I L-O-V-E love ribs, if your reading this post I bet you love ribs too!
In the most modest and humble way I can type this next statement: I can make ribs so good that I no longer order ribs at BBQ restaurants. Simply put, I like my ribs better. I have shared my methods and tricks with my friends and have created a bit of a smoking circle. Give a man some good ribs and he will enjoy his meal, but teach him to smoke his own damn ribs and he will feed you amazing ribs countless times for the years to come.
Here is my best attempt to describe my method of smoking baby back ribs including lots of pictures because seeing is believing.
OK executive summary for folks who do not care to read my novel below.
- Select and trim your ribs. I prefer to purchase 2-3# slabs of baby back ribs, bigger is not always better. Plan on each guest to want to eat half of a slab. Confirm no loose meat or membrane remains
- Rub your ribs with a medium coating of rib rub. Let rubbed ribs rest in fridge for 30 minute or even overnight if you have time. Experiment and try a different rub on each slab, there is no universal flavor that appeals to every one.
- Use 2-1 combo of apple and hickory wood tennis ball sized chunks. Never use more than six pcs. Too much smoke is a bad thing!
- Fire up your smoker using 20 lit coals dumped on top of a full ring of unlit Kingsford charcoal.
- Load up your ribs and make sure temp is between 225-300 degrees for cooking low and slow. I always target my ribs to smoke @ 250 Degrees
- Cook Low and Slow till its done. BBQ is done when its done, it is hard to put a firm time on how long it will take as each slab of ribs if different and requires different time to break down. But 4 to 6 hours is a good window. Read detailed writeup below for ways to know when the ribs are done
- Remove the ribs from the smoker and let them rest covered loosely with aluminum foil for about 15 minutes, you do not need to add sauce but if you wanted to this is a good time to sauce it up.
- I like to slice them up into 2 bones sections and I serve them on a platter for my guests.
- Eat and enjoy the compliments because your ribs are perfect. They have a gentle accent of smokiness, they have a gorgeous pink smoke ring, the rub has formed a nice barky layer, and they tear off the bone.
Lets start talking some details with the equipment required to smoke your own ribs like me. My smoker of choice is the 22.5″ Weber Smokey Mountain. The 18″ version has an MSRP of $300 and the 22.5″ is $399, while both can be found used in your home town for half off. My main fuel source is the good old standard Kingsford Original that comes in the blue and white bags. The “K” goes on sale during the major American summer holidays, and when it does I stock up like 400+ pounds. I recommend a nice sturdy set of long tongs. some heat resistant gloves, and a chimney starter, I prefer this weber chimney starter.
I buy almost all of my smoking meats at Costco. Costco meat is delicious, it is consistent, and well priced. They offer baby backs (also know also pork loin back ribs) in three packs sealed in a cryovac bag, as well as in a two-pack that they package in-house. I prefer to buy my ribs from Costco in the two-pack as I can get a better look at all of the meat as both slabs are visible. From experience with the 3 pack cryovacs, it is common to find a pretty large difference in weight between slabs. I recommend that you select your ribs to be consistent weights so that they are finished cooking at similar times. I try to select baby back slabs that are between two and three pounds each. If you have a meat counter you like to buy meat from you can ask them to weight a few out and try to get you the best matching slabs in your target range of 2-3#/each. A good rule of thumb for how many slabs you should buy for an event is one slab for every two people. This will ensure you have enough to go around and when word spreads that “insert your name here is smoking some ribs today” some extra folks may just show up to feast. Below is a picture of the package of ribs I purchased from Costco to write this post with. Notice the two pack weighed in at 6.25#, a bit larger than I wanted but at the warehouse stores you sometimes cant get the size you desire.
When you get home with your ribs, open the package, rinse them with cold water and then pat them dry with paper towels. This is now your opportunity to look for firm pieces of fat or stringy scrappy areas of meat or blood vessels near the ends. If you find any remove them carefully with your knife. I also like to square off my ribs at the end sometimes even removing one bone. Next you will flip over the ribs and look for the membrane and remove it. A great video tutorial (curated by a man with a super deep voice) for removing the membrane is found here. If you bought your ribs from Costco they do remove the membrane from all of there slabs, but I always inspect and remove if it was missed as I don’t want my guests to try and eat this. You ribs are now ready to be rubbed, for ribs I like to get a nice medium coating on all sides of the slabs. Once the rub is on place the ribs back into the fridge (30 minutes or even over night if you have enough time). After my meat has been rubbed, I prefer to keep my smoking meat in the fridge until it is time to load it onto the smoker.
In this tutorial I will not go into any details on rubs and will just assume you have your own secret recipe or have purchased one of the thousands of commercially available rubs on the market.
