Mmmm ribs! And that turns into an MmmmMMMM if you smoke your ribs. That is, of course, if you smoke them for the perfect amount of time to give mouthwatering results. Thankfully, that’s pretty easy to do with the following guidelines.
The most important thing to remember, though, is that cook time is only an approximation. Actual cook time is determined by your meat thermometer, not your timer.
So, I’m going to walk you through everything you need to know to smoke ribs using the 3-2-1 method.
Why Smoke Your Ribs?
If you want to make mouthwatering ribs, cooking them “low and slow” on a smoker is the way to go.
If you cook them at a higher temperature, they will not get as tender. You also run the risk of developing overcooked, chewy meat.
Smoking ribs also infuses them with great flavor. Cooking them for a more extended period at a low heat allows that flavor to build and penetrate the meat.
I’ve got you covered if this is your first time smoking ribs. The following guide will explain what ribs to buy, how to prepare them, and and a fool-proof way to smoke them. They are sure to be the crowd-pleaser at your next cookout!
Types of Ribs
Not all avid meat smokers agree about how many different types of ribs there are. Generally speaking, there are seven different types in three categories: pork, beef, and lamb ribs.
1. Baby Back Ribs
Some people mistakenly think baby back ribs come from baby pigs and baby cows. They don’t! They most commonly come from full-grown pigs, but can also come from full-grown cows.
Sometimes called “baby backs,” the name refers only to the region of the pig that they are pulled: the back. The “baby” portion of the name helps identify them from larger spareribs. Baby back ribs are usually 3-6″ in length.
Baby back ribs contain loin meat and have less fat content than other ribs. The result, if smoked properly, is a moist and tender rack of ribs that’s easy to prepare.
2. Short Ribs
Short ribs come from beef and are highlighted as one of the eight primal cuts of beef.
If cooked the right way, these ribs can turn out spectacular. They are also well known as a versatile cut of meat, able to be prepared in numerous ways. Some people cut them into small sections to braise or slow cook them in a crockpot.
Short ribs can also be cooked as a delicious star ingredient!
3. Spare Ribs
Spare ribs come from the lower portion of ribs located in the underbelly of the swine or cow.
Typically, they are thicker than other ribs, with 11 or more ribs per rack.
Spare ribs have more fat marbling that renders during the smoking process, turning them into succulent meat. They require more work to prepare, though, and due to their larger size, can be more difficult to cook.
4. St. Louis Style Ribs
These ribs originated in the meatpacking industry of St. Louis, Missouri. They are similar to spareribs but are considered to be a pared-down version. St. Louis-style ribs are trimmed more than other ribs and have the brisket bone removed.
St. Louis style ribs contain large bones and appear flatter than other ribs. They also weigh less than 3 1/2 pounds and have earned the moniker “3 1/2 and down”.
5. Country-Style Ribs
Country-style ribs are also referred to as pork loin country-style ribs. But they are not even really ribs at all!
These boneless strips of meat are sliced from the tip of the loin and can often have a unique appearance.
Country-style ribs are similar to pork chops and turn out better when grilled versus smoked. That makes them not a top pick for smoking.
6. Flanked Style Ribs
Flanked-style ribs are great if you want a thin cut of meat. They get cut to a 1/2″ thickness around the rib bones.
These guys are beefy and high in fat, making them less tender than pork ribs.
While bone-in meat cuts can add flavor, these are best cooked using high heat. These are not your best bet when looking for great smoking ribs!
7. Lamb Riblets
Lamb riblets are cut from, you guessed it, lambs. Technically spareribs, they have a small layer of fat and are often called “meaty.”
You can cook these ribs using various cooking methods, but they may need an extra layer of moisture to keep them juicy. Many people marinate riblets to increase their moisture and flavor throughout the cook.
How Long to Smoke Ribs at 225
At 225 degrees Farhenheit, ribs will take approximately 6 hours to cook. These 6 hours are broken down into 3 stages in the 3-2-1 method, which I outline below. However, note that I said approximately 6 hours. Actual cook time is when the ribs reach an internal temp of 190-195 degrees F.
Don’t be confused by USDA safety guidelines nor the packaging on the ribs when deciding how long to cook your ribs. USDA states that ribs are safe to eat at 145 degrees F and most packages say to cook ribs to an internal temp of 170 degrees F. Sure, the ribs will be “safe” at 145 and “good” at 170 degrees, but they won’t be fall-off-the-bone tender.
For succulent, tender results, you need to cook ribs until they reach the best internal temperature of 190-195 degrees F. Technically, the “ideal” internal temp is 203 degrees, but the internal temp will continue to rise by up to 10 degrees after you remove the ribs from the smoker. That’s why I recommend 190-195 degrees.
The Best Way to Smoke Ribs (3-2-1 Method)
You might be surprised to find out that there is more than one way to smoke ribs. And to be honest, there is no best way. It all comes down to what fits you are your style best.
While there are several techniques to smoke your meat, the following outlines the most straightforward way that any novice can master! The best part is that this recipe will give you fall-off-the-bone tender meat every time.
The Best Wood Flavor for Smoking Ribs
Let’s start off by deciding one key factor in smoking ribs: the wood flavor! The most popular wood chip flavors for smoking ribs are mesquite, oak, and hickory. However, it’s really up to your personal preference.
I encourage you to experiment with different wood flavors every time you smoke ribs. But, if you’re just starting out, then a good rule of thumb is to choose the same flavor as your favorite BBQ sauce. For instance, if you prefer mesquite BBQ sauce, use mesquite wood pellets or chips.
By the way, if you’re using a Traeger grill, you should jump on over to this article for more specific instructions: How to Cook Ribs on a Traeger Grill.
