There are dozens of ways to cook baby back ribs and I've tried quite a few. The results varied from good to great. But there is one that really stands out for me - it's smoking. Smoking baby back ribs gives them that perfect combination of unique texture, bark, captivating color and the smoky flavor that just can't be replicated by any other cooking method. Smoking takes a bit of time, but really, who cares in the end.
I like my smoked baby back ribs leaner, firmer and not mushy, with a nice bark and a perfectly caramelized coat of barbecue sauce. The end result is what some call pig candy. I don't make them overly sweet though and use a very moderate amount of brown sugar in the rub.
Depending on where you buy your baby back ribs, they may have more or less meat and fat on them. Both are great choices, only difference is that the thicker, meatier racks will cook longer. I do like to trim off as much fat as possible. Greasy, fat dripping ribs are just not my thing. Some say that a layer of fat keeps the meat moist, but that has not been an issue for me. If anything, the fat prevents the smoke from penetrating the meat, which is undesirable.
Don't forget to remove the membrane from the back of the rack, it will improve the enjoyment of the meat later.
The kind of rub people use for smoked pork ribs seems to be a very personal thing. I am no exception. I prefer very mild tasting rubs that don't overpower the flavor of the meat and add just little bit of kick. The amount of the rub I use is very minimal. This makes the ribs taste like great barbecue meat, not spices. Some of the best barbecue joints in Texas I was fortunate to visit don't put any spices on their meats at all, only salt.
I've used the formula shown below for years and don't feel the need to modify it as everyone likes it a lot. Some people specifically asked me not to mess with it.
My rib rub formula:
- kosher salt - 4 tsp
- brown sugar - 2 Tbsp
- freshly ground black pepper - 1/2 tsp
- onion powder - 1 Tbsp
- garlic powder - 2 tsp (sometimes I use pressed fresh garlic and it's a great substitution)
- cayenne pepper - 1/2 tsp (double if you want a little more heat)
The amounts above are for 2 full pork rib slabs, with both sides of a slab seasoned. Cut in half if seasoning only the meat side.
In the past I used oil or mustard before applying the rub to make sure it sticks properly. Nowadays I successfully apply the rub directly to the meat. The surface of the meat is wet so the rub has no problem sticking to it. The way I apply the rub is to sprinkle it evenly across the surface of the slab and then pat down to make sure it sticks. Make sure your hands are dry otherwise you will end up with heavily seasoned hands. I apply the rub to both the meaty side and the back side of the slab.
Once the rub is applied the ribs are ready to go in the smoker. You can also prepare the meat in advance and refrigerate until you are ready. I often prepare and season the slabs the night before and find that it only benefits the meat as the seasonings have the time to get distributed more evenly. After an overnight refrigeration you will see that some liquid came out of the meat. Gently pat the slabs dry with a paper towel before putting them in the smoker.
Over years I've used a number of different smokers and grills to smoke baby back ribs. They all can be used successfully, but there are some differences to keep in mind. Electric and propane grills and smokers work but lack the depth of flavor that charcoal smokers produce. Propane smokers run drier so you need to account for that by placing a tray of water under the meat. Charcoal grills/smokers produce the best flavor and don't dry out the meat nearly as much, but require a little more tending and skill to operate them.
Whatever grill or smoker you use, the most important thing is to keep the temperature stable within the desired range. Anywhere between 225F and 250F is perfect. If you go over 250F moisture loss accelerates dramatically and melted fat starts to leave the meat rapidly, resulting in dry final product. The ribs should be smoked over indirect heat, this is important.
I typically smoke baby back ribs at 240F-250F. The reason for the higher end of the range is that, in my subjective opinion, I get better color and softer texture of the meat. The cooking time shortens as well, which is great.
The Texas Crutch
Anyone who is familiar with smoking meats has probably heard of the Texas Crutch. It's a method of wrapping meat in foil for a period of time during the smoking process to speed up cooking and achieve more tender meat. It's often used in BBQ competitions. Some like it, some don't because the benefit is insignificant compared to some significant downsides. The biggest downside is that this method can seriously damage the bark, the smoke flavor and the seasonings. And if you are not perfect with your timing, you will end up with a slab of mush. I attempted this method with pork ribs several times and never liked the results. The flavor profile was sub-par and the meat lacked the texture I was looking for. It was too soft and more fatty. So I don't wrap.
The barbecue wood
Finally, a few words about the barbecue wood. There are several varieties perfectly suitable for smoking baby back ribs, from alder and maple to pecan and mesquite. Some are milder, some are very strong and may overpower the meat if smoking for too long. My personal all-time favorite is cherry wood. Cherry wood smoke is considered mild and you can't over smoke with it too easily. What I like the most about this wood is the beautiful rich dark red color it gives the food and the fruity, sweet smoky flavor. I usually have the smoke going for a good 3 hours and this gives me the best results.
Checking for doneness
Thinner racks are typically done in about 3.5 hours, while thicker ones may take up to 5.5 hours. It's critical not to overcook them. It's better to check a little early than too late.
There are several ways to check ribs for doneness. The simplest one is the bend test. Pick up a slab with a pair of tongs and give it a gentle bounce. The meat is done if it cracks on the surface.
Just to be sure, check every slab. In my propane smoker the temperature at the top shelf would always be higher and the meat there would cook faster. What I would do to account for that is to switch the meat out between the shelves in the middle of the cooking process. Even if you cook all your slabs on the same level, hot and cold spots may impact doneness.
My preferred way to check for doneness is the bend test followed by checking the temperature with an instant read thermometer. Some gurus say that there is no sense in using a thermometer as the meat is too thin and the thickness varies from end to the middle. Fair enough. My experience is somewhat different though. I find that I get the best results if the meat reaches around 203F tested in the thicker part of the rack, right between the bones. This way I can also get predictable and consistent results every time I smoke ribs.
Applying barbecue sauce
This step is optional, but the ribs really benefit from it. Once the ribs are done, I apply a thick layer of my favorite barbecue sauce over the meat side of the rack. There is not much sense in putting sauce on the back side if the rack as there is no meat there. Any BBQ sauce will do. Just pick the one you like the most.
Once the sauce is applied I continue cooking for another 25-30 minutes at the same temperature (250F). If you smoke at 225F, I suggest increasing the temperature to 250F as the higher temperature will help thicken and caramelize the sauce properly.
These additional 25-30 minutes of cooking will not result in overcooked meat as the sauce (assumed to be at a room temperature) will quickly reduce the meat temperature. As the sauce is heating up and caramelizing on the surface, the meat temperature will be going back up. By the time the sauce is nicely thickened the internal temperature of the meat should be about around the desired target.