When I was growing up, having Bar-B-Que meant Hamburger Helper on a bun. For some people we knew, having BBQ meant having a cookout in the back yard where you grill up some hot dogs and hamburgers. Yes, I thought I knew what BBQ was. Then I moved to Texas.
It wasn't until moving to Texas I learned about brisket. And for you Pennsylvania folks that have never had brisket before, let me tell you, you don't know what you're missing. Once I tried it, I just knew I had to learn how to replicate this delicacy, because the day may come when I move back north of the Mason-Dixon line some day, and you better bet I'm bringing my brisket with me.
So I bought a smoker last winter and after a few attemps I think I've got the brisket thing down. Fortunately, in my attempt to create the perfect brisket a nice little side project has been learning how to smoke perfect babyback ribs. I had hoped to do one of these posts to tell you all about smoking brisket, but then I got to thinking this may not be the appropriate place. To do a brisket right, you need to buy a 15 lb piece of meat, and cooking something like that will take you about 18-24 hours. It's not exactly something you can whip up for a tailgate party. So today, we're going to focus on ribs instead. Get yourself a smoker and you should have no problem making some fantasic smoked ribs that will be the envy of every other tailgate party in the downwind direction if you follow these instructions.
The Night Before
Making perfectly smoked BBQ ribs is more than just throwing meat on fire. You need to start planning days ahead of time. It starts with selecting the meat. There are a few different kinds of ribs. The two most common are the babyback ribs and the St. Louis ribs. Babyback ribs are a bit smaller than St. Louis ribs, and thus will cook a little bit quicker. This may be attractive in a tailgate setting since you're limited on time. Babyback ribs will take about four hours in a smoker. St. Louis ribs will take 5-6 hours. So if it's a night game and you have all day, by all means, go for the St. Louis ribs. For this post, we'll talk about babyback ribs.
Two things I want to say about picking out your rack of ribs. First, check the packaging to make sure it doesn't say "previously frozen". You don't want ribs that were previously frozen. When meat freezes, the juice comes out. Once it's out, you can't get it back in. Try to pick out a rack of ribs that says "vacuum packaged". Or buy your ribs right from the butcher if you know a good one.
Secondly, check the side of your slab where the bones are exposed and see if the membrane has been removed. If not, you want to take that off. If you're buying your ribs from a butcher they'll probably remove the membrane for you if you ask. If you get your ribs at the grocery store the membrane is most likely already removed for you. If it's not, it's not hard to remove. Just take a fillet knife and slice it off yourself. Once you get it started on one end you can grab it with a paper towel and peel it off. Taking the membrane off is important because it's kind of hard to chew if you leave it on there, and it affects the cooking of the meat and can make your ribs tough. We want them to just fall off the bone.
Now, the night before you cook the ribs we want to apply the rub. This is the mix I use.
3/4 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
3/4 cup white sugar
1/2 cup paprika
1/4 cup kosher salt
1/4 cup garlic powder
2 tablespoons ground black pepper
2 tablespoons ground ginger powder
2 tablespoons onion powder
2 teaspoons rosemary powder
This makes a ton of rub, so if you're just doing one or two racks cut all the totals in half. Otherwise, you can seal it up and the rub will keep for a month or two just fine. Notice there's a lot of sugar. Pork loves sugar and this will make the ribs nice and sweet. You really won't even want to put sauce on these ribs, which is kind of a bonus when you're tailgating and don't necessarily want to get your fingers messy with no sink to wash them in.
Before you apply the rub, coat your ribs in some olive or cooking oil. Then sprinkle the rub on generously to make a paste. You want to cover all of the meat, but we don't want a quarter inch thick layer of rub on there. Don't over do it. Here are some ribs I made all rubbed up and ready to go. Once you're done, put some aluminum foil on them and put them in the refrigerator over night. Leaving it sit will help the pork absorb those spices.
Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em
Okay, the time has come. The sun is rising over Mt. Nittany. You've got your lawn chairs set up and you're half way through that first beer. Time to get that smoker fired up and get those ribs going if you want to eat before the game starts.
First, a word on the science of smoking. This is not grilling. We're not cooking with heat. We're cooking with smoke. The smoker's motto is "Low and Slow". Temperature is everything. Cook your ribs too hot and they'll be tough as nails. We're shooting for a target temperature in the smoker between 225-250 F for the entire time. It's warm enough to melt down all the fat in between the meat fibers making your ribs just fall apart, but it's not so hot that it makes the proteins solidify. So if you don't remember anything else, remember this: Temperature is everything.
At this point, I highly advise getting yourself a good digital thermometer. They're more accurate than the thermometers they install on the door of the smoker. Those things can be off by as much as 50 degrees. When you're smoking, 50 degrees can mean death. I have a really nice digital thermometer with a wireless hand held device so I can go in the house and keep an eye on what my smoker is doing while I watch the game. It's worth the money, gentlemen (and ladies who might be looking for that perfect Christmas gift).
