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BBQ 101: Smoked BBQ Pork Ribs

The end product of smoking spareribs slow and low to perfection.

Amongst barbecue aficionados there is considered to be a “trinity” of barbecued meats: beef brisket, pork shoulder, and pork ribs. Each of these meats has a region in America that is known for mastering these cuts. For instance, Texas is known as the capital of beef brisket. The Carolinas, in turn, are known for preparing a mean pork shoulder. And the midwestern cities of Kansas City, St. Louis, and Memphis are known for pork ribs.

I love me some pork ribs. They are one of the best, easiest, and quickest smoked barbecue dinners that you can put together. And they are so damn delicious.

Once you learn how to do them yourself, at home, on your grill, you’ll never settle for Applebee’s ribs again. And once you’ve nailed it once, it’s easy to replicate in the future. So let’s get started on learning how to make smoked pork ribs on your grill.

Gear List

As always, you need your smoking gear. If you are already prepared, skip to the next section on rib cuts.

BBQ smoker

I use a Weber kettle charcoal grill set up for smoking. I’ve written a post about how to smoke on your Weber grill, check it out. People are always amazed at the results I get from this setup. But it really shouldn’t be all that surprising. Barbecue has always been about cooking over coals. The best pit masters in America continue to cook over coals.

Grill thermometer

A lot of grills and smokers come with a built-in thermometer. However, a better way to go is to get a remote barbecue thermometer. I use a Redi-Chek brand one and it has stood up well with a lot of usage. The great thing about remote thermometers is that you can go anywhere on your property and still keep an eye on the temperature of your grill. So you can get some work done or cool off inside and not run back to the grill every few minutes.

Briquettes or lump charcoal

There is a lot written on the web about using one or the other and which is better and all that. Really, at the end of the day, both give great flavor and work well. I use both at the same time. Mainly because with my Weber set up, a mix of larger pieces of lump charcoal combined with the smaller briquettes allows for a longer period between refueling. But also because the briquettes tend to light quicker and so a mix allows for an even burn rate throughout the long hours of a smoke session. Obviously, the type of smoker you use will determine what you ultimately choose to use and in what proportions.

Drip pan

Whatever type of smoker you use, a drip pan filled partially with water is essential to regulating the temperature during smoking. And it keeps your smoker cleaner because it catches meat drippings. I use disposable aluminum pans that you can get from the baking aisle at your local supermarket.

Rib Cuts

When smoking ribs, I tend to think of pork ribs so that’s what this post is about. But obviously, you can do some awesome things with beef ribs as well.

There are four main types of pork ribs that you’ll see in the store. Wait a moment… four types of ribs??? Does that even make sense? After all, a pig isn’t some weird mutant alien creature is it? So what’s us with all the types of ribs? 

Well let’s be a little clearer: there are four main types of pork ribs cuts

  • Baby Back Ribs. From the spine (chine) to the end of the curve of the ribs. Separated from the spareribs by the butcher – sometimes with a bandsaw. These tend to be a bit meatier, but shorter.
  • Spareribs. From the end of the curve of the ribs down to the sternum. Includes the ribs and rib tips. Contains some cartilage and is fattier than baby back ribs due to being in closer proximity to where bacon is cut from.
  • St. Louis Style Ribs. Cut from the spareribs. The small triangular flap of meat at the side and the long, cartilage-filled piece at the top are trimmed to produce a rectangular shaped cut of ribs. Cleaner to cook and eat than spareribs but with a little less meat. And more expensive.
  • Country Style Ribs. A piece of pork shoulder cut into strips to resemble ribs. Still delicious but just not ribs.

So, which cut should you choose? It doesn’t really matter. They all produce awesome smoked ribs but really it all comes down to your preference. I tend to go with the spareribs because I don’t mind trimming it myself and I like the extra meat that is in the skirt under the ribs. But it truly comes down to what you and your family like. Get them all and try them out!

Dry Rub

There are as many dry rubs as there are opinions out there. As such, this is one area where you just want to experiment and see what really speaks to you.

I would suggest, however, that you – at the least – salt the ribs a few hours before you smoke them. This is so that you get the beneficial effects of dry brining. Essentially, the salt acts to keep the outer layers of the meat from drying out during the cooking process.

As for dry rub recipes, I have two for you. 

  • The Buck Magnussen BBQ Rub that I’ve developed.
  • Brown sugar & mustard. Take your favorite mustard (I use brown) and lather the ribs in it. Take a good handful of brown sugar and rub it in with the mustard. It sort of makes a paste. Then season the ribs with salt, black pepper, garlic powder, and onion powder like you’re seasoning your dinner steaks. Done!

Setting Up the Smoker

If you have a dedicated smoker, you’re good to go. If you’re using a grill or pit to smoke the ribs, then set it up for indirect heat cooking. I have an in-depth guide on using a Weber charcoal grill as a smoker here.

What is indirect heat cooking? It just means that you are cooking the meat away from the fire. Direct heat cooking is when you put the meat directly above the fire – like you would when searing a steak or hamburger.

Make sure you put your drip pan in place and either use another pan or heavy-duty aluminum foil to cook the ribs in. Do not cover the ribs. You want the smoke to add that extra layer of lovely barbecue flavor.

I do not use wood chips when smoking ribs because I don’t think they need that extra flavor, especially since they get a heavier rub and sauce. However, if you do use wood chips, this is when you should get your wood chips ready by soaking them in water, which allows them to burn slower, thereby providing the meat more time to be exposed the smoke. 

Ribs, like any pork, will do well with both light and heavy smoke flavors. That means you can’t go wrong picking a wood. For a lighter flavor, go with apple or cherry. For a heavier smoke flavor, go with the old pork standby hickory. 

Smoking Process

Fire up your smoker and get the temperature somewhere in the 225 to 275-degree range. The magic number for traditional smoking is 225 degrees. However, so long as you are somewhere in this range you are going to get great results.

Prepare to let the ribs cook anywhere from three to four hours. This is not an exact science because the temperature of your smoker and the size of the ribs will cause fluctuations in cooking time. 

Every hour or so, you can check on the ribs and mop them with some liquid to assist with keeping them moist. It isn’t strictly necessary, I’ve found over the years, but some people like to do it. You can use straight apple cider vinegar or a mixture of the vinegar and some apple juice. Or some other concoction you’ve come up with.

When you start seeing the ribs pull back from the bone, your ribs are essentially done. There are essentially two directions you can take things at this point:

  • Pull the ribs from the smoker and let them rest. Competition barbecue doesn’t cook the meat until it falls off the bone. Perfection, it their minds, is being able to bite cleanly through the ribs without pulling the rest of the meat from the bone. 
  • Let the ribs continue to cook for approximately 15 more minutes until the meat gets to the point where it falls off the bone. Many backyard barbecuers and their “customers” love it this way. My family does, too. But do what youwant.

Regardless of the tact you choose, decide before you take the ribs out of the smoker whether you will serve them dry or sauced. If you decide to go the sauce route, sauce the ribs and leave them in the smoker for a few more minutes to let the sauce set. Need a recipe for homemade barbecue sauce? Check out the Buck Magnussen Kansas City-Style BBQ Sauce.