Y’all know I’m usually preparing ribs for BBQ competitions. That technique is different than this method.
For comps, there is a lot of special trimming involved. The ribs have to be cooked to a certain temp, so there is still a slight tug to the meat. And the flavors are usually amped up with a brine or injection, because judges only take one to two bites.
Also, competition BBQ almost always uses St. Louis style ribs, instead of baby back ribs.
But today, I want to help you master the classic backyard BBQ favorite. Forget the professional judges. This baby back ribs method is aimed at pleasing your little ones and next-door neighbors.
What’s the difference between baby back ribs and St. Louis style ribs?
Both baby back ribs and St. Louis style ribs come from a hog. They just come from different parts of the ribcage.
The baby back ribs are toward the back of the ribcage; up near the hog’s spine. St. Louis style ribs are a trimmed version of a spare rib, which comes from the front/belly section of the hog.
You can easily tell them apart in the butcher’s case, by looking at the bones. The baby back ribs are more arched. They create more of a C shape – while the spares and St. Louis style ribs are flat.
As for taste, St. Louis style ribs are meatier and fattier, because they’re near the belly (where bacon comes from). Baby backs are leaner and more tender. They rest near the pork loin. Both are rather awesome, so you can’t go wrong with either.
Cook to color and feel, not time
I created this post to help out my neighbor. He loves cooking baby back ribs, but he hasn’t quite mastered them yet.
He’s tried the 3-2-1 method and a few others, but he keeps getting frustrated with the results.
The 3-2-1 method is when you smoke the ribs for 3 hours. Wrap and cook for 2 more hours. Unwrap, sauce and cook for one more hour.
That method works great on spare ribs and St. Louis style ribs, but not so well on baby back ribs, because they’re smaller and leaner.
My neighbor is really set on needing to know how long to cook the ribs. I don’t cook baby back ribs very often, so I couldn’t give him exact cook times off the top of my head.
I cook to color and feel, not time, because every rack of ribs is going to be a bit different. And your smoker may cook differently from day to day, depending on weather and winds.
To adapt for these variables, it’s best to master the cook with your senses, not a stopwatch.
But I appreciate that knowing a general cook time is beneficial, so I smoked up a few racks to break down the timing for him.
I’ll explain exactly what I’m looking for below, but first let’s get the ribs ready for the smoker.
Remove the silverskin
On the backside of every rack of ribs is a membrane called a silverskin.
It’s really chewy and won’t render down during your cook, so I strongly recommend removing it before you season your ribs.
It can be a little tricky to peel it off, because it’s slippery. Use a paper towel and grip a piece of the corner of the skin. You can help pry it up with a butter knife, if you can’t quite grip it.
If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to peel it off in one pull. If not, don’t worry – each rack is different, and some are just more stubborn. Just keep gripping it where you need to until it’s all removed.
How much rub should I use?
I don’t usually measure my rubs. I just sprinkle, until the meat is covered with a medium blanket of rub. That can be hard to judge, so I went ahead and measured things out for you with this recipe.
If you go with 1 tablespoon of rub per side, you should be good. If you like to layer your rubs by using more than one, just divide the number of rubs you use by 1 tablespoon.
For instance, two rubs would equal 2 teaspoons of each per side. For four rubs, you would use 1 teaspoon of each per side. If you use a little more or a little less, that’s fine. This is just a general rule of thumb.
You can use a binder like mustard, olive oil or hot sauce before adding your rub. It really comes down to personal preference. The binder helps the rub stick to the meat and adds a little flavor. But I find if I let the rub rest for 15 minutes, it sticks just fine.
I start by applying the rub to the backside (after removing the silverskin). Let that set for about 15 minutes while you light the smoker. It will start to glisten.
Flip it over and apply rub to the top of the ribs. Again, let it rest for 15 minutes.
What temperature should I smoke baby back ribs at?
With barbecue, there aren’t really any strict rules. You can cook a rack at any temp you want. However, I find that smoking ribs at 250F is the sweet spot. It delivers just the right amount of smoke.
If you like your ribs smokier, drop that temp to 200-225F. Just remember, the lower the temp, the longer the cook will take.
If you’re okay with just a kiss of smoke and you’re in a rush to get dinner going, bump that temp up to 275-300F. Just watch that color and feel to make sure you don’t overcook them.
How long does it take to cook a rack of baby back ribs?
Here’s the general rule of thumb, if you’re cooking at 250F, baby back ribs should be ready in about 4 hours, but please don’t just set a timer for 4 hours.
I want you to master the pit and learn to cook to color and feel. That way should something go wrong, you’ll know how to adjust things in the future.
Step 1 – Smoke
Smoke the ribs for about 2 1/2 hours. At this point, you should see a bark begin to form. You don’t want the bark to be super hard. You just want to see that rub turn a dark mahogany color and you want to see a tender shell form on the outside.
