It's officially summer BBQ season which means it's also smoked baby back ribs season. Time to fire up the pellet smoker and bust out the sauce. Of all the things that are wonderful to smoke, baby back pork ribs are one of our favorites and are always a crowd-pleaser.
They are our go-to for last-minute get-togethers for the speed and simplicity of the cooking process – not to mention the amazing flavors and textures, or the primal satisfaction that comes from tearing into a juicy hunk of meat with your teeth and bare hands.
However, getting the perfect smoked ribs is a delicate art that takes patience and the proper use of the Texas Crutch. Not sure what that is? We've got you covered. We're going to show you how, when, and why you should use the Texas Crutch for your next smoked ribs recipe.
How Long Does It Take to Smoke Ribs?
We all know that planning ahead is essential for getting good results with any smoked meat, and pork ribs are no different. Rib meat is notoriously tough and dry when cooked fast, so the best way to make ribs is low and slow, the perfect environment for a pellet smoker like the Traeger.
Still, ribs are one of the faster-cooking meats around because they are mostly bone. You need to plan on about one hour at 250 degrees per pound of ribs. An entire rack of ribs requires around four hours to smoke. Don't forget to also take into account the amount of time that you will spend cleaning the ribs up and seasoning them before cooking. It might take you an extra hour or more to do the prep work before you can smoke the ribs.
The cut of ribs will also impact how long it takes to cook. Baby back ribs have more meat on them than spare ribs, so they might take longer to cook. Spare ribs are more likely to become dry when smoked for too long, so they can work for a fast meal solution. St. Louis-style ribs are even meatier than baby back ribs and are also physically larger, so they will take longer to smoke than other rib recipes.
The Best Type of Pork Ribs for Smoking
Pork ribs are always delicious when cooked properly, and it is not that hard to get great smoked pork ribs using any cut. But that doesn't mean that some cuts aren't more popular than others.
St. Louis-style ribs are cut from the center section of the ribcage and are generally flat with lots of meat and fat between the bones. Bones tend to be wide and solid.
Baby back ribs are also immensely popular for smoking. This cut is taken from the top of the ribs near the back and has some of the most tender and succulent meat you'll find on any rib. There are often connective sinews and tendons running parallel to the bones similar to the way spare ribs are cut. Baby back ribs are typically smaller and rectangularly trimmed.
Spare ribs are popular as well and make an excellent option for pulled pork sandwiches. These are cut from the bottom of the rib cage. There is often a piece of brisket attached to the ribs. These tend to be the fattiest ribs and have the thinnest meat.
Ribs that are cut from the rear of the ribs are meatier than those from the front.
Equipment You Will Need
There are a few bits of gear that are essential for cooking up the best smoked pork ribs.
The obvious one is a pellet smoker with plenty of pellets. Cooking pork ribs in the smoker can be done with lots of different types of hardwood pellets and there are a number of really good blends specifically for smoking pork.
In general, we find that applewood, oak, and hickory are the best choices. A blend of oak and apple or oak and hickory works best to add the proper depth and dimension to the smoky flavor profile.
A dry rub works great for ribs. Some people like to use a marinade to increase the moisture content, but we don't find it to be that necessary.
Most of the time, we simply use a dry rub about 30 minutes before we start to smoke the ribs, and with the Texas Crutch method, the ribs always come out tender and juicy.
BBQ sauce can also be mopped onto the ribs as they smoke to add even more flavor, accentuate the smoke flavor, and help create a crisp bark. We are a little biased, but we think that our Bearded Butcher Blend BBQ Sauce is the best sauce for ribs. You'll also need a basting brush or a mop to apply the sauce.
An instant-read meat thermometer is vital for checking the temperature and since you want the ribs to get pretty hot but not to overcook, this gadget is a game-changer. A regular meat thermometer may work, but usually, the boniness of the ribs makes the probes inaccurate. One other hand tool that you should already have handy is a very sharp knife and the tools to keep it sharp.
The Texas Crutch requires that you wrap the ribs part of the way through cooking, so you are going to want to have a few things handy. First, either heavy-duty aluminum foil or pink butcher paper will be needed to wrap the ribs. Second, heat-resistant gloves are the only safe way to wrap the ribs. If you don't already have a pair of barbecue gloves, it's high time to get a pair.
Beyond these essentials, you'll need to have your basics: tongs, plates, paper towels, and whatever else you use to make your cooking process fun. Most pellet grill designs can benefit from a rib rack that supports the ribs and enhances the airflow for a more consistent smoke flavor. Many smokers can also use stainless steel hooks to hang ribs to get the same effect.
A water tray is another good tool to have, but it isn't absolutely required. You can use the water tray to improve humidity to reduce the drying of the meat or add apple juice to the tray to add flavor to the rib meat.
How to Make Smoked Baby Back Ribs on a Pellet Grill
We are going to show you the step-by-step process we use for creating five-star smoked ribs on our pellet smoker.
