Smoking meat is not an easy task. It takes time, patience, and maybe a few cold beverages to get you through it. One of the most difficult types of meat to smoke to perfection is pork ribs. There are certain ways to choose and prepare the meat, the decision of what type of wood to use, and what to do with the meat during the smoking session. I’ll break it down step-by-step and hopefully you can make the most delicious ribs you have ever eaten.
First: Choosing and Prepping
This might be the most important step in the entire process. First, for the best barbecue (when I use the term “barbecue,” I don’t mean throwing burgers on a gas grill. “Barbecue” refers to using wood to flavor your meat choice. Just a pet-peeve of mine), you should always choose the best quality of meat possible. Get to know your local butcher. He or she may give you the best selections if you develop a relationship with them. Try to make sure the pork you choose is pink instead of brown. Pink pork usually means it was never frozen. If the meat you choose is brown, it was likely frozen and has lost some of its moisture in the process. Of course, if you run into a really good deal on frozen ribs, I would not be afraid to buy them. The deal better be pretty darn good, though.
Once you get the ribs home, it is time to prepare them for the smoker. First, use a sharp knife to trim any excess fat off the meat. Be careful not to cut off and meat that may be good. Use a butter knife and a paper towel to remove the thin membrane from the backside of the rib rack (Fig. 1). Simply slide the knife under the white layer and pull it away from the bones, using the paper towel to grip the membrane more easily. This step is simple but important because it allows all of the flavors to penetrate both sides of the rib bone.
Next, you are ready to apply the “rub.” A “rub” is a mixture of dry spices, such as salt, pepper, garlic powder, and paprika that you literally rub onto the meat with your fingers. You can find all sorts of rub recipes in books or the internet, and I have even included a basic recipe that I have used many times. Mix your spices together is a bowl. On both sides of the ribs, apply a thin line of yellow mustard and rub it all over the meat. This will help your rub stick to the ribs, while adding moisture throughout the smoking process. Don’t worry, your ribs won’t taste like mustard. The flavor cooks away as the meat is cooked. Once the mustard is applied, spoon a generous amount of your rub mixture and rub it into both sides of the meat, making a paste. Wrap the ribs tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate them overnight. This will help the flavor of the rub penetrate the meat.
The Big Day Has Arrived
First things first- remove the ribs from the refrigerator and allow them to slowly warm to room temperature for about 30 minutes. In the meantime, get your smoker fired up and try to get the temperature to level off around 225-250 degrees. Try to keep that smoker right around that temperature. Put a few wood chunks in with your charcoal. Wood choice is another important decision to make. I prefer using apple or pecan wood.
Both of those are a bit milder than something like hickory. Mesquite is a very harsh wood and I try to avoid it in most cases. I have included a chart that may help you choose the best wood for what you are smoking (Fig. 2). Wood choice is a personal preference, but the chart will give you some recommendations that I agree with.
This is the easy part. Once your smoker reaches your desired temperature, throw the ribs on there, bones facing down. Close the lid and keep it closed as much as possible. Remember, only open the lid of the smoker when you are adding something or checking on the meat. You do not want that precious smoke and heat leaving the smoker if you don’t have to. Once the ribs are on the rack, grab a spray bottle and add apple juice to it. After about an hour or so, open the lid to check the ribs. Liberally spray the ribs with the apple juice. Do this about every 45 minutes to an hour. This is a little secret that adds moisture to your ribs and creates a nice crust on them by the end of the smoking session. This is also a good time to add more wood or charcoal to your fire if needed.
Smoking ribs usually takes anywhere from three to five hours. The exact time will depend on the weather conditions and what type of smoker you are using. Halfway through, open your smoker and grab a bottle of liquid butter or vegetable oil spread (I use the blue Parkay bottle). (Fig. 3).
Spread a line of the butter oil spread on the ribs and let them absorb all that goodness. You really only have to do this once. You don’t need to tell your guests that you did this if you don’t want to. They don’t need to know all your secrets.
Time To Eat!
So, how do you know when your ribs are done? This is a great question that took me many attempts to answer correctly. Again, the amount of time on the smoker is a general guideline. When I check to see if my ribs are done, I want to see some of the bone showing, about ½” (Fig 4). If there is some bone showing on the ends of the ribs, I pick up the rack in the middle and see if gravity helps it bend towards the ground. If it is still stiff, leave it on longer. If it bends down to the point of almost breaking, take it off the smoker. It’s dinner time.
Pull the ribs off the smoker and let them “rest” for about 15-30 minutes. You can wrap them in foil and place them in a cooler if you’d like, or just let them sit on the counter. Make sure you keep an eye on them, so they don’t disappear somehow (I know from experience that if you leave a rack of ribs on the counter, someone will eat them). It is important to not cut the ribs until you have let them sit a while. Letting them rest allows them to retain the delicious moisture and juices that have made them so tender. Once they have rested, it is time to eat. Eat them plain or with your favorite sauce. I personally enjoy tasting the meat without sauce at first because I want to actually taste the meat. I did spend hours getting them to this point, after all. If you have followed these directions, you will be able to enjoy the most delicious ribs you have ever eaten.