Smoking Ribs Like the Pros!

This sure-fire, step-by-step smoking ribs recipe will get you those authentic, "down-on-the-ranch", succulent smoked ribs the "pro's" cook.

We have teamed up with Amazon.com to answer the often asked question, "Where do I get a grill (thermometer, tongs, rib rack, etc.) like that? Just mouse-over the blue links to see our suggestions we've learned from years of backyard research. 

The 6 Secrets

  1. Great Meat
  2. Great Spices
  3. Great Tools (grill, tongs, thermometers, etc...)
  4. Heat Control
  5. Timing
  6. Smoke

Lets start with the stuff you'll need...

Patience  Low and slow is the real secret to smoking ribs. We're talking low heat at 225-250°F (107-121°C) for an extended cooking period. This is not the fastest method, but the "bestest"! You'll need a full bucket of this virtue when doing ribs for smokers. Figure about 1.5 hours/pound.

Meat  Try to buy fresh! If the frozen (or "previously frozen") vacuum packed "slab-o-ribs" is all that is available, it will do fine as long as they are not "enhanced" with water, salt, flavorings and goodness knows what else.

Spices  Use the best spices you can afford. There is a huge difference in a successful barbecue rib recipe final result when you use old, been-in-the-cupboard-way-to-long, "buck a bottle" spices, and the top quality stuff (this is one important difference between a "tenderfoot", and top competitors).

Smoker  The vertical "wet-pan" type is the most popular backyard smoker, so we wrote this smoking ribs recipe from our experience with this fun cooker. You can buy these wonders at any "big box" store, hardware store, or try the garage/yard ("jumble") sales for a real bargain! Our favorite economical, easy to use backyard smoker is this vertical propane model or its stainless steel vertical smoker brother.

Wood chips/chunks  For smoking ribs (or any meat in a smoker) always use only seasoned (never "green") hardwood chips/chunks like Hickory, Oak, Mesquite, Cherry, fruit woods, etc., to suit your taste. These are generally available during the summer, wherever barbecue accessories are sold.

Never use softwoods such as the conifers fir, pine, spruce, cedar, cypress, oleander,etc. Many trees and bushes/shrubs are toxic to humans, so stay with the known traditional woods used by the experienced "smokers".

Oven thermometer  To ensure the success of a smoking ribs recipe, this tool is the only way you will really know what's going on inside your smoker! Our two favorites are the Taylor Connoisseur Oven Thermometer, and the Taylor Precision 5932 Classic Oven Thermometer. They are both very accurate, durable (stainless steel), and exceptionally reasonable in price.

Instant Read probe-type thermometer  Be safe and ensure the meat has reached the ideal temperature of 205 F (93 C). This will assure you get those tender, luscious ribs you pay a dearly for at the local "rib joint"! Our "hands down" choice for speed of read, accuracy, and price is the CDN Proaccurate Stainless Digital Thermometer. The only instant-read thermometer that that we know to be faster, and another choice of professionals (albeit rather expensive), is the Splash-Proof Super-Fast Thermapen - Instant Read Thermometer, Perfect for Barbecue, Home and Professional Cooking

Mop tool  This is optional, but boy, it sure makes basting a whole lot easier! Yep, a mop...just a miniature version (12-14" long) of a string-mop you might have for cleaning the kitchen! For ease of cleaning, and long reach, we prefer this Sauce Mop with Removable Head. More on this subject in the "Prepare a Mop?" section, below.

Tongs  To handle those ribs (or any BBQ meat), long and strong is the secret, so we ditched the ones that came with our numerous BBQ tool sets. We prefer, and suggest, no-nonsense professional types like the Lodge Camp Dutch Oven 16-Inch Stainless Steel Tongs, or the Oxo Good Grips 16-Inch Locking Tongs.

Rib Rack  The answer to cooking ribs with limited real estate! You need one that is strong enough to hold the ribs upright, and regardless of price, few meet the need. We found one that fits the bill with the Ultimate Rib Rack. A little pricey, but it works! If you have a smaller smoker, the Weber 6406 Rib Rack works well with all but full sized slabs.

Let's talk meat ...

