There was a time when ribs were considered a throw-away meat, but with ingenuity, patience, and a little bit of smoke, these once-overlooked cuts of meat have become a beloved and necessary staple of any barbeque menu. Although smoking ribs does take time, the reward of succulent, tender, and woody meat will always it worth it. But exactly how long does it take?
A full rack of baby back ribs should smoke for roughly 6 hours at 225° Fahrenheit. This will allow the meat to slowly tenderize to the point that it falls off the bone. However, if you’re using beef ribs, spare ribs, or any other variation of rib, you’ll have to adjust the smoking time. To help you out, we’ve provided a chart for each type of meat below.
While slow-smoked ribs may not be a viable mid-week meal, if you have the time, they are an impressive addition to any barbeque or family event. Of course, you’ll have to know what you’re doing, so take a minute to read through this recipe guide, where I’ll walk you through the labor of love that is smoking ribs.
Understanding the Many Different Types of Ribs
If you’ve only ever ordered ribs at a restaurant, you may be surprised by the wide selection of options at the store. After all, a butcher can prepare this deceptively simple cut in a number of ways, as well as from a number of different animals. To help you better understand what you’re buying, I’ve given a brief rundown of each type of rib below:
- Baby Back Ribs: If you’re used to eating at small-town country barbeque restaurants, you’re probably most familiar with baby back ribs—also known as pork back ribs. This cut comes from high up on the back of the pig, where the ribs meet the spine. They’re high in connective tissue and cartilage, which melt into a deliciously tender texture when slow-cooked over smoke.
- Spare Ribs: Like baby back ribs, spare ribs are often sold in a full rack, but rather than coming from the upper section of the pig’s back, they’re cut from the fattier belly region. This makes them a bit meatier and also richer in flavor, though it does take time for the fat to melt into the meat.
- Country Ribs: If you find a package of “country” ribs in the meat section at your local grocery store, they’ll likely be cut into individual ribs, taken from both the upper back and belly region of the pig. These ribs are less specific, but they’re usually selected for their higher ratio of meat to bone and fat. These take less time to cook and are usually braised rather than smoked.
- Beef Ribs: Talk to any Texan about barbeque and they’ll almost always have a recipe for beef recipes. These ribs are usually cut from the upper section of the cow, much like pork back ribs, but they are tougher and take longer to cook. That being said, though, they develop a deeper, meatier flavor than pork, which is naturally a bit sweeter.
- Short Ribs: Short ribs are also taken from a cow, but they’re cut from the lower section toward the belly. They are also tougher than pork ribs, meaning they take longer to smoke, but they’re much meatier than beef ribs taken from the upper back. Since they take so long to cook, most people prefer to braise them or cook them in a crockpot rather than using a smoker.
- Rack of Lamb: Last but not least, if you’re willing to spend some money on your dinner, a rack of lamb is technically made from rib meat. Lamb smokes a lot faster than pork and beef, making it a better option if you don’t have all day to wait. However, it’s not to everyone’s liking, so be sure to ask your guests before serving lamb.
If you happen to run across any other types of ribs and are unsure of how to prepare them, I recommend speaking to the butcher at your local grocery store to get a better idea of how they were cut and which part of the animal they were taken from.
How Long to Smoke Each Cut of Ribs
As you can see, there are too many different types of ribs to give a single definitive answer for how long to let them smoke. Instead, I’ve put together a chart that shows the exact smoking times for each style:
|Style||Smoking Time at 225° Fahrenheit|
|Pork Back Ribs (Baby Back)||5 to 6 hours|
|Spare Ribs||6 to 7 hours|
|Country Ribs||6 to 7 hours|
|Beef Ribs||8 to 9 hours|
|Short Ribs||9 to 10 hours|
|Lamb Ribs||3 hours|
As a general rule, you can technically eat all three cuts of meat once the ribs reach an internal temperature of 145° Fahrenheit. I highly recommend against this, though, as it goes against the entire premise of smoking the ribs.
As a cooking technique, smoking isn’t about bringing foods up to temperature. Instead, it’s about slowly melting the connective tissues and allowing the meat to become infused with a woody flavor. For this to happen, you have to leave the meat for a long period until it rises to around 205° Fahrenheit. This is why it takes so much time to smoke ribs.
If you’re uncertain whether they’re ready to eat, I recommend using a fork to test for tenderness. If you can pull a section of rib meat away from the bone without it feeling tough or rubbery, your ribs are ready to be served.
Wrap the Ribs in Aluminum Foil After 3 Hours
A deep smoky flavor is of course par the course for making ribs but you don’t want to overdo it. Leaving the ribs uncovered in smoke for a full 5 to 6 hours can create a harsh sooty flavor that will ruin the meat. For this reason, I recommend carefully removing the ribs from the smoker after 3 hours, wrapping them in aluminum foil, and then returning them to smoke for another 2 to 3 hours.
The aluminum foil will also insulate the ribs, trapping heat against the meat and helping them to cook a little faster. This won’t affect the baking time too much, though, since your smoker shouldn’t be that hot. On average, I’d say you might shave around a half-hour from the smoking time, so be sure to check on the meat after five and a half hours.
When to Add the Sauce
If you’re a fan of Carolina or Kansas City-style ribs, you know that the secret to flavor is locked in the sauce. From the Carolinas’ thinner mustard-based sauce to the thicker and sweeter molasses sauce of Kansas City, slowly coating the ribs while they cook helps to keep the meat moist and add a whole new dimension of flavor.