This is my wireless hand-held temperature monitor. Words cannot describe how badass this thing is. Every guy that cooks meat with fire needs one. I set an alarm at 250 F to let me know if my smoker is getting too hot. At the time of this picture my temperature was 225 F. Right where we want it.
I can go into more of the science of smoking and what you should look for if you're thinking about buying a smoker in the comments if you all are interested, but I want to keep this moving along if that's okay.
So get your smoker up to temperature and throw in your wood chunks or chips to get that smoke going. I like to use apple wood for my ribs. Hickory works well too. Some people like mesquite, but that's going to give your meat a slightly bitter flavor. Apple and hickory enhance the sweetness of the pork in my opinion. Once you feel like you have a good handle on controlling the temperature, put those ribs on with the bone sides facing down.
During the Smoke
Once you put those ribs on, keep that door closed. There's a saying that goes, "If you're lookin', you ain't cookin'" Temperature is everything, and every time you open that door, heat escapes and you may have trouble getting the temperature back where you want it. But, there are a few times you're going to have to open the door to check on things. If at any time your smoker gets too hot it probably means your wood is on fire and giving off too much heat. We don't want the wood to burn. Just smolder. So if your smoker gets too hot, turn your heat down. If that doesn't work, have a spray bottle handy with some water in it and spray your bricks/chips to cool them off and put out the fire if there is one.
When I'm about one hour into the smoke I open the door to add some more wood. Keep in mind that when you add wood, that wood will start to burn and give off heat. So you may have to turn your heat dial down a bit. You'll get the hang of this as you become familiar with your smoker. While you have the door open to add more wood, check your water level in your pan. The water pan is important for two reasons. One, it deflects the heat so it doesn't burn the bottom of your ribs. Two, it acts as a heat sink to keep the temperature stable inside your smoker.
Here you can see the ribs on the left. On the right are some briskets I threw on there, but that's another post for another day. When mixing meats like this, notice how I stack the ribs on one side and beef on the other. I don't want pork dripping on beef or visa-versa. In the bottom you can see the wood chunks, and just above that the water pan.
The last thing you're going to do before you close that door is mop your ribs. This is basically just basting them. Take a spray bottle and fill it with apple juice and just spray it all over the ribs. This will help keep them moist as well as add more of that sweet apple flavor. Once you mop, get that door closed and get back to cooking.
At the two hour mark it's time to go back in. There's no need to add any more wood at this point. The smoke has pretty much penetrated the meat as much as it's going to. Incidentally, if you look at the picture at the top of the post you'll notice a pink ring around the outside of the meat just under the surface. That's the smoke that does that.
So when you go in at the two hour mark, all we're doing is checking our water level and mopping the ribs with our apple juice-loaded spray bottle. It shouldn't take you more than a minute, and then get that door closed again.
At the three hour mark it's time for what we call "The Texas Crutch". This is a very important step. At this point take the ribs out on a pan and wrap them in aluminum foil. Before you seal up the foil, pour 1/2 cup of apple juice in there. This will let those ribs cook in a very moist environment for that final hour making your ribs nice and tender.
Once you have those ribs wrapped up, put them back in the smoker for the final hour.
An hour later your ribs should be ready to go. (Again, this is babyback ribs. If you're cooking St. Louis ribs, keep mopping every hour until you hit the five-hour mark. Then apply the Texas Crutch and give them another hour after that for a total cook time of six hours.) When you pull them out they will look completely black like a meteorite that fell out of the sky. If your guests get a peek they'll probably crinkle their nose and think they're burnt, but they're not. Remember all that sugar in the rub? That's all caramelized now and it has created a crunchy shell (called the bark) that has helped seal all the moisture in your ribs for you. You're welcome.
Your ribs are finally done, so take them out and let them sit for a few minutes. You'll know they're done when the meat pulls back and exposes the tips of the bones by maybe a half inch. If you pick up your ribs with a pair of tongs on one end and bend them a bit your should see the meat pulling apart. Go ahead and cut them apart, and then swipe a rib for yourself and eat it right in front of your guests. You did the work, you deserve the first taste you sexy smoking bastard.
I suggest you try the ribs without sauce on them. With the rub and the smoke, and not to mention the juicy pork itself, they have plenty of flavor. Don't cheapen a day of hard labor with a $1.59 bottle of BBQ sauce. But, if you insist and you just gotta have sauce on your ribs, take them out of the aluminum foil 15 or 20 minutes before they're done and put your sauce on and put them back in the smoker so that sauce can warm up a bit and caramelize. Just do me a favor and leave some ribs with no sauce so you can try it. If you're not pleased with the taste I'll be shocked.
So there you have it. Perfectly smoked BBQ babyback ribs. Serve them up and watch your guests' eyes roll back in their heads when they bite into your tasty ribs.
If you have any questions on this recipe, the science of smoking, or you want some advice in buying a smoker, I'll be happy to answer them in the comments.