Project Guide

Best Ribs to Smoke
Uncooked pork ribs sit on a table.

The best ribs to smoke depend on personal taste, but many BBQ chefs recommend the following. 

  • For pork, baby back ribs, cut from where the loin is separated from the spine, are generally the most popular for grilling and smoking. They tend to be smaller and cook more quickly than other kinds of ribs.
  • Spare ribs are cut from near the belly, with St. Louis spare ribs being trimmed in a specific style. They may take longer to cook than baby back ribs.
  • For beef, baby back ribs tend to have less meat, but chuck ribs and plate ribs offer meatier cuts, with plate ribs often being particularly large. If unavailable at your local grocery chain, consult a butcher.

Tip: Buy ribs no more than two days before smoking to ensure freshness.

Prepare the Ribs
Pork ribs stand next to the ingredients for a dry rub.

Be sure to trim and season your ribs before putting them in the smoker.

  • Before smoking baby back ribs, trim the membrane from the back of the rack. You can fit a butter knife between the membrane and the meat and pull it free: if it’s slippery, grip with a paper towel.
  • Apply your favorite dry rub to both sides of the ribs. To ensure the rub adheres to the meat, many chefs first slightly coat the ribs in olive oil or even mustard. (The tart mustard flavor is usually gone by the time the ribs have finished smoking.)
Prepare the Smoker
A tray of wood chips prepares a smoker for cooking.
  • If you’re smoking a full slab of ribs, you’ll need a smoking rack with a cooking surface of more than 16 inches wide. Vertical smokers and barrel smokers have plenty of capacity when smoking for larger groups.
  • Heat the smoker to about 225 degrees. You can set electric smokers to that exact temperature.
  • Put wood chips or chunks in the smoker box. Hickory, apple, cherry, pecan and maple are all popular with ribs. Mesquite has many fans, but often has best results when combined with other flavors to dilute its sharpness.
Smoking Pork Ribs
Pork rubs sit on the grill of a smoker.

Many smoked rib fans swear by the so-called “3-2-1 Method,” which can take up to six hours.

  • Put uncovered ribs in the smoker for three hours at 225-250 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Remove and cover the ribs tightly in aluminum foil. Then, bake or smoke the ribs for two hours at 225 degrees. An airtight environment allows the meat to steam and breaks down the collagen, increasing the ribs’ tenderness. Some chefs add a liquid at this point, such as an apple juice or cider mixture.
  • Unwrap the foil, coat both sides of the rack with your favorite BBQ sauce and smoke for up to one hour. Depending on the size of the ribs and the cooking temperature, around 30 minutes may be sufficient. 
  • Let the ribs sit for about 10 minutes before carving and serving.
Smoking Beef Ribs
Beef ribs cook on a smoker.

Beef ribs may take longer and require less seasoning than smoking pork ribs.

  • Before smoking, apply the traditional seasonings of salt and ground black pepper (garlic powder also has fans). 
  • Place on a smoker heated to 225 degrees.
  • After two hours, apply a vinegar solution with a spray bottle about once an hour. 
  • Smoke for 6-8 hours or until an instant-read thermometer measures the meat at 210 degrees.
  • Allow to cool for up to an hour after smoking.
Smoking Prime Rib
Smoked prime rib sits on a tray next to smoked vegetables.

Prime rib is not always served “bone in,” so the large cuts of beef rib roast may not fit the expectation for a rack of ribs, but offers another option for a meat lover. When serving, assume one uncooked pound per person.

  • Slather the roast with mustard and season with salt and pepper.
  • Smoke until roast is 125-130 degrees. Assume cooking time of 35 minutes per pound.
  • Remove and cover with foil, off of heat, for 20 minutes.
  • Raise heat to 400 degrees, return roast to smoker and seat until meat is 130-140 degrees.
  • Remove and let sit for 15 minutes before serving.

“Low and slow” is key for smoking BBQ ribs, so plan on smoking on low heat over a slow cooking time. Whether grilling spare ribs or other rib cuts, using a smoker or gas or pellet grills, smoking meats is a great way to celebrate a festive occasion and provide a delicious main course any time of year.