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posted June 21, 2022

Best Ribs for Smoking

Consider this your definitive guide to smoking ribs. We will cover everything from the best ribs for smoking, to best practices for smoking ribs, and I’ll even share a few of my favorite smoked rib recipes.

Rack of baby back ribs on a wooden cutting board with text overlay - Best Ribs for Smoking.

What Ribs are Best for Smoking?

There’s no definitive rack of ribs that is best for smoking. A lot of what makes up the best ribs comes down to personal preference.

Baby back ribs are tender and lean, and are the most popular of all pork ribs. These are usually the types of ribs you’ll find at family BBQ joints. They’re a good first rib to try when smoking pork ribs for the first time.

I love me some tasty St. Louis style ribs or spare ribs. They are both nice and meaty with a great flavor and are definitely worth trying out if you’re on the quest to determine which ribs are your favorite.

Bottom line: all styles of ribs are great and work well when cooked on a smoker, so try them all out!

Best Ribs for Smoking

As we talk about the best ribs for smoking, let’s break down the different types of pork ribs and how they compare to one another.

  1. St. Louis style ribs. St. Louis spare ribs are most common among competition BBQ cooks. They take a little longer to cook than baby back ribs and contain small pieces of cartilage in addition to the larger bones. I prefer to cook with St. Louis ribs whenever possible. I try to plan an extra 45 minutes to an hour of cook time when I am smoking St. Louis Spare ribs.
  2. Baby back ribs. Baby backs come from the loin area of the pig where the loin is cut away from the spine. They are typically shorter bones that are curved and the rack gets narrower on one end. Baby backs typically have less meat than St. Louis spare ribs and therefore cook more quickly. Baby back ribs are arguably the most popular ribs sold in grocery stores.
  3. Spare Ribs. Spare ribs come from the belly of the pig after the actual belly meat is cut away. That means they are typically flatter, well marbled with nice high fat content, and are quite meaty. St. Louis style ribs are made from the spare rib when the top, cartilage-ridden piece of the full spare rib is cut away. So spare ribs and Sr. Louis ribs are from the same portion of ribs, just trimmed 2 different ways.

When trying to answer the question of what are the best ribs for smoking, a lot of it comes down to personal preference, however, baby back ribs tend to be the most popular ribs for smoking.

Baby back ribs, spare ribs, and st louis style ribs on a cutting board.

How to Smoke Ribs

There are as many different methods of smoking ribs as there are pitmasters. Everybody has their own style and flair. The important part is figuring out what you like and then matching a method to your particular preference.

Let me walk you through some steps for smoking ribs and then below I have shared links to several other variations for the best smoking ribs that you can tackle.

Step 1: Trim and Season

I recommend removing the membrane on the back of any ribs you are preparing. It can become dry and papery while smoking, which isn’t super pleasant to eat. You’ll find the thin membrane on the underside of your ribs, alongside the bones. To remove, slide the tip of a butter knife in between the membrane and the bone and lift gently. Grab the lifted membrane with a paper towel (for better grip) and then pull the membrane away with one hand while you hold the rack of ribs with your other. Discard the membrane.

Use yellow mustard to slather your ribs lightly on all sides. This step is optional but recommended. The slather helps the seasoning adhere to the ribs and the acidity in the mustard actually helps tenderize the meat. You won’t taste the flavor at all, but if you’d rather not use the mustard you can skip it altogether or lightly drizzle it with some olive oil. Sprinkle your ribs liberally with my Homemade Sweet BBQ Rub. It is the absolute BEST on ribs!

Hey Grill Hey Sweet Rub being sprinkled on two racks of baby back ribs.

Step 2: Smoking Ribs

There are loads of different smokers on the market (I have pretty much collected one of each), but my favorite for smoking ribs lately is my Camp Chef SG Pellet Grill (you can read my full review on the features HERE). I’m able to get nice and consistent heat with just the right amount of smoke. I especially love the amount of space on the grill grates, I can fit at least 8 racks of ribs between the main grate and the second shelf. I also appreciate the large size of the hopper so I don’t have to worry about refilling frequently with pellets.

