Prime rib is a cut of meat that most of the time gets cooked in the oven. You might already know that you can make a better-tasting prime rib by grilling the roast, but were you aware that there also is another technique? Prime rib in the smoker is a slower process that adds all that smoky flavor and produces an amazingly tender and delicious roast.
What You Need
Before you run out and buy a seven-bone rib roast, make sure you have the smoker capacity to handle it. The largest prime rib roast can measure more than 16 inches long—you want to have two inches on either side of the meat for the heat and smoke to pass by. This means that an 18-inch diameter smoker might just not be big enough to handle a roast of this size. Plan on one rib bone serving two people, or about 1 pound per person. This might sound like a lot, but people won't be passing up a chance for seconds and the roast will shrink during cooking.
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In addition to the prime rib roast, you will need:
- Fuel for your smoker
- Aluminum foil
- Reliable meat thermometer
- Large cutting board
- Sharp knife
- Good prime rib rub
- Disposable aluminum pan
- Pair of high-temperature food-safe gloves
The smoking process will take about 20 to 30 minutes per pound depending on conditions, the type of smoker used, and your level of the desired doneness. Knowledge of your particular smoker and how it runs is very important. Use the cooking time chart for prime rib to calculate the time you need. The target temperature of the meat is going to be between 130 F and 150 F/55 C to 65 C and the smoking temperature is going to be 250 F/120 C.
Trimming the Prime Rib
Make sure you tell the butcher that you are going to smoke the prime rib—butchers and meat markets generally think that the rib roast you buy is going to go in the oven and that you are going to cook it at a very high temperature for a short period of time before reducing the temperature to roast until done. For smoking, this process is going to be backward, and since we want smoke flavor, there needs to be a way for that smoke to get to the actual meat.
The conventional wisdom of prime rib is to leave a thick layer of fat all around the roast. When it comes to smoking meat, however, you want to expose the meat to the flavorful smoke. The outer layer of fat on the typical rib roast is going to prevent absorption of smoke flavor and the only parts that will have it are the ends. On a large roast, this is a problem. Also, since this roast will be slow roasted, we won't worry as much about the meat drying out as we will with getting smoke flavor evenly distributed. For this reason, we want to trim away a good portion of the fat cap that sits opposite the bone side of the roast.
The bones (provided you are using a bone-in roast) can be removed and tied back in place or cut so that there is a kind of hinge between the bones and the roast. This gives you access to season underneath the meat, but it won't give access to the meat for the smoke to penetrate.
Seasoning the Prime Rib
Of course, the star of any prime rib is the roast itself and it doesn't need a lot of complex seasonings to make it great. On the other hand, it doesn't hurt either. You can choose to go with simple salt and pepper or add a flavorful herb-based prime rib rub. You should season generously with salt, as that is what is going to bring out not only the flavors of the meat but the smoke as well.
Apply your seasonings evenly over the meat, focusing on the top of the meat. This has the best chance of penetrating into the meat and basting over the surface. If you have cut away or removed the bones to be tied on later, make sure to get the seasoning between the bones and the meat.
Smoking is a low-temperature cooking method and you want to start that process by letting the rib roast sit at room temperature for 2 to 3 hours before it hits the smoker. (You can wrap it in plastic wrap and leave it on the counter. The plastic wrap keeps the moisture in and helps to prevent contamination.)
Setting Up the Smoker
While the roast sits, it is time to get your smoker ready. If you have a small roast and don't have a smoker, a kettle grill works well. The important part here is that your smoker is set up to run for about 30 minutes per pound of your roast. (You might want to calculate an extra hour to be on the safe side.)
It is best to use a mild wood—stronger-flavored woods like hickory or oak are going to overpower the prime rib flavor. Any fruit wood, such as cherry, will work very well with a rib roast. Keep the smoke light to medium—a heavy smoke will create an acidic flavor, particularly in the fat. Don't worry about adding wood for smoke production until the roast is ready to go on.
Smoking will not render as many juices as higher temperature roasting, but if you intend to use drippings for gravy or other purposes, place a drip pan underneath the roast and make sure that the rack the meat is sitting on is very clean. Fill the drip pan with water before you place the roast in the smoker. The drippings will pick up a strong smoke flavor so be sure to taste anything made with them before you serve.
Rib Roast Placement for Smoking
With the smoker prepared and after the roast has had a chance to come to room temperature on the counter, it is time to start smoking. Place the rib roast on the smoker, over your drip pan, bone-side down. If your smoker's heat is from one side, like in an offset smoker, place the bone ends away from the heat to start.
If you are using wood chunks to produce smoke, now is the time to add those. Close up the smoker and let it do its thing.
Rotate the Rib Roast
Regardless of the style of the smoker, you are using, you should rotate your prime rib roast halfway through the cooking time to ensure even cooking. A good pair of high-temperature food-safe gloves is perfect for this. This is also a good time to check to make sure that there is water in your drip pan. Since the cooking temperature is low (around 250 F/120 C), the drippings won't burn easily, but you do want to prevent them from drying out if you are going to be using them later.
You also want to check the internal temperature of the roast at this point with a reliable meat thermometer. Depending on your target temperature, you should be closing in on around 100 F to 120 F/40 C to 50 C. Remember that after the roast is removed from the smoker, it will continue to rise in temperature by about 5 F/3 C during the resting phase. Subtract these numbers from your final target temperature and that will be the point at which you will remove the roast from the smoker.
Wrapping the Roast
Typical of the smoking process, as the rib roast approaches done, you can wrap it and let it finish off on the smoker. What you will get is a rich, flavorful, and smoky prime rib. What you won't get is a crisp, caramelized surface, so you need to make a decision.
If you choose to wrap it, make sure that you wrap the roast tightly in foil to hold in the juices and let it reach the point of being nearly done. Make sure that the smoker is maintaining heat—monitor the temperature closely to get it to the target temperature.
If you'd rather have a crusted exterior, remove the roast about 10 F/5 C below the target temperature and transfer the roast to either an oven heated to 400 F/205 C or an equally hot grill. Chances are you won't be able to crank up the heat on your smoker to this level fast enough, if at all.
This is called a reverse sear and it will crisp up the surface of the roast, putting a deep, rich brown color on it. You will only need to keep it at this high temperature for about 10 minutes to get the desired effect.
Resting and Carving
Regardless of the path you chose in the last step, once the roast is just short of your desired final temperature, remove it from the cooker and place it on a platter. Cover with a clean piece of aluminum foil and allow it to rest for about 10 minutes.
Transfer the roast to a cutting board and carve off the bones by sliding a knife along the edge of the bones. You can cut the bones into individual pieces and serve. Cut the roast to desired thickness remembering that thinner slices will dry out quickly but will be more tender and thicker cuts will remain moist longer, but might be tougher.