into it it will tell you everything you need to know.

Serving the Ribs

Lay the ribs bone side up and slice them using a very sharp knife right between each bone.

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  1. Making brisket bone using 3 2 1 for the first time read the notes that you recommend thanks for the tips. .. it’s snowing outside and the pellet smoker is on and the winter day is smelling good….

  2. So glad that I found this site! I own a restaurant and am looking forward to trying out your techniques. One question though, Do you have any experience with a pressure smoker? It works wonders on my pulled pork and brisket but am having issues with my ribs. They are coming out a little tough and dry. I read all the above information, but was wondering if you have any times for a smoker like this. (I can do 6 8-10 lb pork butts in about 4 hours,) Thank you so much!

  3. Today I am trying a variation on the 321 method. My wife likes to parboil ribs so I will try this. 2 hr smoke, 3 hr in foil, 1 hr uncovered. I am hoping this will produce the fall off the bone effect she likes with the great smoke flavor. I will let you know the outcome. By the way I will be trying the rib rub for the first time. Looking forward to it !!

  4. Last night I tried a variation of Jeff's 2-2-1 recipie for baby backs in my medium Big Green Egg and they came out fantastically well. There were no leftovers! I use a slightly higher temperature of 250º for my cook. After 2 hours I wrapped my ribs in heavy duty aluminum foil, but instead of using apple juice, I sprinkled them liberally with dark brown sugar and topped that off with margarine before I closed them up and returned them to the BGE for another hour. (I use Parkay from a squeeze bottle for ease of application.) After one hour (not two) I unwrap them and put them back in the BGE, unwrapped, for another hour. I coat them with Jeff's BBQ sauce 20-30 minutes before they come off.

    So I guess you could call this Bocaboy's 2-1-1 recipie as opposed to Jeff's 2-2-1. The extra 25º is what I think shortens the cooking time for the middle step. I find that if the ribs stay in foil too long, all of the rub is washed off by the steam that's generated by the apple juice or brown sugar and margarine. Even with no added liquid or spice, the pork will leech out moisture and steam the meat. The ribs may be tender, but IMHO they also lose flavor. My "secret" to avoid that is to use Jeff's rub and let the ribs sit in plastic wrap overnight. That allows all of the spices to seep into the meat and add flavor that isn't just sprinkled on top.

    You might think that these ribs would be too sweet, but the margarine and sugar quickly melt together and steam the sweetness into the meat. Combined with Jeff's rub, the combination is delicious. I've also seen on Pitmasters where cooks use a combination of dark brown sugar and honey, along with the margarine, but since this was my first time trying this method, I was a bit shy about they're coming out too sweet.

  5. I have used the 2-2-1 & 3-2-1 method of yours now for 2 years.  Tomorrow is St Louis style ribs using the 3-2-1 method w/ the jam as reccomended.  I alternate from Apple, Pineapple, Mango and Guava juices on step 2.  Tomorrow is the Guava's turn in the smoker.  Each juice adds its own unique flavor and it is fun to experiment.  Over the years I have found that I can't detect any flavor enhancement by placing the dry rub on 24 hrs in advance.  So I now just do it 1 hr before smoking.

    Thanks Jeff for the best tip I have ever gotten on ribs.

  6. Jeff,

    Last week i made the Smoked Pulled Chicken recipem you posted. The chicken came out  very moist and tender. I decided to servce them on Hawiann King sandwhich rolls. These rolls havea slight sweet taste and compliment the the tase of the meat. Adding the coleslaw on top finish's off this perfect recipe. There was even enought for left over's ! My wife makes an awesome Blue Chees cole slaw that I will try on these nexttime. Thanks for all your great information. I look forward to your next posting with a hearty appetite!

    M. Lawson

    Omaha, Nebraska

  7. Quesion: Not sure what I didn't do right. On an offset smoker,  I smoked two 3.5# pork butts and 3 racks of baby back ribs. I followed your pulled pork recipie and injected with cherry dr. pepper. Those came out absolutely perfect. My problem was with the ribs. I've smoked ribs before and have had good results.( But I've usually done them without additional meats). I followed your 2-2-1 baby back rib article. After 2 hours of smoke they didn't even appear close to what I remember they should. So I left them on for another hour before placing in a pan of apple juice. They seemed like they softened up a bit and the rib edges were showing after 2 hours or so. Then I placed them back on the grill for the last hour. They were fully cooked with a nice smoke ring but not fall apart tender like I've done before. The only differences between this time and the others were: I've used spare ribs and a water pan in an upright smoker the other times. Could a water pan make that much difference? Could they have just been tough ribs? Any other suggestions?

  8. Jeff, my aunt sent me a link to your site and I have been reading about your techniques on smoking ribs, today I tried your instructions, my ribs turned out the best I have ever eaten. I sorta used your 3-2-1 method, I cooked the ribs on my Primo ceramic cooker or smoker for 3 hours as you stated, then I put my rib racks in aluminum pans and poured apple juice about 1/4 inch deep as your recipe calls for then I cooked the ribs with the foil covering the rib racks and pan for another 2 hours, I didn't get to finish them up for the 1 hour, they were done and they were the tenderest ribs that I have done so far, the taste was supurbe but I used my recipe for the rub. I invited my buddies over and we ate ribs and had a few cold ones to wash them down, we didn't need any sauce because they were so tasty, I did sample the apple juice that was left in the bottom of the foil pans as a dip and it was fantastic also. The only thing I would do different the next time would be to cut back on the initial smoke time a bit and also cut back on the time with the apple juice, the ribs were so tender that the meat fell off the bone, I like to chew my ribs off the bone. Thanks a bunch for the cooking tips on your site, the directions were easy to follow and brought great results.

    Gary Dixon, 

    Kimball, Tn.

  9. I do the St. Louis cut because it makes the ribs look nicer for competiton, however I leave the membrane on. It helps hold in the juices and makes the ribs more tender and once the ribs are finished cooking you can't tell the membrane was left on. I also save the flaps and add them to chili.