Growing up, one of my favorite barbecue meals were pork baby back ribs - I remember as a kid I would get them every time I'd go to Applebees or Chilis; Granted, the ribs I smoke now definitely supersede these places.
When I got started with smoking ribs, the biggest problem I found was that every recipe on the internet treated you like you were a barbecue competitor - Namely in the methodologies and ingredients being used.
The difference between "competition" barbecue and backyard barbecue is that you're actually going to consume all of the ribs; In a competition, a judge takes one bite from one rib. Meaning, the Competitors have to do everything they can to pack that one bite with tons of flavor - this usually comes in the form of sugars, syrups, liquid wraps, etc.
While these "competition" style ribs are no doubt good - they're not what I prefer to eat at a backyard barbecue; Not to mention you borderline need to take a nap after you eat them.
My recipe for Baby back ribs is super straight-forward and requires minimal ingredients.
In an ideal world, every bone in a rack of baby back ribs is uniform and the rack is the same size on both ends with minimal bone curvature.
However, as a person who does backyard barbecue these factors do not matter, at all. Your Family and Friends (and your stomach) only care if it tastes good.
In general, you should look for (and avoid) the following when picking Baby Back ribs:
Enhanced ribs are often found in grocery stores/supermarkets. They are essentially ribs that have been injected with a solution of water and other ingredients; Typically salt, phosphates, and flavorings.
The biggest issue here is that most beginners don't know this. They then take a commercial rib rub and apply it to their meat. Often times that rub will also contain salt and you end up with ribs that taste very salty.
Since I only use two basic ingredients in my ribs (kosher salt and pepper), I prefer to get them as fresh as possible; Preferably ribs that have never been frozen. However, even if they were previously frozen, they're still better than enhanced.
If you only have enhanced ribs available to you, just be cognizant of the rub you apply. If you're following this recipe, I would not use kosher salt and only apply the pepper layer.
The primary difference between spare ribs and baby back ribs is the anatomical location on the hog.
Loin back (baby back) ribs are from the upper portion of the rib cage. Spare ribs are from the bottom of the ribs (the underbelly); These ribs extend around the belly and connect to the sternum.
Baby back ribs will contain less meat and fat (hence loin-back) than spare ribs, however, the meat is quite tender.
Untrimmed spare ribs will contain part of the sternum, costal cartilage, flap, and a skirt on the bone side of the meat. When these parts are removed, you're left with St. Louis cut ribs.
In order to smoke baby back ribs, you will need:
In terms of equipment for this section, you will need:
The first thing to do is remove the baby back ribs from their packaging. Baby back ribs are typically vacuum sealed with something like cryovac; Use a sharp knife to open one end of the package. With your hand remove the ribs and place on a cutting board or work surface. You can then discard the purge and packaging in the trash.
Note: The remaining liquid in the package is referred to as the purge - a combination of water and meat proteins, including myoglobin (responsible for the reddish hue). Do not dump this liquid in the sink and do not rinse your ribs. Doing so could contaminate your sink and increase your risk of food poisoning.
Using a paper towel, pat dry both the meat side and bone side of your ribs.
The next step is to remove the membrane. I have an entire article outlining this process. While that article uses beef back ribs, the process is the exact same.
Here is a video of me removing the membrane from Beef back ribs. Pork membrane is much thinner than beef and this process is even easier to do with them.
To paraphrase and condense my thoughts from that article as well as the steps:
Lift the membrane with a butter knife. Use the under-side of the spoon or tablespoon/teaspoon to further lift the membrane. Once lifted, use the paper towel to grip the membrane and remove. Once the membrane is removed, discard it in the trash.
If the membrane isn't cleanly removed, you can continue to use your paper towel to remove the membrane. You could also use a sharp knife to put cross-hatches in it. As the membrane is heated, it will shrink.
With back-ribs, there really isn't much trimming to do. If you've chosen your ribs properly and there are no fat deposits to remove, you're set.
I smoke pretty much all my pork ribs in my Pit Barrel Cooker. I know how the smoker tends to cook and since the meat is hung, I try to avoid getting my meat super close to the heat source. Usually on back-ribs there will be one side of the bones that is smaller than the other. I'll remove one of those ribs and then have the bigger side be closer to the meat.
If you feel you need to remove random nodules on the ribs, by all means, feel free. However, doing so isn't at all necessary. Apart from the membrane, it all tastes and chews the same.