Step 1: Remove the Membrane
On the bone side of the ribs, you will notice a thin membrane. Many people don't remove the membrane, which is fine. Often when we make ribs in the oven, we leave it on, too. But for smoking, you want the smoke to have as much contact with the surface of the meat as possible, and that means removing the silver skin.
Lay the ribs meat side down and use the tip of your knife to lift the edge of the membrane. Often, starting at about the fourth rib will help you be able to lift the edge. From there, you'll be able to nearly pull the membrane off by hand. Use the tip of your knife in smooth cuts toward the membrane to help remove it all without cutting into the meat or bones. Discard the membrane after removing it.
Step 2: Season the Bone Side First, Then the Meat Side
Why, you ask? Simple physics on this one. Applying the rib rub to the bone side first keeps the meat side from getting the rub rubbed off. And if you want to follow Seth's favorite ribs recipe, make sure you're stocked up on our Hollywood and Black seasoning.
Step 3: Put Ribs in the Fridge for 30 Minutes Before Smoking
Letting the dry rub rest for half an hour allows the moisture on the surface of the meat to bond with the rub, helping to lock it in place and ensuring that the flavors have a chance to get into the meat. You should always keep the ribs in the refrigerator until you are ready to cook them for food safety reasons.
This is a good time to get the smoker started. Hopefully, you cleaned it the last time you cooked. If not, get that grill cleaned and get it up to 250 degrees and holding temperature. Make sure the pellet hopper is full, then place the ribs on the smoker meat side up. Cooking ribs with the bone side down allows the heat to gradually rise through the bony part and gives the meaty side extra exposure to smoke for flavor.
Step 4: Don’t Mop Too Soon
Mopping too soon prevents the bark from forming and can lead to longer cooking times since the smoker will have to heat the mop sauce before the meat can begin cooking. Usually, you'll want to wait about an hour to an hour and a half before mopping the ribs. The mop sauce can be any good barbecue sauce, an apple cider vinegar-based sauce, apple juice, or even root beer, which gives ribs an amazing crackly bark.
The trick is to wait until you can see the surface of the ribs dry. Of course, this means that you'll be opening the smoker, which stalls the cooking process and throws the temperature out of whack, so wait until at least an hour has gone by before mopping.
Step 5: When to Wrap the Pork Ribs
Wrapping ribs in the smoker is an optional step, but one that can result in melt-in-your-mouth tender and juicy ribs. The ribs should be wrapped when the internal temperature at the thickest part of the rib measures somewhere between 150 and 160 degrees or higher. You will see the exposed bone at the rib ends.
Typically, the meat will stall when it hits this temperature as the rate of evaporation from the inside of the meat balances with the rate on the surface. This causes the meat to stop cooking until the moisture in the meat has evaporated enough to eliminate the cooling process. You can certainly wait and cook through the stall, but you run the risk of drying the ribs out and making tough, inedible meat.
Wrapping the ribs is a good way to trap in the moisture that will be escaping as the meat cooks more and also limits the amount of smoke flavor you get on your ribs. Once the ribs are wrapped, the smoker is just for cooking. There is no need to add more flavor at this point. In fact, you can even wrap the ribs and put them in a preheated oven to finish them.
Step 6: Foil or Butcher Paper?
There are two schools of thought on wrapping ribs. The first is to use heavy-duty aluminum foil. Foil creates a miniature oven effect in your smoker by trapping the moisture close to the surface of the meat. The second school of thought uses butcher paper which allows some of the moisture to escape but traps the majority.
Aluminum foil can give you more tender, juicy ribs while butcher paper will give you more crackly bark.
In either case, once the ribs have finished cooking, you want to remove the wrapping right away to prevent the meat from getting soggy.
Step 7: Everything You Need to Prepare the Best Ribs
Every step of the process from the rub you use to when to wrap the ribs depends on your ability to use your tools correctly and to use your senses smartly. Pellet grills are great because they take the guesswork out of maintaining temperatures, but the variations in types of ribs, dry rubs, and even the humidity in the air can change the times on you.
Look at the ribs to see the bark develop and wrap them when you notice the temperature stalling. Always unwrap the ribs as soon as they come out of the smoker so that they don't get mushy.
Above all else, enjoy the process because ribs are as fun to cook as they are to eat.
Step 8: Temperature and Times to Look For
Pork ribs are safe to eat at any temperature above 145 degrees, so that means you can pull them whenever you are satisfied they have cooked long enough.
We usually let the ribs smoke until they hit 195 to 203 degrees, then pull them. The higher the temperature, the more done the ribs will be.
Some people like the meat to fall off the bone but that is technically overdone. Shooting for a temp of around 200 degrees will give you shreddable, fall-off-the-bone ribs.
The secret to perfect ribs is really all in the method. Smoking ribs to 145 degrees will give you tons of flavor and a quick meal, but the meat is likely to be a little more tough and stringy. Wrapping the ribs Texas Crutch style pushes the temperature up while preserving the moisture, resulting in a juicy, tender rib that is perfect for sandwiches.