How to Smoke Prime Rib

Smoked Prime Rib

The Spruce / Sabrina S. Baksh

Typically, prime rib is oven-roasted—but there's more than one way to cook this cut of meat. You may already know that grilling a prime rib roast will deliver next-level tasting meat, but did you know that there is another (even better) cooking technique? Try smoking. Smoking a prime rib in a smoker or on your grill will add an exceptional smoky flavor to the meat while producing an amazingly tender and delicious roast. 

What You Need

Burning charcoal on a outdoor BBQ grill
Douglas Sacha / Getty Images

First things first: 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 in length, and you will want to have at least two inches on either side of the meat for the heat and smoke to circulate. This means that an 18-inch diameter smoker might not be big enough to handle a roast of this size. Plan on one rib bone serving two people, or about one pound per person. This might sound like a lot, but people won't be passing up on 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 20 to 30 minutes per pound depending on weather conditions, the type of smoker used, and your level of 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/55 C to 150 F/65 C and the smoking temperature is going to be 250 F/120 C.

Trimming the Prime Rib

Untrimmed Prime Rib
The Spruce / Sabrina S. Baksh

Make sure to tell your butcher that you will be smoking the prime rib. Butchers and meat markets generally assume that the rib roast you buy will be roasted in the oven at a very high temperature for a short period of time before reducing the temperature to finish cooking the meat. For smoking, this process will be reversed, to allow the smoke to permeate and flavor the meat.

The conventional wisdom about cooking prime rib is to leave a thick layer of fat all around the roast to help keep the meat moist. When it comes to smoking meat, however, you want to expose as much of the meat as possible to the flavorful smoke, and this outer layer of fat will prevent the even distribution and absorption of the smoke, leaving only the ends exposed. This is a problem with large roasts. Also, since the roast will be slow-roasted in the smoker, there is less worry about the meat drying out. For this reason, you want to trim away a good portion of the fat cap that sits on the opposite side of 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 hinge between the bones and the roast. This allows access to underneath the meat to season, but it won't give access to the meat for the smoke to penetrate. 

Seasoning the Prime Rib

Seasoning Rib Roast
The Spruce / Sabrina S. Baksh

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, a little seasoning doesn't hurt. You should always 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. You can choose to season simply with salt and pepper or add a flavorful herb-based prime rib rub.

Apply the seasonings evenly over the meat, focusing on the top of the meat. This has the best chance of penetrating the meat and basting over the surface. If you have cut away or removed the bones to be tied on later, make sure to season 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 stand at room temperature for 2 to 3 hours before smoking. (You can wrap the roast 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

Prime Rib Smoker Setup
The Spruce / Sabrina S. Baksh

While the roast sits, it's 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 fruitwood, 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 the drippings before serving. 

Rib Roast Placement for Smoking

Prime Rib on Charcoal Grill
The Spruce / Sabrina S. Baksh

With the smoker prepared and once the roast has had a chance to come to room temperature, it's time to start smoking. Place the rib roast on the smoker over the drip pan, bone-side down. If the 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 the smoker and let it do its thing.

Rotate the Rib Roast

Smoking Rib Roast
The Spruce / Sabrina S. Baksh

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 are 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 will 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 nearing 100 F/40 C to 120 F/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 while it rests. Subtract these numbers from the final target temperature and that will be the point at which you will remove the roast from the smoker. 

Wrapping the Roast

Wrapped Rib Roast
The Spruce / Sabrina S. Baksh

As the rib roast approaches done, you can wrap it in foil and let it finish off on the smoker—this is a typical method in the smoking process. 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 crusty 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 only need to cook it at this high temperature for about 10 minutes to get the desired effect.

Resting and Carving

Carving Prime Rib
The Spruce / Sabrina S. Baksh

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 your desired thickness, remembering that thinner slices will dry out quickly but will be more tender—and that thicker cuts will remain moist longer but might be tougher.