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.

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 (purchase recipes here) 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 (purchase recipes here) 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 (purchase recipes here) 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 (purchase recipes here) 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.

Please note that my rubs and barbecue sauce are now available in 2 formats-- you can purchase the formulas and make them yourself OR you can buy them already made, in a bottle, ready to use.
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"Love the sauce and rub recipes. So far I have used them on beef ribs, pork ribs, and different chicken parts. Can't wait to do a beef brisket. Texas rub is great as well!" ~Peter S.
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"Love the original rib rub and sauce! We have an annual rib fest competition at the lake every 4th of July. I will say we have won a great percent of the time over the past 15 years so we are not novices by any means. However, we didn't win last year and had to step up our game! We used Jeff's rub and sauce (sauce on the side) and it was a landslide win for us this year! Thanks Jeff for the great recipes. I'm looking forward to trying the Texas style rub in the near future!" ~Michelle M.

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