Smoking Ribs – "Everything You Need to Know" Guide

Smoking ribs is one of my favorite outdoor activities . I prefer spare ribs but the baby backs and country style are very good as well. Read on below for my complete tutorial on smoking ribs.

I think some folk have the idea that ribs are hard to smoke and get right but after reading this and following a few tips which I am going to show you I think you will find out that it is actually not that difficult.

Choosing the Ribs at the Store or Market

When you go to the store or market to purchase spare ribs or baby backs, look for meat that has plenty of marbling of fat but not large clumps of fat on the outside of the ribs. Also look for ribs that have an even thickness across the entire slab for best results.

I prefer ribs that are minimally processed.. i.e. they are not injected with solution. This is sometimes hard to find so you may have to go with what you can get if your choices are limited.

Remove the Membrane before Smoking Ribs

To remove the membrane you simply lay the rack on a hard surface with the bone side up and starting at the corners you will see a thin plastic looking substance…starting at the corner use a knife or something sharp to get it started then use a paper towel to grab it and pull it off in one clean sweep. OK…well I admit it really is not that easy but with a little practice you can get quite proficient at it.

Remove the Skirt (Flap) on Spare Ribs

You will also want to cut off the flap of meat that runs horizontally across the meaty side of spare ribs. Not only does this even up the thickness of the ribs so they will cook better but the meat that you cut off can be cooked/smoked right along with everything else and is a really nice treat for the chef in about 2 hours or so.

Adding a Little Flavor with Rub

Ribs are tasty on their own and the smoke does a lot to add some goodness but I am a firm believer in using a good rub on the outside of the ribs. To me it adds so much to the meat and it just isn't the same without it.

To apply a rub to the ribs, I recommend applying a light coat of regular yellow mustard first to give the seasoning something to stick to. Don't worry, they won't taste like mustard when they are done cooking.

After the mustard is applied, sprinkle on the rub and if you like, gently massage the rub all over the ribs.. top and bottom.

At this point the ribs are finished being prepared and are ready to be smoked.

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Low and Slow is the Key to Smoking Ribs

Smoking ribs is a slow process and should never be rushed. Always cook the ribs low and slow at about 225-240 degrees F using your favorite hard wood such as pecan, cherry, hickory or mesquite.

Keep the smoke flowing for at least 3 hours then if you have a charcoal, gas or electric smoker, you can finish them the rest of the way with just heat if you like.

When are the Ribs Finished?

The meat between the rib bones do not give a lot of leeway for using a thermometer but not to worry.. ribs are best cooked/smoked until they are tender. For spare ribs this normally takes about 6-7 hours. For Baby backs, you are looking at 5-6 hours depending on how meaty they are. For best results, use one or both of my tenderness tests below to make sure the ribs are ready to serve.

  • Tenderness test #1: Pick the ribs up by the very end using a set of tongs. When they bend about 90 degrees and almost break in half, they are done.
  • Tenderness test #2: Grasp two adjacent bones and pull them in opposite directions. If the meat between the bones tears easily, they are done.

Saucing the Ribs

In reality if the ribs require sauce to taste good then the cook needs more practice smoking ribs. I do not serve sauce on my ribs and I rarely if ever baste the ribs with sauce while they are smoking. I serve sauce on the side most of the time. Nothing wrong with sauce but it should be a compliment to the meat not a replacement for lack of flavor.

Having said that, I understand that some folks love their wet ribs and who am I to say there's anything wrong with that. If that's your thing then just start brushing on the sauce about 30-45 minutes before the ribs are finished cooking. Repeat this at least a couple of times before bringing them in the house for that nice saucy finish. My special sauce recipe offered below is amazing and if I sauced my ribs, that's what I'd use.

Some Final Rib Tips

When the meat is brought in I recommend waiting for ten minutes or so to let the meat rest and to allow the juices to move from the center back to the entire slab before slicing.

If you like the ribs to be “falling off the bone” tender then you need to check out my 3-2-1 method for smoking ribs. They will be down your alley for sure!

Jeff’s Smoking Meat Books

smoking-meat-book-coverSmoking Meat: The Essential Guide to Real Barbecue – The book is full of recipes and contains tons of helpful information as well. Some have even said that “no smoker should be without this book”!

With more than 1000 reviews on and a rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars, it comes highly recommended and is a Bestseller in Barbecuing & Grilling books on Amazon.

AmazonBarnes & Noble | German Edition

smoke-wood-fire-book-coverSmoke, Wood, Fire: The Advanced Guide to Smoking Meat – Unlike the first book, this book does not focus on recipes but rather uses every square inch of every page teaching you how to smoke meat. What my first book touched on, this second book takes it into much greater detail with lots of pictures.

It also includes a complete, step-by-step tutorial for making your own smoked “streaky” bacon using a 100 year old brine recipe.