Spare Ribs, Country Style or Baby Back Ribs? It's your choice! It's all good but...we prefer traditional spare ribs, especially St. Louis Style, and this smoking ribs recipe is our way to cook this American classic. What's the difference...?

Well, Country Style and Loin Back Ribs (Baby Back or Canadian Back) are both pork loin (back) cuts. See the word loin? Yep, it's loin and not rib meat! It's good eating but we really love that rib meat, so for us it will be...

Spare Ribs, St. Louis Style (the sternum and rib cartilage are removed. If you purchase the intact (whole) spare rib slab(s), have the meat cutter remove the sternum and rib cartilage for those "best bet" ribs.

We think that the best slab of spare ribs is 3.5 lbs. and under (young pig) but we buy all sizes up to 10 lbs. We cook and love it all!

The "Cookin' Cousins" are a couple of guys with a ravenous appetite for spare ribs so, we consider a slab (11 - 14 rib bones) of ribs, weighing around 3.5 lbs., just enough for two. Our family and friends seem to agree whole-heartily,so when smoking ribs we buy as many slabs as will fit on all of the smoker's racks, as there are usually no "leftovers"!

Now, let's prepare the meat...

NOTE: Ribs should be always kept in the refrigerator (between 33-40°F/.55-4.4°C) before preparation.

  • Take the meat out of the refrigerator and allow ribs to stand at room temperature for less "on grill" time (about an hour). You can do the meat, rub and marinade prep the day before, to make it a lot easier when "the gang" shows up.
  • Rinse in cold water. Pat dry with some paper towels.
  • Remove any excess fat, or stuff you don't want to eat. Never touch the fat between the bones. This provides the flavor and moisture needed for smoking ribs. Just remove the excess fat surrounding the good stuff.
  • Remove the membrane (on inner side). We feel this is a must when smoking ribs, as it allows the smoke and rub to penetrate the meat more thoroughly. For this chore we have used all kinds of blunt, "pokey" things like a screwdriver, or something similar. Poke it in somewhere at the center and lift the membrane until you can get a grip on it this slippery devil (we use a paper towel). Pull it all off.
  • Rinse again, pat dry with a paper towel.

We believe a great smoking ribs recipe starts with a rub!

The ribs are first "rubbed", with a simple, dry, spice accented rub and then smoked slow, with low heat. All for that unforgettable tender, perfectly seasoned eating experience!

Now, our smoking ribs recipe starts with this truly classic rub that will impart all of the flavors your drooling chops are hankerin' for.Do not let the simplicity of this basic rub fool you. It works great, and you can adjust the recipe (as the "pros" do) to make it "yours". Look at our Rubs page for other great recipes and ideas.

A Great Basic Rub Recipe

Mix together thoroughly the following:

  • 1/4 cup dark brown sugar (packed). We prefer "turbinado sugar" for ease of use, but either one works fine.
  • 1/4 cup coarse kosher or sea salt.
  • 1/4 cup sweet paprika (vs the hot kind)
  • 3 tblsp ground pepper (fresh peppercorns recently ground!)
  • 1 tblsp garlic powder (not garlic salt)
  • 1 tblsp dried onion flakes (fresh will not work in this recipe)
  • 1 tsp cayenne pepper (no, it will not be "hot")

This recipe is enough for 3 to 4 racks of ribs and can be stored in an air-tight container in the refrigerator for up to 4 months.

O.K., you have a "known-good" rub recipe for smoking ribs, now...

  • Slather the meat with a thin coat of any common yellow table mustard (not mandatory, but a cool method many top contenders use) before applying the dry rub. This will not impart a mustard flavor (as that cooks out) but holds the spices close to the ribs, keeps the meat moist, does not block the smoke and leaves a nice thin seasoned coating.
  • Sprinkle the rub on the ribs, and if you chose not to use the mustard, gently rub it in the meat. Guys, do not over season (women rarely do). The "Cookin' Cousins" (men) and have learned the lesson when smoking ribs, a light application is sufficient!

Prepare a "Mop"?

Do you really need a mop when smoking ribs?A long time favorite with many experienced rib cookers (and we've learned to love it) is to apply a mop (baste sauce), during the cooking cycle, to flavor and keep the meat moist. Mops are usually a watery mixture of vinegar, water and spices applied with a "basting mop".

