Ever since the pellet grill was invented, learning how to smoke pork ribs has never been so simple. It used to be that in order to smoke ribs low and slow, you had to babysit your charcoal grill or stick burner for hours in order to make sure the fire was at the right temperature. But now that pellet grills like Country Smokers are around, it’s as easy as set it and forget it.
The question is, what techniques do you want to use in order to get the ribs to your preferred taste and texture?
As the old saying goes, there’s more than one way to smoke a pig (or something like that) and we’ll discuss those methods so you can learn how to smoke ribs your favorite way each and every time. Trust us, learn these basics and it’ll become your new addiction.
The first important thing to know is which type of pork ribs to buy? We’ll cover the two main types you are bound to see at most grocery stores:
Spare ribs are cut from the rib area around the belly of the pig. They are typically longer and have more meat than the back ribs. Many argue that since spares have a better meat to fat ratio, they are more flavorful than baby backs. The meat on baby backs, however, is more tender. Your choice, of course, is a matter of what you prefer.
Untrimmed Spare Ribs (top) vs St. Louis Style Ribs
Also, if you see a package labeled St. Louis Style, this means that the sternum and flap section of the ribs has been removed for a more uniform cut.
Pork Loin Back Ribs aka Baby Back Ribs are cut above the loin muscle located on the back of the pig. The ribs are shorter and more tender than their spare rib counterparts. People who prefer baby backs also like the thickness of the meat compared to spare ribs. All in all, think of baby backs as short and stocky while spare ribs are long and lean.
The same techniques discussed here can be applied to both back and spare ribs. However, since spare ribs are bigger and more dense, you’ll want to smoke them longer than you would the baby back ribs.
At 225°F it should take about 4 to 6 hours to smoke a full rack of pork ribs. The difference depends on the size of the rack and if you’re smoking back ribs vs spare ribs.
Before we dive into the different smoking methods for ribs, first things first:
There is a thin membrane on the back of a rack of ribs. Unless you want chewy ribs (as in hard to chew) we recommend removing it. To remove the membrane, simply make a thin slice on one side of the back of the rib rack and gently shove a skewer into the cut to slowly lift the membrane. Then use a paper towel to grab the membrane and gently pull to peel it off and remove.
You don’t have to marinade ribs, but it doesn’t hurt either. In order to breakdown some of that muscle and fat be sure to have some type of cooking oil (we recommend extra virgin olive oil for flavor), acid (lemon juice), vinegar (apple cider), soy sauce (for salt) and herbs (rosemary). Don’t worry about pepper, and sugar because that will be part of the rub. Make sure the container you are marinating the ribs in is big enough for them to complete submerge in the liquid. Seal and place in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours.
If you don’t marinade your ribs, it is important to dry brine them for 4 hours in salt while they sit in the fridge. This will help the salt penetrate the meat. Just be sure not to put too much salt on as most ribs from the grocery store come in a salt and water solution.
For smoked ribs, we recommend using a dry rub. It adds a nice crust to the meat. If you’re marinating the rib beforehand, be sure to pat them dry with a paper towel, but not too dry. You want to leave a little bit of moisture so the water-soluble ingredients in the rub will dissolve and help form a nice bark crust. If you did not marinade, consider spreading a water-based solution (or just water) over the meat before adding in your dry rub.
We recommend using a barbecue rub blend or make your own with black pepper, garlic powder, brown sugar, white sugar, and paprika (for color). Experiment with your measurements to dial in the flavor you desire but here’s some basics to get you started:
Mix well and combine in a spice shaker. Then spread liberally all over the front and back of the rack of ribs. Be sure to “rub” the rub into the ribs to make sure they stick.
The ingredients themselves can be added in and taken away but be sure to use some type of sugar, black pepper, and paprika for a nice bark with great color, flavor, and texture.
It’s important to note that the key to smoking ribs is cooking them low and slow (low temperatures for a long time) over indirect heat. This means that the ribs are not exposed directly to the flame. If you have a Country Smokers Pellet Grill, then there is no need to worry since the heat shield built into the grill covers the flames and distributes the heat evenly. Simply throw the ribs onto the grill grate and you are ready to go.
There are three basic techniques to smoking ribs. 3 2 1, 2 2 1, and no wrap. The “2” in 3 “2” 1 and 2 “2” 1 refers to the 2 hours your ribs will be wrapped in either butcher paper or aluminum foil. No wrap, means you throw them on the grill and leave them be for the duration of the smoke with the optional exception of spritzing them with liquid every so often. The method you choose depends on how tender you wish your ribs to be.
The 3 2 1 method can be basically described as this:
People generally use this method for rib meat to be soft, buttery, and fall of the bone. It also renders more smoke flavor than 2 2 1 since more time is spent cooking while unwrapped.
The 2 2 1 rib method is the same as the 3 2 1 method with the only difference being the initial unwrapped cook time is 2 hours instead of 1. This produces meat that has a little more bite or chew to it. There is also little less smoke flavor due to the time it is unwrapped on the smoker.
If you are wanting to wrap your ribs for fall off the bone tenderness, we recommend cooking spare ribs using the 3 2 1 method while cooking back ribs with the 2 2 1 method. 3 2 1 renders baby backs a little too mushy in our opinion.
For either method it is best to apply a little butter and liquid into your wrap. Top the ribs with a small square of butter for every 4 ribs and then put a small pool of liquid (we recommend apple cider vinegar and Worcestershire sauce) in the bottom of the wrap. Then seal tightly and place back on the grill
During this last hour you can do a few different things:
It’s important to note that many smokers have experimented with varying the 3 2 1 and the 2 2 1 method. And, it's not hard to imagine what those variations would be. Some try a 3 1 1, some do a 2 1 1, others a 2 2 0.5. It just goes to show that it can pay to experiment with these timings to dial in your own rib masterpiece recipe.
The last technique we’ll cover is not wrapping your ribs at all and smoking them all the way through until they’re done. We recommend spritzing or mopping with liquid every 30 minutes after letting it smoke untouched for 2 to 3 hours. This allows plenty of time for a nice bark to form and smoke to flavor your meat. If you like sauce, be sure to apply and caramelize once it has reached your desired tenderness. It should take anywhere from 4 to 6 hours to smoke your ribs unwrapped.
Smoking ribs has never been easier than on a Country Smoker. Simply turn your dial to the desired temperature, place your ribs on the grill grate, cover and let them cook away. Return to deliciously juicy and tender ribs that you will crave again and again. It really is just that simple.