What is bark: This is when the rub and outer surface of the meat begin to harden and form a crust.
To keep the bark from getting too hard, spritz it with water, apple cider or apple cider vinegar or baste it with a wet mop (not sauce) every 30-45 minutes.
Step 2 – Wrap
Wrap the ribs in foil with brown sugar, butter, honey and Worcestershire sauce and return to the smoker for 1 hour. During this stage, you’re braising the ribs and ensuring that the meat inside will be nice and juicy.
You’ll know it’s ready when you pick up the wrapped ribs in the center with the bones facing down and they start to bend. (use tongs or heat gloves – they’ll be hot)
If they don’t have any give, they’re not ready.
If they are flexible, you’ve hit the sweet spot. Lastly, if they almost fold in half, you’ve probably overcooked them.
Step 3 – Sauce
For the last stage, we’re just setting the sauce and accentuating the flavor. If you prefer dry ribs, remove them from the foil, spritz them with some more apple cider or apple cider vinegar and smoke them for about 15 more minutes.
If you like sauced ribs, remove them from the foil, brush all sides with your favorite sauce, and smoke them for 15 minutes, until the sauce is tacky.
Step 4 – Slice and Serve
Finally, remove the ribs from the smoker and let them rest for about 15 minutes. Flip them upside down (bones up), and sprinkle them with a very light dusting of rub and slice them between each bone.
Sometimes even when you feel like you followed all the steps, you can still run into problems. Below are a few solutions. If you follow the basic method and adapt for your climate, your next rack of baby back ribs is going to rock!
You probably smoked them too long before wrapping them. Or, you’re in a dry climate and need more moisture throughout the cook. Try spritzing them with water, apple cider or apple cider vinegar every 30 minutes. Or, add a small pan of water into the smoker during the first part of the cook.
If you bite your ribs, and they aren’t tender, you didn’t smoke them long enough. Keep them on the grill a little longer, during step 2. Remember, you want the ribs to bend when you pick them up. It’s also possible, you forgot to remove the silverskin. That sucker is hard to bite through.
This can happen in drier climates or at higher altitudes. Adjust by adding a pan of water to your smoker during step 1 or a little water, cider or beer to your wrap during step 2. You may also want to reduce your cook temp by 25-50F degrees. The hotter your smoker, the drier they will be without proper adjustments.
Check your smoker. If you’re relying on your built-in thermometer, it’s possible that your smoker is not cooking at the temp it says it is. Invest in a Thermoworks Smoke and attach a probe to the grate near the ribs to measure the ambient heat. If it’s off, adjust the temp or vents and work off that probe. If you’re cooking on a pellet grill, the temp will always be hotter near the firepot, Try scooting the ribs further from that heat source, or placing them on a raised rack.
Smoked Baby Back Ribs
Smoking a great rack of baby back ribs comes down mastering this basic method and learning pitmaster tricks to cooking with your senses.
Remove the silverskin from the back side of the ribs.
Sprinkle the backside of each rack of ribs with 1 tablespoon of rub. Let rest 15minutes.
Flip and sprinkle the top side of each rack with 1 tablespoon of rub. Let rest 15 minutes.
Place on the smoker, and smoke for about 2 1/2 hours, spritzing with apple cider or apple cider vinegar every 45 minutes.
Lay two large sheets of foil on the counter. Top each with another sheet of foil, so you have a double layer.
Slice the stick of butter into 8 tablespoons. Slice those in half vertically.
Place 4 slices of butter and 2 tablespoons of brown sugar on each piece of foil in a vertical line about where the ribs will lie on the foil.
Add the ribs on top of the butter and sugar – bone-side-up.
Place 4 slices of butter and 2 tablespoon of brown sugar along the back side of each rack. Drizzle 2 teaspoons of Worcestershire sauce and 1 tablespoon of honey on top.
Fold up the foil and seal tightly.
Return the wrapped ribs to the smoker with the bones facing up.
Smoke for 1 hour. Check the feel to see how flexible they are. If they bend, remove them from the smoker. If they’re still firm, continue cooking, checking every 15 minutes. If the internal temp is around 205F, you should be good.
Remove the ribs from the foil and place on the grill, bone-side-down.
If you like dry ribs, spritz with apple cider vinegar and sprinkle with a little more rub.
If you like sauce, brush with barbecue sauce.
Cook for 15 minutes.
Remove from the smoker and rest for 15 minutes.
Flip the ribs upside down (bones up). Sprinkle with a light dusting of rub, and slice between the bones.
Try my Pk Pork Rub. It goes great on ribs.While I like to spritz my ribs with apple cider or apple cider vinegar, you can use any liquid. Beer, cola and even water work well, too.For the wrap, I enjoy the flavor combo of butter, brown sugar and honey, but you can also add grape juice, cola or beer. Get creative.You don't have to measure all of these ingredients. The measurements are just here as a guide.