For ribs I have found the best smoking wood is a combination (~2 to1 ratio) of apple wood and hickory. I typically use two tennis ball sized chunks of hickory and three or four similar sized chunks of apple wood. Apple wood has a light, fruity, somewhat sweet aroma and seems to be the unanimous favorite smoking wood for pork ribs. Hickory is probably the most widely used smoking wood for all types of meat used in BBQ, but it has a strong woodsy flavor. I use it sparingly and always compliment it with some form of a fruit wood. When used alone many folks complain that it is overwhelming. The biggest mistake a first time smoker can make is over doing the smoke wood, remember we want to taste the meat not the wood used to cook it. When in doubt less is more.
Now its time to fire up the smoker. On my Weber Smokey Mountain (WSM) I fill the ring completely with Kingsford. I then place 20 coals into the chimney starter, and wait till the coals are quite grey throughout. Dump the lit coals in the center of the fire ring. I like to spend the next 5 minutes putting a char on all sides of my smoking wood. I have no clue if this does anything to help or harm but I have done this on every single smoke. The fire is now ready, so assemble the middle and top sections of your WSM and open all of your vents. I like to smoke my meat with an empty water pan, and I cover the water pan with heavy duty aluminum foil, this makes it a cinch to clean up later. I have been thru 2 separate experiences in which the access door has fallen off so before every cook I make sure my WSM access door is securely attached. If you have to go to the bathroom or grab a fresh beer do it now, with the assembled smoker you have a few free minutes.Now go get your ribs out of the fridge and toss them bones down onto your top grate.
All your vents should be open if you forgot do it now. The vent on the top of your WSM should never be adjusted leave it wide open for the entire smoke. The three vents on the bottom of your WSM can be consider the throttle or temp control. By closing one or more of these vents you will start to restrict the air intake and prevent the fire from getting too warm. So if you want the temp to rise allow more air in the bottom vents, and if you want the temp to drop close some bottom vents and restrict the air intake. At this point you are going to want to be next to the smoker watching the temp rise. You are aiming for a target smoking temp of 250 degrees. As the smoker rises to the 200 degree range I recommend shutting one vent, and then another as it rises to the 225 range. Be patient during this time because you will not see immediate changes in temp when you adjust a vent. I like to think it takes about 10-15 minutes to see what my vent adjustment has actually done. Each smoke is a little different. Go with the flow and the WSM will eventually settle in @ 250 degrees (225-300 is acceptable) and you should plan to not have to adjust the vents much more from this point.
The smoker is smoking! The ribs have been loaded, and the temp is right where you wanted it to be, everything is stable. Plan to not have to touch the smoker for the next three hours. Do not open the smoker to take a peak, “if you lookin you aint cookin” . Do not fiddle with the vents constantly if it is far from your target go ahead and make an adjustment to the vents but if you are off by 10 Degrees dont sweat it leave it alone. Typically I wait 3 hours before I do anything to the ribs. At the three hour point I flip the ribs end for end and put the bone side up. Below are pics at the three hour point, pre and post flip. Notice how the meat is beginning to shrink slightly and the bones are becoming more visible.
At this point after the flip. I typically wait one more hour and flip the ribs back to bone side down. Then every 30 minutes from now till the end of the smoke I look and check for done-ness. The ribs used for this smoking session were large and in charge, so I expected them to take longer than 4 hours. Remember earlier I said they were a bit larger than my desired 2-3# slab target.
The picture above is at the four hour mark after I flipped them back to bone side down. Notice the meat is pulling down off the bones even more. This is a good sign that these ribs are getting close. I like to use a method we can call the bend test. To perform the bend test lift one slab into the air using a set of sturdy and long tongs grabbing at close to the middle of the slab. When the ribs are DONE they will almost form a 90 degree angle. Be careful to not lift the slab too high or to shake it too much as you may cause them to tear apart or give your self a false reading that they are actually done. Below are two bend tests, the first is close but the second (~60 minutes later) is perfect time to pull the ribs off of the smoker.
Do perform this test for each slab on your smoker as some slabs will reach the DONE mark sooner than others. Selecting similar sized slabs will reduce the need to pull slabs off at different times, but with hungry guests an early slab of ribs is never a bad thing! When your ribs are DONE bring them into the house and loosely cover them with aluminum foil and let them rest for 15-20 minutes or as long as you can tolerate. Some folks like to sauce the ribs on the smoker, if you are one of these people try to do it about 30 minutes prior to removing the slabs. I prefer to sauce my slabs while they are resting or not at all.
I like to cut my ribs into two bone pieces and serve to my guests on my chopping block or a platter. The perfect rib will remain intact until you bite into it, and then it will tear cleanly off the bone. If your meat falls off of the bone you over cooked your ribs. If your meat tears off the bone but not cleanly you prob undercooked them. Keep notes on your smoking sessions, so you can learn from each cook. Record the weight of the slabs, the outside temps, the smoking temps, any mistakes you made, and the end results. If you follow my method I bet you will have many plates filled with clean bones and a few new friends.