Yet, if you’re planning to add sauce to your ribs, be careful not to apply it too early. Since most barbeque sauces contain sugar, basting the ribs too early can cause the sauce to over-caramelize and eventually burn. When mixed with the already heavy flavor of smoke, a crust of burnt char will ruin an otherwise good flank of rib meat.
The general rule is to wait until the last 30 or 40 minutes to add the sauce. This should give it enough time to cook into the meat, become infused with the flavor of smoke, and impart a little more moisture into the ribs without burning.
Also—as a sidenote—never add sauce to your ribs if you’re cooking for a group of Tennesseans. They’ll quickly chastise you for not using the traditional Tennessee-style rub of paprika and brown sugar and likely leave your barbeque.
Control the Temperature of Your Smoker as Best as Possible
There’s a lot of debate over which temperature you should smoke ribs at but I personally fall toward the lower side. There are some who argue that smoking ribs at 225° Fahrenheit cause too much of the fat to render away, whereas a higher temperature of 250° or even 275° can cook the ribs faster without much of a difference.
I’ve experimented with all three temperatures in the past and found that 225° Fahrenheit produced the most consistent results. So, for this reason, try your best to control the temperature of your smoker within a small margin of error. If you allow it to heat above 250°, the meat can come out a bit greasy because not enough of the fat will have cooked into the meat.
Additional Tips for Smoking Ribs
Other than the basic smoking times and temperatures, there are a handful of guidelines you should follow before you start cooking. If you don’t heed these warnings, you could ruin the ribs or, at the very least, end up with boring and flavorless meat.
Remove the Silver Membrane
If you’re smoking a full rack of baby back, spare, or beef ribs, be sure to remove the thin silver membrane from the bone side of the ribs. Failing to do so will cause them to become tough, and you’ll never achieve that fall-off-the-bone consistency. Use a paring knife to cut between the skin and the bone and then, using your hands, pull it up and away from the ribs.
Smoke the Ribs Bone-Side Down
This is a common rookie mistake but always be sure to place the ribs bone-side down. If you start smoking the ribs with the meat facing down, the rendering fat will pool into the concave curve of the meat, blocking smoke from penetrating the ribs. This will cause them to become dry and flavorless rather than tender and smoky.
Be Selective with the Wood
More than anything else, the type of wood pellets you use can completely transform your meal. Fruit woods, such as cherry and apple, create a lighter, more subtle flavor, whereas hickory and mesquite will impart a deep smokiness. Avoid dark woods completely, as they’ll overpower the meat and create a harsh sootiness.
Carefully Control the Amount of Smoke
When you first place the ribs on the smoker, there shouldn’t be an excessive amount of smoke bellowing onto the meat. Instead, it should be light and slightly bluish rather than grey, cloudy, and smoky. If you place the meat into too much smoke, it’ll ruin its flavor and leave sooty deposits.
Let the Ribs Sit for 30 Minutes Before Serving
While it’s standard practice to let most meats sit before cutting and serving them with ribs, I recommend leaving them for a full 30 minutes to an hour. Since they’ll be quite hot when you take them from the smoker, the juices will need more time to reabsorb into the meat. Wrap them in foil to prevent them from going cold and just be patient.
Frequently Asked Questions About Smoking Ribs
Yes, it’s completely possible to over-smoke ribs. Even though your smoker cooks at a lower temperature, the longer you leave the ribs to cook, the drier they’ll become, and they’ll slowly take on a harsh burnt flavor from the smoke.
No, Chinese-style ribs are braised for around 2 hours in a sauce made of Chinese five spice, soy sauce, and hoisin sauce.
Since lamb is naturally fattier and gamier than pork or beef, it pairs nicely with a heavier flavor such as hickory or mesquite. It’s also not traditional to add a sauce to lamb but I do recommend using a rub of coriander, paprika, rosemary, and garlic powder.
Yes, but don’t use a microwave. Instead, wrap the ribs in aluminum foil and then let them bake at 250° Fahrenheit for around 10 minutes.
Even though they are smoked, you shouldn’t leave ribs in the fridge for more than four days.
My Step-by-Step Guide to Smoking Ribs
- 2 full racks of baby back ribs
- Your favorite rib rub
- ¼ cup of apple juice (or apple cider vinegar)
- Gather your preferred wood chips, chunks, charcoal, and lighter fluid. Set them up in the smoker with the wood chips and chunks toward the bottom. Then, light the charcoal to start the fire. Adjust the air vents until your smoker reaches a controlled 225° Fahrenheit.
- Prepare the ribs by cutting into the silver membrane on the bone side of the ribs and pulling it away from the meat. Trim away any unwanted fat and coat the ribs in your preferred rub. Leave them to sit for around 30 minutes.
- Once the smoker has reached 225° Fahrenheit, place the ribs bone-side down onto the rack and let them smoke for a full 3 hours.
- Remove the ribs after 3 hours and wrap them in aluminum foil. Divide the apple juice or vinegar across both ribs and then return them to smoke for another 2 to 3 hours.
- After 5 hours have passed in total, test the ribs with a fork for tenderness. If they are ready, remove them from the smoker, let them rest for 30 minutes, and then serve.
Nutrition Information:Yield: 4 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving:Calories: 539Total Fat: 37gSaturated Fat: 13gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 21gCholesterol: 141mgSodium: 407mgCarbohydrates: 12gFiber: 0gSugar: 10gProtein: 38g