Consider this your definitive guide to smoking ribs. We will cover everything from what types of ribs to choose at the store, best practices for smoking ribs, and I’ll even share a few of my favorite smoked rib recipes. This post is sponsored by Camp Chef.
Smoked Baby Back Ribs vs. Smoked St. Louis Spare Ribs
Baby back ribs (top rack in the photo below) come from the loin area 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.
Spare ribs come from the belly of the pig, after the actual belly meat is cut away. That means they are typically flatter, and well marbled with a 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.
St. Louis spare ribs are most common among competition BBQ cooks (these are the ribs in the bottom of the photo below). 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.
How to Smoke Ribs
There are as many different methods to 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 smoking ribs that you can tackle.
Step 1: Trim and Season
I recommend remove 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, along 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 all together or lightly drizzle with some olive oil. Sprinkle your ribs liberally with my Homemade Sweet BBQ Rub. It is the absolute BEST on 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.
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 babybacks 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.
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 the Thermapen MK4 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.
Smoked Ribs Recipes
Ribs are some of my favorite things to smoke, no two racks ever come out exactly the same! They are also some of my kiddos favorite things to eat, so they make regular appearances at our house. In fact, I have pictures of my cute kiddos chowing down on ribs covered in sauce and completely happy. 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.
Hot and Fast Ribs (in under 4 hours)
Low and Slow BBQ Ribs
Spicy Dr. Pepper Smoked Ribs
Smoking Ribs Made Easy
If you want to dive even deeper into the art of smoking ribs, I’ve got a full 25 minute video Meat Masterclass and printable workbook as a part of my members-only portion of my site called The Grill Squad. Being a member has a ton of perks, like product discounts, a private Facebook group, automatic entry in our monthly giveaways, and more Meat Masterclasses on brisket, ribs, and chicken. You can read more and enroll HERE!