Prep the Meat
It doesn’t matter which method you use to smoke your ribs. After a visit to the grocery store, the first thing want to do is prep the meat. You’ll do this step the same way no matter how you choose to smoke your ribs.
Step 1: Remove the Silver Skin
There is a thin membrane on the bone side of the ribs. It is optional to leave this on, but it creates a barrier to the smoke and spice rub. So, removing it will give you more tender, flavorful results.
To remove this skin, do the following:
1. Lay the ribs on a cutting board with the silver skin side up. Use a sharp knife to slide under one edge of the silver skin. If the skin is too tight in one spot, try another.
2. Once the silver skin lifts in an area large enough to grab it, hold onto it tightly using a paper towel. Then gently pull it up off the meat using a sweeping motion. The entire skin should peel away as a large sheet. If it doesn’t, repeat the process until all silver skin is removed.
Step 2: Trim Them Ribs!
Now it’s time to trim off any excess fat and maybe some bones, depending on why type of rib you’re smoking.
If you’re smoking baby back ribs, you’re pretty much ready to go after you remove the silver skin. If there’s any chunk of fat, go ahead and trim off any fat you can grab down to a thin layer.
If you’re trimming spare ribs, you’ve got more work to do. There are two ways to do it, Full and St. Louis style. I’m going to focus on the easier Full Spare Ribs style, but the video link I attached for you shows how to trim it more for St. Louis style.
Here are the basics:
- Remove the skirt. The skirt is the flap of meat that’s easy to identify. Just slide the knife along the base to remove it.
- Remove the breast bone. It’s a chunk of bone on a corner that likely has cartilage on it, too. (Cartilage looks like bone but it bends.) Carefully, cut along the bone to remove it.
- Trim off excess fat. Remember, fat adds flavor and tenderness so the key word here is “excess.” If there is a flap or chunk of fat, trim it down to a thin layer.
Step 3: Rub Them Ribs!
For the best results, I recommend both a wet and dry rub. The wet rub helps tenderize the meat and keep it most. Plus, it gives a great base for your dry rub to stick to.
The wet rub is super easy to whip up, and I’ve included a quick recipe for you just below.
For the dry rub, feel free to buy a premade dry rub for ribs. But, you can also make your own with ingredients you likely already have in your spice drawer. I’ve included a recipe for that, as well.
Wet Rub for Ribs Recipe
Use the following wet recipe as a base for your ribs. It will give you moister meat throughout the entire smoking process and provide a layer for your dry rub to adhere to.
- 1/2 cup yellow mustard
- 1/3 cup apple juice
- 1 TBSP Worcestershire sauce
Mix the ingredients in a bowl and slather onto the meat after removing the silver skin.
Dry Rub for Ribs Recipe
Do you need a tasty, tried-and-true dry rub recipe for your ribs? This simple recipe is easy to make, using ingredients you likely already have in your pantry.
- 4 tbsp paprika
- 3 tbsp brown sugar
- 1 tbsp garlic powder
- 1 tbsp onion powder
- 1 tbsp salt
- 2 tsp cumin
- 1 tsp pepper
- 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1. Mix all ingredients in a small bowl. Then rub on the meat!
Pro tip: Save yourself some time on the smoking day. Make this dry rub ahead of time! You can store the mix in an airtight container for up to a month!
To Spritz or Not to Spritz…
Before we jump into the 3-2-1 method, we need to answer a vital question meat smokers ask themselves. “Should I spritz?”
Spritzing is when you quickly spray the meat with a liquid mixture. You use a mixture of water and apple cider vinegar, place it in a spray bottle, and voila! You have the spritz ready to go! You can then spray the surface of the meat at different intervals during the first phase of the 3-2-1 cooking process.
Cooking enthusiasts swear by spritzing. They say that it keeps the meat moister, improving the overall flavor, tenderness, and color of the meat they are cooking.
Step 4: 3-2-1 Method for Ribs
The 3-2-1 method is a popular method for cooking ribs. I use it to smoke my ribs because it is so simple!
The 3-2-1 method is named that because it breaks a 6-hour cooking process into 3 simple phases:
- 3 hours: You let the meat smoke without foil for the first three hours, infusing it with that delicious smoky flavor.
- 2 hours: Steam the meat by wrapping it in foil, allowing its moisture to tenderize the meat.
- 1 hour: You baste and glaze the meat with your favorite barbecue sauce in the final hour.
1. Layout four large sheets of aluminum foil and preheat your smoker to 225 degrees F.
2. Prep the ribs.
3. Place the rack of ribs on the preheated smoker, and let them cook for 3 hours. (Optional: start spritzing 90 minutes into the smoke, then every 30 minutes for the remainder of this phase.)
4. Pull off the ribs, but leave the smoker heated. Place each rack of ribs on two of the foil sheets you laid out. (Optional: Sprinkle the ribs with a brown sugar mixture.)
5. Place the other two foil sheets on top of the ribs, then tightly close the edges to seal the meat.
6. Return the ribs to the smoker for 2 more hours.
7. Carefully take out the ribs and remove them from the foil. Brush them with your favorite BBQ sauce.
8. Place the ribs, without foil, back onto the smoker for approximately 1 final hour of cooking. Place the meat probe into the thickest rib, careful not to touch it to the bone.
9. About 45-50 minutes into the last phase, start monitoring the internal temp. Remove the ribs once the internal temp reaches 190-195 degrees F.
10. Let the ribs rest for 10 minutes. Then slice between the ribs to separate, serve, and enjoy the finger-looking goodness!
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As a mom of three little eaters, I am excited to share my love of cooking, smoking, and baking with you. My love of food started when I went to college in Berkeley, and has followed me ever since! When I am not “momming,” writing, or cooking, you can find me reading, traveling, or hiking.