Smoking Ribs – The Basics

Smoking Ribs

I often get asked, “what is the best way to cook ribs?” Well, for me it’s all about Smoking Ribs! That’s not a knock on grilling ribs directly over coals, but smoking them provides a better flavor, cooking experience and overall taste.

There are several different ways to smoke ribs but I’m going to give you information on prepping the ribs and smoking them on a horizontal smoker.

First thing you want to do is choose some good-looking ribs from your local butcher shop, ones that have some fat but not a lot. I strongly suggest staying away from prepackaged frozen ribs, because you do not know how old the are or what they truly look like. I had a friend purchased a pack of three that was frozen and when they thawed out and he opened the packing you got a strong smell of sulfur. BAD RIBS!!!!!

Good ribs untrimmed front side
Good ribs untrimmed front side
Good ribs untrimmed backside
Good ribs untrimmed backside

Once I have my ribs I clean them and remove any excess fat.

I remove the rib-tips/brisket bone from my ribs, because they tend to cook a bit quicker than the ribs. This can be done by following along the rib bones to the area where they start to bend. Use a sharp knife and cut a straight line down along the rib bones separating it from the cartilage.

I remove the membrane on the back side of the ribs because it can prevent my rub from penetrating the meat as well as stop the smoke flavor from getting through since I cook them bone side down on the grill. This can be done by using a butter knife and sliding it in between the membrane and skin on the first bone. Once you get about an inch or so removed used paper towel to grip the membrane and pull it off. Once the membrane is removed you will need to remove any excess fat.

I remove the flap of meat on the back side as well because it helps to cook the ribs more evenly, plus you don’t want your rub/seasoning caught in between the flap of meat and the ribs and it is not cooked completely.

I also cut those small ends off my ribs to give it a uniform look.

Ribs trimmed with rib-tips/breat bone removed
Ribs trimmed with rib-tips/brisket bone removed
Ribs Trimmed backside with membrane and meat flap removed
Ribs Trimmed backside with membrane and meat flap removed

At this point you want to place your rub/seasoning on your ribs. I usually rub a thin layer of plain yellow mustard or vegetable oil on my ribs so that the rub/seasoning will stick and won’t easily fall off when I flip the ribs over to season the opposite side. I allow the ribs to sit for about 10 to 15 minutes once I season them before flipping them over and doing the other side. As you can see in the picture below, there are areas that look like the rub is dry and areas where it looks wet. I wait until it all has that wet look before doing the other side

I also suggest allowing your ribs sit for a minimum of 2 hours before cooking so that the rub flavors penetrate the meat, my preference is overnight. I always season my ribs and then wrap them in plastic wrap and place them in the fridge overnight. This allows the flavors to fully go throughout the meat.

Here is a good all around rub for ribs:

– 1/4 Cup Dark Brown Sugar
– 1/4 Cup Paprika
– 3 Tbsp Course Black Pepper
– 4 Tbsp Kosher Salt
– 2 Tsp Onion Powder
– 2 Tsp Garlic Powder
– 2 Tsp Celery Salt
– 1 Tsp Cayenne Pepper
Use about 1.5 to 2 Tbsp of rub per side.
Ribs with rub
Ribs with rub

Once you are ready to cook the ribs get your smoker/grill setup and bring it up to 225 – 250 degrees, this is the range we will cook. I have an offset smoker which means there is a main cooking chamber and there is a firebox attached to the cooking chamber where you build your fire.

Horizontal smoker layout
Horizontal smoker layout

When building my fire I will use charcoal briquettes or lump charcoal, plus wood for smoke and flavoring. I like to use a mix of either oak and apple or oak and cherry woods. Some people like hickory and even mesquite. Here is a helpful guide I found on the web about which woods are best to use with specific types of meat, called Smoking Guide For Wood.  I use wood logs/splits or chunks, avoid using wood chips unless you have a gas grill (excuse me for cussing) and you make smoke packets. I also HIGHLY suggest you stay away from lighter fluid. If you would like to know how to light charcoal without using lighter fluid take a look at a video I posted called How To Light Charcoal Without Lighter Fluid.

Right after you build your fire remove the ribs from the fridge and plastic wrap and allow them to sit at room temperature for about 20 to 30 minutes before placing them on the grill. I do this because anytime you take a cold meat and place it in a hot grill or oven the meat tend to draw-up and tighten. This can lead to tough or even dry meat. Allowing the meat to sit out for a while will lessen this effect. Also place a water pan/bowl in the grill to help with controlling the temperature and moisture.

Ribs and rib-tips on the grill
Ribs and rib-tips on the grill

Allow ribs to cook for 2 hours without you opening the lid. Just make sure to keep your temperature steady. After the first 2 hours you want to spray the ribs with apple juice from a spray bottle. Wet them down pretty good but don’t spay your rub off the ribs. Spray the ribs every hour from this point on and maintain your temperature. The ribs will need to cook for a total of 5 to 6 hours depending on how large they are and if they are spare ribs or baby back ribs. You want to cook them to an internal temperature of 170 degrees.

If you want sauce on your ribs during the cooking process, brush some sauce on them the last 30 minutes of cooking.

Once the ribs are done cooking remove them and place them in a pan and cover loosely with foil, allowing the ribs to sit for 10 to 15 minutes before cutting and serving. This allows the juices to redistribute throughout the meat.

Ribs with barbeque glaze
Ribs with barbeque glaze

The process I have outlined will produce good quality ribs and potentially some of the best ribs you have ever had. If it is fall off the bone tender ribs you want, check out my article 3-2-1 Ribs.


About Pigskin Barbeque 80 Articles
Just a regular guy who loves to barbeque. Married father of two. I developed a love for grilling as a child watching my dad grill. My love for BBQ, using wood and the "low & slow" method came after I purchased my first horizontal smoker in my 20's.


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