There are many right ways to prepare barbecue pork ribs, and they all are done in a smoker. You can wrap the ribs while cooking or leave them as-is (or do a combination), use a dry rub and a sauce or no sauce at all, and cook the ribs fully in the smoker for tenderness inside and outside, or finish cooking over a high heat for a crispy exterior. But no matter which method you choose, you will need some standard equipment and ingredients.
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What You Need
For your smoker, you need to make sure you have plenty of fuel (remember, this is a long cooking process), whether it be charcoal or whatever your smoker burns, as well as wood chunks which will help you control the level of heat. Also handy is a reliable meat thermometer, heavy-duty aluminum foil (if you intend to wrap your ribs), and a large knife. Then, of course, you need the racks of ribs, a rib rub, and barbecue sauce if you intend to sauce your barbecue ribs.
Preparing the Smoker
Before putting the ribs into the smoker, you need to prep the smoker for several hours ahead of time to get it to the right temperature. About 6 hours before cooking, set up your smoker to hold a temperature around 225 F (110 C). You will want a strong smoke source at the beginning of the cooking time and again towards the end of the cooking time if you intend to add sauce to the ribs while they are on the smoker. This is done by adding wood chunks to the fire when you first put the ribs on the smoker to cook.
Once you have a good strong fire going with your smoker adjusted to hold the right temperature, it is time to get started on preparing the barbecue ribs.
Buying and Preparing the Pork Ribs
As critical as the smoker preparation is, making sure you buy the right rack of ribs is equally as important, as is the way you prepare them for the smoker.
When buying the ribs, you want to look for a full rack that is even in thickness throughout; if the rack is thin on one side and thick on the other it won't cook evenly. Of course, the nature of ribs is that they have a meaty side and a not-so-meaty side, so you can't get a perfect evenness. Just look for a rack of ribs that isn't too lopsided.
Once you bring the ribs home, you need to do a little work. First, trim the ribs so there isn't anything hanging off. Make sure you cut away any loose pieces of meat or fat, as these will dry out while cooking. This trimming includes removing the membrane, which is the most important trimming task for a good rack of smoked ribs. The membrane is a layer of skin on the bone-side of the rack and this tough material blocks flavor and smoke from reaching the meat. When cooked at low temperatures the membrane will remain tough and will detract from the eating experience.
The good thing is it's easy to remove the membrane if you do it correctly. Start at one end of the rack and with a blunt knife, work your way under the membrane along the surface of the last bone. Using a paper towel, grab hold of the membrane and peel it off. Sometimes you can get it in one grab, and other times the rack is a little stubborn and it might take a few tries to get the majority of the membrane off.
Applying a Pork Rib Rub
The rub is your best source for flavoring your barbecue ribs. It is applied before the ribs go into the smoker, which gives the flavors of the spice mixture the entire cooking time to sink into the meat and give the ribs a lot of extra flavor. You can use a sweet rub, a spicy rub, or a savory rib rub—the choice is yours. Remember that hot spices will mellow during cooking time, so if you want your ribs spicy hot you will have to make the rub very spicy (or add a spicy barbecue sauce at the end).
With your ribs trimmed and your smoker hot, it's time to put on the rub. If you apply the rub too early your ribs will get a "hammy" flavor and they could end up being dried out; by applying the rub closer to cooking time, you will get all the flavor without the texture of the meat being altered by the salt and spices.
The rub should be applied to the whole surface of the rack of ribs, and in a thick enough layer to heavily coat the meat. Don't worry if not all of the rub adheres to the meat—only so much spice will stick to the ribs, and that's exactly how much you want. From this point forward you want to be careful how you handle the rack of ribs. The more you handle the ribs the more rub will fall off.
Placing Pork Ribs on the Smoker
Knowing how your smoker works is vital to producing a good barbecue. You want to make sure that your ribs are exposed to even heat, so if you know there is a hot spot in your smoker, have a plan to deal with it. When placing your ribs in the smoker, do not block the flow of air; an even airflow all around the ribs (and through the smoker) is very important. Place the ribs in the center of the cooking area where the smoke can move evenly around all sides of the rack.
If your smoker doesn't have a lot of space, you might consider buying a rib rack. A rib rack accessory allows you to stack the ribs on their sides so that you can fit more racks of ribs in your smoker than if they were laying flat.