For ribs, it is important to cook over indirect heat with wood smoke. My number one wood choice for smoking ribs is cherry wood. It is mild in flavor, but it creates the most amazing and gorgeous mahogany color on the outside of the ribs. I also think apple, hickory, and pecan are great choices for ribs. You don’t want anything too strong, or you risk overpowering the meat. Especially since we pumped up the flavor profiles in the rub.

Apple cider being poured over ribs topped with brown sugar and pads of butter in a large sheet of aluminum foil.

Step 3: Cooking Method

My favorite method for smoked ribs is called the 3-2-1 method. In this method, you smoke ribs for 3 hours, braise for 2 hours, then smoke again for 1 additional hour with sauce on the ribs. This recipe was designed to make baby back ribs that just fall off the bone. If you want the same tender results with St. Louis ribs, I recommend 3-3-1. If you like a little more chew with your ribs, you can do 3-1-1 for baby backs or stick with 3-2-1 for St. Louis ribs.

Another great method is a classic low and slow approach. Some people call this #teamnowrap. You simply season your ribs and get them on the smoker. No wrapping, no braising, no fuss. You may, if desired, spritz or mop your ribs while smoking with a liquid of your choice. Apple juice or cider, butter, Dr. Pepper, apple cider vinegar, beer… there are plenty of options. These ribs will give you a nice bite, but won’t fall off the bone.

The last method I use frequently is the hot and fast recipe. This is kind of a hybrid recipe for ribs with higher smoking temperatures and consistent mopping, plus a short wrap in foil to get them tender quickly. This recipe won’t be as smoky as the other methods, but it works great if you’re in a bit of a hurry (done in under 4 hours) and the texture on these ribs is great! Firm, but not falling apart. Very juicy.

Each of these methods calls for sauce at the end, but if you aren’t a saucy rib person, you can skip slathering on the sauce and sprinkle with an additional thin layer of Sweet BBQ Rub and then finish cooking as directed.

Braised and sauced Dr. Pepper ribs on the grill grates of a smoker.

How to Know When Pork Ribs are Done

There are many different ways to know when your pork ribs are done. I have a whole post dedicated to this topic on my page about How to Know if your Pork Ribs are Done. Check it out for an in-depth tutorial on gauging the doneness of your pork ribs.

Cooking your ribs to that perfect doneness will greatly impact your opinion on which ribs are the best ribs for smoking, so pay attention to the things to look for to know when your ribs are done.

Most of my recipes call for time on ribs, instead of temperature, as well as looking for several other indicators of doneness. I like to use the bend test, personally. When I lift the end of a rack of ribs with my tongs, I want to see them bend and just slightly start to split across the top. I feel confident with this method because I’ve cooked so many racks and have developed a slight “feel” for rib doneness.

If you want to be more precise, I recommend grabbing a good meat thermometer (I use my Thermapen almost every day) and inserting it into the meat between the two most middle bones on your ribs (careful not to hit the bones). Ribs are technically safe to eat at 145 degrees F, but for optimum tenderness, I like to shoot for 195-200 degrees F. 195 degrees F will still give you a little chew and resistance, 200 degrees F and above will fall off the bone.

BBQ sauce being basted on a rack of hot and fast ribs.

Smoked Ribs Recipes

Below, I’ve linked you to some of our favorite rib creations over the years. I hope you find something to help satisfy your rib craving! I personally recommend the Apple Jalapeno Ribs. They are beyond delicious!

Smoking Ribs

Here’s hoping this post helped you determine the best ribs for smoking and the basics of smoking ribs. Want to become the master of steak/brisket/chicken? Join my members-only group The Grill Squad to access my Pork Ribs Pitmaster Class (and so much more!) to increase your confidence in all things BBQ. Together we can help you make better BBQ, feed the people you love, and become a backyard BBQ hero!

This post was originally published in July 2018. We recently updated it with more information and helpful tips

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