Purchase at Amazon



  1. Gino November 8, 2015 at 10:57 am - Reply

    Steve I own a traeger. I vacuum the inside floor and burn pot before every use with my shop vac. I line the drip pan with foil. Then I start on smoke. As for removing old pellets. I would if you do not know how long they been in there. Pellets absorb moisture easy. In the end after every trial and error method of cooking ribs over the past 5 years, my kids and wife never leave leftovers if I smoke for 3 hours at 225 degrees. I marinade day before in basque meat marinade. That's it. No 321 or 221 or foil or water resevoir. Just marinade and cook for 3 hours. They have a lot of juices, are Cooke throughout, and you have to bite them off the bone. Bite meaning not tug or fall off the bone. My family does not like fall off bone. Also the traeger has huge margin for error. Once left chicken on it for like a half hour too long and chicken was still moist inside.

  2. Bruce July 4, 2015 at 1:34 am - Reply

    Great information. First time user of Masterbuilt 40″ digital electric smoker. My elevation is 6500′ so I will have to extend my cook time by probably one-fourth, but can you advise how long my ribs and salmon should actually be infused with smoke. I'm concerned too much smoke with overpower them while the elevation will require a longer cook time. Thanks.

  3. Bobby June 17, 2015 at 10:22 am - Reply

    Trust me. I have a smoker but You can make perfect ribs on a standard gas grill using my simple program. All you need to do is figure out a way to place a smoker box under the grilling grate. I have a Weber 5 burner. I use a small stainless steel tray w/lid from Smart Final. Drilled holes in the lid. I removed one flavor bar over a burner and set the box over it. I use the center burner so the smoke hits all of the ribs equally. Use dry rub of choice and Slap on the ribs but only use a total of 3 burners to control heat. Start the ribs out with meat side up then flip often You will need to keep the lid closed to smoke the ribs but also need to keep an eye on the heat level. My grill can get pretty hot even with just 2 burners going. It takes about 55 minutes. When done place ribs in a stainless steel catering style tray (another Smart Final purchase) pour mop sauce over the ribs(try 1cup water,1/2 cup OJ, tablespoon Wort Sauce and tablespoon chili powder) then cover tray tightly with foil and place in oven for 1 hour at 350 degrees. When done be sure to pour the drippings from the tray over the ribs after cutting them up into individual serving sizes. You will not believe how good they taste. If anyone would like photos of the trays etc I can send those thru FB.

  4. Richard June 14, 2015 at 10:49 am - Reply

    Great tips! But I have found that more than about 45 minutes of smoke seems to overpower the ribs. I had 2 to 3 hours of moderate smoke, and the plate of ribs smelled like the bottom of a campfire. This was with a propane smoker. I now do a good dose of smoke for the first 30 minutes and then another 30 at the end of the cook.

    • Bobby June 17, 2015 at 9:55 am - Reply

      I have a vertical style propane smoker that I customized so I can smoke up to 8 racks at a time easily. 1.5 hours of smoking is all you need If your ribs are over smoked like you describe you need more venting for circulation and/or you need to make your smoker tray more air tight so the hickory never flames up, just smolders. If the hickory actually starts to catch fire it will impart a strong ash tray flavor to the ribs.
      I have a technique that allows you to smoke perfect ribs on a gas grill that is amazingly simple if you are interested

  5. Bob April 26, 2015 at 10:45 am - Reply

    I modified an upright gas smoker (Brinkman) so that it can smoke up to 8 racks easily (actually did 12 one time) and they cook vertically–yes vertically I made a custom stainless steel smoker box for the unit. I smoke the ribs for 1.5-2.0 hours at 220 using custom dry rub. According to B Flay you have max smoking in that time frame and risk drying out the meat if you go longer Here's the secret: I place the ribs in long stainless steel pans or trays (about 4.5 ” deep)on top of cookie cooling sheets that hold the ribs about 1/2 inch off bottom of tray. Pour mop sauce over the ribs and cover top tightly with foil. Place in oven for 1 hour at 350. The ribs will be steamed with the mop sauce and will be falling off the bone great and have a 5 hour smoked flavor.

    • Byron May 4, 2015 at 12:31 pm - Reply

      Can I smoke them a day or 2 ahead of time and put them in the refrigerator. On the day we plan to eat put in the oven.

      • Carey June 15, 2015 at 5:59 am - Reply

        Byron, I sometimes smoke up some racks and take to the beach condo where I later just finish the 1 2 3 method with no problem using either an electric stove or gas grill. I just wrap and carry in a small cooler keeping the meat as cool as possible ( frig is good, don't freeze) and double wrap in the aluminum foil used in step 2.

        Doing so, leaves me more time to fish etc…..