When placing the ribs in the smoker, make sure you do not stretch out the rack of ribs; stretching out the rack can increase the toughness of the meat when fully cooked. (Meat shrinks as it cooks and you don't want to impede that from happening.) Instead, do the opposite: Once you place the rack in the smoker, push it together gently from the ends. This will let the meat (and fat) contract evenly as it cooks.
Wrapping the Ribs
You can just let your barbecue ribs smoke as they are, but many people swear by what is known as the 3-2-1 method. The numbers refer to the number of hours the ribs cook wrapped and unwrapped in the smoker: 3 hours unwrapped on the smoker, 2 hours wrapped tightly (airtight) in heavy-duty foil on the smoker, and then the final 1 hour unwrapped on the smoker.
This process allows the ribs to be exposed to smoke for 4 hours (3 hours at first, then the final hour), while they steam in their own juices for the middle 2 hours. This method will make the ribs more tender, but can also cause them to become a little too tender. If you want the rib meat to stick to the bone, you might want to skip the wrapping. If, however, you prefer fall-off-the-bone ribs, then you should definitely wrap them for the 2 hours.
A full rack of ribs should be smoked for roughly 6 hours. During the first few hours is when the meat absorbs the most smoke flavor, so make sure that you are producing a good supply of smoke during this time.
If you are using baby back ribs then the cooking time should be about 5 hours. If you want to wrap your baby backs, reduce the first wrapping phase to 2 hours.
Finishing the Ribs and Using a Barbecue Sauce
Once your ribs are getting close to done (look for an internal temperature around 170 F/75 C), it is time to think about how you want the ribs to be served.
The first question you need to ask yourself is about the surface of the meat. Smoked ribs are tender from end to end. Some people, however, like their ribs to be a little crispy on the surface. To do this, take the ribs out from the smoker and place them over a high, direct heat. This can be done over the fire in your firebox if your smoker has one, or on a gas grill. The trick is to put the rack of ribs over the high heat for about 2 minutes a side. This will crisp up the surface and give the ribs a nice crunchy texture. If you go this direction you do not want sauce on the ribs before they hit the high heat since sugar, which is a primary ingredient to most sauces, burns at 265 F. If the rack has sauce on it, the sauce will burn over this more intense heat.
If you crisp the ribs you can apply your sauce after they come off the high heat. Brush on the barbecue sauce and return the ribs to the smoker for a while to help the sauce sink in. However, don't leave the ribs in too long; the combination of the low and slow heat and the barbecue sauce is going to soften up the surface of the ribs again and you will lose that crispy exterior. If you are concerned this may happen, you can simply apply the sauce, cut the ribs, and serve.
If you are not crisping the surface of the ribs, then start applying the sauce toward the tail end of the cooking time. If you wrapped the ribs, start applying the sauce as soon as the foil comes off. By putting the sauce on and continuing to smoke the ribs, you will get more smoke into the sauce. The barbecue sauce will cook onto the surface making the ribs sticky, but not dripping in sauce (if you want them dripping keep adding sauce). If you want extra smoke flavor, put in more wood at this point.
Resting, Cutting, and Serving Barbecue Pork Ribs
Like any meat you cook, it is important to let the rack of ribs rest before you carve and serve it. This evens out the heat and lets the natural juices sink back into the meat. For a rack of ribs, you should let the meat rest for about 10 minutes after you take it out of the smoker. Once rested, it is time to cut the ribs and serve. Try not to let your ribs sit around too long or the meat will dry out.
To cut the ribs, take a good sharp meat knife in one hand and the rack of ribs in the other. It is easiest to carve ribs by setting them standing up on the meaty side (bones should be sticking out a little on the top side). Now you can simply slide the knife down through the rack between the bones. If you guide it down directly between the bones you should be able to pass the knife through easily.
If your ribs are "fall-off-the-bone" tender, then you want to lay the ribs down, bone-side up, and cut them the best you can. If the ribs are very tender the meat will tear apart more easily than it will cut. Be careful or you will lose the shape of the ribs and simply end up with a pile of rib meat.
The last part is to take note of your ribs. Too tender? Not tender enough? Too sweet? Too spicy? If you record your process, the next time you smoke a rack of ribs you will be able to make the necessary adjustments.