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
To make these Smoked Ribs, be sure to let them soak in a citrus-y soda beforehand. We used Mountain Dew, but I imagine that any will work. Follow the recipe below for the rub and smoking directions.
Total Time 16 hours 20 minutes
- 2 Slabs of pork ribs
- Mountain Dew
- 3/4 cups brown sugar
- 2 Tbsp. Paprika
- 1 Tbsp. black pepper
- 1 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1 Tbsp. garlic powder
- 1 Tbsp. onion powder
- 1 Tbsp.+ 1 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
- 1 Bottle Sweet Baby Ray’s Original BBQ Sauce
- Wood chips
- Night Before: Remove membrane from underside of ribs. Soak ribs in Mountain Dew overnight in refrigerator. Soak wood chips in water.
- Day of Cooking: Combine spices and rub over ribs and let sit in refrigerator for a few hours.
- Heat coals in smoker. Once at ideal range, place ribs in smoker on top rack. (We placed chicken drumettes on bottom rack to get the most use out of the charcoal.)
- Smoke for approximately 4 hours. About three hours into smoking, generously apply Sweet Baby Ray’s sauce. Check to ensure that internal temperature of ribs is 165°.
What do you like to eat with ribs?
Here are some dessert recipes that pair well with smoked ribs:
Smoking Meat Without A Smoker
If you ever thought you had to have a big, fancy smoker to achieve the tender, flavorful meat that only comes from low and slow smoking. Stop right there and let this sink in:
You can smoke meat in your charcoal grill.
“Sure you can. But, it’s got to be super complicated and bothersome.” That’s what we thought when we heard it was possible to smoke in a grill. But, with Tim’s love of smoked meats, and the purchase of a smoker not in our near future, we decided to give it a try with what we had.
Using Wood Chips for Smoke
In addition to your typical grilling tools, you will need wood chips. These pieces of wood will give off the smoke that we’re looking for. You can use hickory, oak, apple, cherry, or mesquite chips, and each will give a slightly different aroma to the meat. We used apple chips from a tree we cut down last fall, but feel free to play around with different chips to see which flavor your family likes best.
In order to create smoke (and not burn outright) the chips need to be soaked in a liquid for an hour or more before the smoking begins. You can soak them simply in water, or you can use beer, wine or apple cider to give additional flavor to the smoke.
Smoking = Low and Slow Cooking
When you are ready to cook, toss about 3/4 cup of soaked and drained wood chips onto the hot coals on each side of the aluminum pan.
You should notice smoke nearly immediately. Place your cooking grate on the grill. Close the grill and adjust your vents to get a proper temperature inside. You should be smoking at a low heat.
After a few moments, remove the cover of your grill and place your hand about four inches from the cooking grate. For a ‘low’ heat (around 250 – 300F) you should be able to hold your hand over the grate for 8-10 seconds.
Smoking takes anywhere from 2-3 hours all the way up to 20 or more. It is this low and slow method that tenderizes the meat and infuses it with incredible flavor. A good smoke can’t be rushed and will be ruined by heat that is too high.
Tending Your Charcoal Grill Smoker
Every hour you will need to add a few more coals and about a 1/2 c of soaked and drained wood chips to each side of the pan. This will keep your heat and smoke levels consistent. Checking it every hour also lets you check to be sure the heat level is still where you want it and adjust accordingly.
(Tim just slipped the coals and chips in through the side of the grate, and then used a stick to move them so they were distributed evenly. )
Spare Ribs: Marinade and Dry Rub
To prepare the ribs for cooking, we first marinated the ribs in apple cider and lemon juice for 2 hours. This starts to tenderize the meat and infuse it with flavor.
Next, we patted it dry and massaged in a dry rub. See below for our go-to Basic Rib Rub, or try a Mesquite Seasoning Mix to pump up the smoky flavor or, go with another of our favorites, an Asian-inspired rub. We let the rub start to work its flavor magic while Tim got the grill ready with the steps we talked about earlier.
Then, onto the hot grill went the slab of meat!
Cooking Our Smoked Spare Ribs
Every half hour to hour we sprayed it with apple cider and added more chips and charcoal.
One thing we did learn was the importance of keeping the heat LOW.
After about the first hour the heat spiked a bit and sped up the cooking. Our ribs were nearly done at about 2 hours, when they should have taken longer.
We decided to lower the heat and leave them on for just a bit more, to see what would happen. Unfortunately, the ribs got a bit darker than we were hoping.
But, even with the darker color, after 2 1/2 hours we had some incredibly delicious ribs.
- 3 lb pork spare ribs (St. Louis Style/trimmed)
- 1 c apple cider
- 1 c water
- ¼ c lemon juice
- 1/3 c Rib Rub (see below)
- 4 c wood chips (we used apple)
- 1 1/3 c apple cider, divided
- 2/3 c water
- Place the meat in a large, shallow, non-reactive container (a roasting pan or high rimmed cookie sheet works well). Pour 1 cup apple cider, 1 cup water, and ¼ cup lemon juice over meat. Turn the ribs to coat. Cover and let marinade in the refrigerator for 2-6 hours.
- Drain the ribs and blot dry with paper towels. Sprinkle 1/3 c of rub over both sides of the ribs. Use your hands to press the rub into the meat. Let stand, covered 1-2 hours.
- Place the wood chips in a bowl and cover with 1/3 c apple cider and 2/3 c water. Let soak for 1 hour. Drain before using.
A half hour before you want to start cooking, set up your grill for indirect grilling (using a disposable aluminum pan to keep the coals to either side if necessary). Preheat the grill to a low heat, 200-250F. (You should be able to hold your hand 4 inches from the cooking grate for 10 seconds.)
- When you are ready to cook, arrange 1 ½ c soaked and drained wood chips on the coals. Place your meat on the center of the hot cooking grate, over your drip pan.
Cover the grill and smoke for 3-4 hours.
Every half hour to hour, check your grill. Add 4-5 coals and ½ c soaked and drained wood chips to each side. Using a clean spray bottle, spray your meat with apple cider (using about a cup throughout). Check the temperature of your grill and adjust the vents to keep it at medium-low heat.
- The ribs are done when the meat has shrunk back from the tips of the bone. Transfer the ribs to a large platter and let stand for a few minutes before serving.
- 1 Tbsp brown sugar
- 1 Tbsp paprika
- 1 tsp ground black pepper
- 1 tsp salt
- ½ tsp garlic powder
- ½ tsp onion powder
- ½ tsp ground celery seed
- ½ tsp ground mustard seed
- ½ tsp oregano
- ¼ tsp cayenne
- Mix all ingredients together in a small bowl. Use immediately or cover and store in the pantry for 2-3 months.