  6. Shelia Long April 25, 2015 at 11:09 am - Reply

    Someone gave me a used electric smoker (Traeger) I've never used one before but I understand it uses pellets, not charcoal or wood. It has some pellets already in it but I don't know which kind. Does it have a water pan? Also should I remove the pellets that are already in there or use them? What are your recommendations for the first thing that I should smoke on this electric grill smoker? Something that is cheap and somewhat easy…..perhaps fail proof. Thanks

  7. Spencer March 9, 2015 at 11:13 pm - Reply

    Jeff, I want to purchase your recipes but also want your book Smoking Meat. Does the book contain your rub and sauce recipe?

  8. Steve February 2, 2015 at 6:38 am - Reply

    I had trouble with my Master Built 30″ smoker at first…I found out the hard way that after a few hours, juice would drip on the electric control sensor “insulating” it and causing the temp to get too high…now I cover it with foil and no problem…also, I found that by putting wood chips on some foil and placing directly on the heating element gets the smoking process started almost immediately and then the chips in the chip container (without water) start smoking a few hours later….I am in the process of rewiring a new Honeywell boiler control into the smoke to control the heat to the very degree I want it…

    • Ian July 31, 2015 at 10:51 pm - Reply

      I have the same Masterbuilt 30″ smoker – I found the best way to regulate the heat was to line the gap between the body and the door with rolled up foil – I can now set the control where I want it and maintain temp within 10′. Also helps the chips to get to smoking temperatures.

  9. Vickie January 25, 2015 at 10:06 am - Reply

    When grilling ribs I was always told to boil them first is that necessary to do when smoking them

    • Jeff Phillips January 28, 2015 at 7:10 pm - Reply

      Only if you want to leave all of that great flavor in the water.. rib stock anyone?

      Boiling is considered to be one of the worst things you can do for ribs. Although it does help to tenderize them, you are left with something that must have sauce to be tasty.

      Follow the 3-2-1 method for spare ribs or the 2-2-1 method for baby backs on the smoker, no boiling and you will find out how great ribs can taste;)

    • Carey June 15, 2015 at 6:05 am - Reply

      Jeff is absolutely correct. Follow the 1 2 3 method to the letter and you will never have to worry about rib smoking. Set your smoker at 225 to 240, keep the heat as constant as possible for 3 hours and DO NOT PEAK. Ha!!

  10. Ian January 23, 2015 at 9:57 pm - Reply

    My ex bought me a smoker for Christmas (guess she wants me out in sub zero in upstate NY) I have followed a couple of different recipes for ribs – all turned out dry. Just followed yours (not your rub sorry) and I have to say WOW. I was gonna share some with her but ……… too late.

  11. Mario April 22, 2014 at 9:47 pm - Reply

    Hello I use a alto shaam smoker could you give me some tips on that specific brand

  12. Bob Barber October 12, 2013 at 9:09 am - Reply

    Hi jeff  im useing a natural gas bbq this the first time im doing smoked ribs do i keep adding water to the chips Thank you Bob.

  13. diane August 5, 2013 at 5:08 am - Reply

    we tried to smoke some ribs for the first time. they were only in for 2 hours  at 225 degrees and they were black and crispy what went wrong?

  14. Jim Wunderlich June 13, 2013 at 5:21 pm - Reply

    I have a small "bullet" shaped electric smoker which works well for up to about 6 people.  Temp is controlled easly.  When I have to clean the grills I put them on my regular gas grill.  They fit perfectly.  They get heated up with the grill and get a good brushing with a good grill brush.  If you got em smoke em.  Jim

  15. Paul c June 5, 2013 at 8:02 pm - Reply

    This my first time doing ribs do u need to keep water in smoker  any help would be great

  16. karl mcconnell February 24, 2013 at 11:23 am - Reply

    awesome thank you i am the new hit of the block with your 1 2 3 recipe


    • ed April 14, 2013 at 4:29 am - Reply

      I don;t have window in smoker how often should I check wood chips?

      • Jeff Phillips April 15, 2013 at 10:09 am - Reply

         Ed, that really depends on your smoker, how large of a wood chip box you are using, etc.. If you are using an electric or a gas smoker, I recommend just watching for the smoke to stop coming out and once it slows to almost a stop, you can add more chips.

        Once you use the smoker a little you will be able to start estimating how long the chips will last.

        If you will let us know exactly what kind of smoker you are using, we can probably give you some specific advice on it regarding smoke.

    • Jeremy Mayrose May 24, 2013 at 5:47 pm - Reply

      first off thank you for all your help, i have become a block favorite with my smoker.  i have noticed that it seems like the cooking times using my electric smoker are usually less then recomended.  just wanted to verify that i am not undercooking the meat, and didnt know if you have heard the same from others?  thanks again

      • Robert Powers November 14, 2013 at 11:02 am - Reply


        cooking times are just an estamate and not set in stone.  the first brisket i smoked cooked about 4 hours quicker than it should have.  internal tempurature is the key.  what temps do you cook at?

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