The perfect smoked ribs are tender and juicy on the inside and caramelized to perfection on the outside. Just about everyone remembers eating a particularly delicious slab of ribs at a get-together, a family gathering, or their favorite BBQ joint. If you’re new to using a grill or smoker, never fear. Smoked ribs are a great way to experiment with techniques and flavors. Start with a basic, simple recipe, a few barbecue guidelines for the grill or smoker, throw in some personal touches, and serve.
It all starts with choosing the right slab of meat. Some people prefer pork, while others say beef ribs are the best, no question. Baby back ribs are shorter, leaner, and generally carry a higher price tag because they are more tender. And no, they don’t actually come from a baby animal. Spareribs are meatier, have less curve to the rack, and they’re easier to cook. Choose slabs with a decent amount of fat on them, with evenly distributed meat on both ends, if possible. That way, one end doesn’t cook faster than the other.
If you have a smoker, it will need plenty of time to get to the right temperature — up to six hours — before you add the ribs. If you have a grill and not a smoker, you’ll need to add wood throughout the cooking process to keep the fire going. Soak wood chips in water overnight to add once you’ve placed the ribs on the grill. When the smoker or grill is holding the right temperature, start prepping the ribs.
If you’ve ever eaten a chewy rib, it’s probably because the cook didn’t remove the thin membrane that runs along the back of the slab. Not only does it hinder the rib’s tenderness, but it can also block flavor from seeping into the meat during the smoking process. Use the dull side of a small knife and pry open the skin membrane slowly, pulling it up and away from the rib. It’s easier to grip the slippery membrane with a paper towel as you move down the length of the rib rack. The membrane may not come off in one piece and it may take a few tries to remove it entirely, but you’ll be happy that you took this step once you bite into the finished ribs.
This is an extra step, but a worthwhile one. A marinade helps break down the fat and muscle, tenderize the meat, and add additional flavor. Try using a combination of ingredients like soy sauce, vinegar, and olive oil. Marinate the ribs for eight hours in the refrigerator before cooking for maximum benefit.
A dry rub is a mixture of dried spices, and with barbecue dishes, they almost always start with salt and pepper, mixed with garlic powder, brown sugar, and onion powder. Add spices like paprika, chili powder, and a smidge of cayenne to kick up the flavor. The sugar liquefies and caramelizes during cooking, adding a tasty outside layer. If you prefer, use a wet rub instead of a dry one. It’s basically a dry rub mixed with oil or another liquid to create a paste.
If you have a grill, create a boat out of aluminum foil. Place the wood chips in the foil and set on the grill’s lower rack. Slowly add wood during the cooking time, if necessary. Ideally, the grill should have a temperature of around 300 degrees while smoking. Position the rack of ribs so that they aren’t directly over the wood chips on the upper rack. For the smoker, the temperature should hold at around 200 degrees. Place the ribs in the middle of the smoker’s top rack. Smoke for two hours.
Remove the ribs from the grill. If using a smoker, increase the temperature to 250 degrees. Wrap the ribs in a layer of airtight aluminum foil and smoke for another two hours. For the smoker, create an aluminum foil boat, place the ribs inside, and pour a cup of apple juice over them. Seal the foil. Return to the fire and smoke an additional two hours.
The thickest part of the meat should register between 190 to 200 degrees consistently. If you don’t have a meat thermometer, use tongs to gently lift the ribs at the center. If they bend, and the outside meat cracks, it’s ready for the next step: slathering it in a delicious barbecue sauce.
To finish grill-style ribs, remove the foil, turn up the heat, and baste the ribs with your favorite store-bought or homemade sauce. Grill for five minutes, flip them, add more sauce, and grill for an additional five minutes or until the sauce thickens and browns. If you’re using the smoker method, remove the ribs from the apple juice and coat with barbecue sauce. Increase the smoker’s temperature to 350 degrees. Return the ribs to the smoker’s grill for 15 minutes, uncovered. The sugar should caramelize, but not burn.
Once you remove the meat from the grill or smoker, it’s important to let the it rest for 15 to 30 minutes before cutting it into individual ribs or servings. This allows the meat fibers to redistribute and reabsorb the moisture. Instead of those delicious natural juices flowing out when you slice up the slab, the meat retains most of them, creating a tastier, more succulent rib.