Notice the spices in the baste are similar to the rub? You want to compliment the flavors of your rub and it is OK to use just the basic spices of the rub (with vinegar and water). Experiment and have fun!

Here is a simple favorite:

Barbecue Rib Recipe Mop

  • 1/2 cup vinegar (apple cider type, for our taste)
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 4 tbsp prepared yellow mustard
  • 3 tbsp olive or peanut oil
  • 1 tbsp garlic powder
  • 1 tbsp chili powder
  • 1 tsp cayenne

Mix well and put mop sauce in a bowl, to be applied with a mop tool or...you can use just the water, vinegar and oil, in a spray bottle. If using the mop tool, stir each time before mopping. Never save mop sauce left in the bowl (it is tainted with the meat's raw juices), otherwise the sauce will last a long time in the refrigerator. Look at our Rubs page for more fun mop recipes.

If you wish, for max flavor and moisture when smoking ribs, you can marinade the ribs with the mop a few hours (up to a day) before cooking time. Just put the ribs in plastic bag, or a covered glass/plastic container, cover them with the mop and put them into the refrigerator.

Get that Smoker Ready...

Our recipe for smoking ribs is written for the vertical 'box", or "bullet" wet-pan type smokers, regardless of the heat source so...

  • Fill the water pan to within an inch of the top (or at least 2/3 full). Use hot water to help avoid wasting fuel.
  • For gas or electric smokers, place the chips (presoaked in water 20 min. to an hour) in the wood chip box. One full box of chips will last for several hours, which will be sufficient for the whole cooking time.
  • Fire-up the cooker and get the temperature to about 225°F (107°C) and prepare to keep that temperature as steady as you can! Maintain the temperature between 200-225°F (93-107°C) for the ideal ribs.

NOTE: If you are using a charcoal fired smoker, soak 3 - 4 cups of (dry) chips/chunks for about an hour, drain and place them directly on the coals, once the smoker has reached temperature. This will be sufficient for the entire cooking period, regardless of the addition of more coals. Too much smoke=bitter and nasty!

Control the temperature using the bottom vents only. The top vent should always remain open and not used to control oxygen intake. Each cooker is different so, when smoking ribs, experience rules!

Cook 'Em

  • Place the slabs on the racks, bone side down. If a full slab will not fit on a rack, cut in half. For best heat and smoke distribution when smoking ribs, do not let them touch or overlap.
  • Close the cooker (did you remember to put the oven thermometer on a rack?) Let the cooker recover the heat loss and keep it at about 200-225°F(93-107°C).
  • Resist peeking! You're loosing precious heat. Open the lid/door only far enough to do the job and don't tarry. Check the ribs for the first time in about 20 minutes to make sure the temperature is holding, let them cook for about 2-3 hours, and then check about every half hour to mop and check temperature. Guys, when smoking ribs, apply the mop sparingly (but thoroughly).
  • You have time! If you have judiciously maintained the cooking temperature, peeked and mopped the ribs quickly, you can leave your station several times before the ribs are done. When smoking ribs think 30 minutes between mopping/temperature checks and 5-8 hours 'til end-of-shift. When the meat starts to pull away from the end of the bones, grab that instant-read meat thermometer and...
  • Check the meat between the bones, looking for 205°F (96°C) to be the magic number. Spare ribs will need about 5 to 8 hours to fully cook. Country Ribs and Back Ribs will take longer. Use the tongs and wiggle a rib to test. Meat should be loose from the bone, when done.
  • Smoking ribs imparts a wonderful, natural flavor, so we emphasize the need to season lightly. If you wish (or if you must) you can now bring out your favorite BBQ sauce and baste during the last half hour of cooking. We do not use barbecue sauce when smoking ribs, as inhibits the absorption of the smoke and many folks just want the natural smoked flavor, but this is entirely your choice.
  • Wrap in aluminum foil, place in a brown paper bag and set aside if you can not serve them immediately. This gives you some time to get the meal together and helps make the meat tender!

Serve Em!...

...warm, cut individually and for the Cookin' Cousins" taste, eat 'em just as they are, but...many folks like a "finishing sauce". This is nothing more than a barbecue sauce, of your choice, served as a side dish (or two), for the folks who would like to put something more on their ribs. Lets eat!

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