To this point, not much is different in terms of backyard barbecue and competition (apart from trimming), however, this is the point where I start to differ from other recipes online.
Typical barbecue recipes will have you creating layers of flavor with different types of paprika, salt, sugars, garlic, spices, etc. It gets to the point where you're essentially tasting more rub than you are pork.
However, for backyard barbecue I really just like salt and pepper, that's it.
I also don't use a binder like mustard as I allow the salt to penetrate the meat overnight and to create it's own brine. The main purpose of a binder is to help adhere dry rub (dehydrated spices) to meat. In this case, we're only using salt and pepper meaning it's not necessary.
The salt I use is Morton's Kosher salt and the peppercorns are sourced from Burlap and Barrel. I particularly like the Purple Peppercorns, however, any of their peppercorns are wonderful - I didn't have the purple peppercorns on-hand but I had their Zanzibar black peppercorns and they added a nice pop to flavor.
On the topic of Paprika, almost ALL commercial barbecue rubs and even rib rub recipes will contain or tell you to use Paprika. While I don't disagree with its usage, a lot of the time the Paprika being used is of super poor quality and offers no contribution to taste - It does more for color than anything. Burlap and Barrel's paprika will actually contribute to taste.
The night before smoking the ribs, put on a light layer of kosher salt and a light layer of crushed peppercorns. For an entire rack (both sides) I use 1 tablespoon of kosher salt and 1 tablespoon of grinded peppercorns.
After you've applied your dry rub, put the baby back ribs in a storage container overnight; A large serving tray that's covered in saran wrap also works fine too.
For this section, you will need:
The smoker I use most for Pork ribs is my Pit Barrel Cooker (PBC). A lot of people will tell you that the PBC is a rib machine. I entirely agree with this sentiment; The main reason being you can finish something like baby back ribs in 3 hours.
In terms of charcoal, I typically will use whatever I have on-hand. For this cook, I had a bag of kingsford briquettes in my barn so I used that.
In terms of types of hardwood, I'm a big fan of Cherry, Pecan, and Hickory. Earlier I mentioned that most paprika that's sold will contribute very little to the actual taste and is more so used for color purposes - most people who smoke ribs are after a dark ruddy red color.
You can achieve this color through the wood being used. For instance, Cherry-wood (my personal favorite for ribs) can offer your ribs this same desirable deep red color.
Apart from color, cherry wood works great with pork and offers a sweet smoke that's also fairly light in the mouth; Typically I'll combine cherry wood and hickory or oak as they pair nicely. The oak/hickory won't overpower the sweetness of the cherry and will offer more "smokey" flavor. Unfortunately, I didn't have any oak or hickory chunks.
The next day, before I went outside to get my smoker ready, I took the ribs out of the refrigerator to come up in temperature. A charcoal chimney takes roughly 15 minutes to ignite the coals and it typically takes 20 minutes for the smoker to settle as it comes up in temperature.
Whenever I use my charcoal chimney, I'll typically take out my old Weber charcoal grill in order to elevate the chimney and to create the stack effect - granted, I could of also used my PBC. I've also started my chimney from the ground several times with no issues.
Note: The stack effect is essentially air movement that occurs because of thermal difference. As the warm air rises it exfiltrates the warm air at the top which creates negative pressure causing cold air infiltration at the bottom.
The PBC works based on the minion method - essentially you're taking unlit charcoal and lighting it with a few lit coals. This results in a fire that lasts several hours without replenishment.
PBC recommends entirely filling the charcoal basket and then removing roughly a 1/4 of the charcoal and lighting it.
Over time I've found that you can waste a decent amount of charcoal this way (especially for ribs) and your fire doesn't need to be anywhere near this hot. Rather, I dump an eye-balled (1/2 full) amount of unlit charcoal and light only a few coals.
Not many people think to do this but you can flip the charcoal chimney upside down in order to light a few coals. The main reason for doing this is because it's hard to light only a small number of coals the traditional way.
Start with the chimney basket-side up. Place your firelighter at the bottom of the basket (in this case I used Royal Oak tumbleweeds). Place your unlit charcoal (10-15 briquettes) over the top of the firelighter and light the firelighter (I use a butane torch).
The entire process for lighting a charcoal chimney takes roughly 15 minutes.
Once the coals are ashed and/or partially-ashed over, I like to use an old pair of tongs to evenly distribute the lit charcoal over the unlit charcoal.
Once you're happy with your charcoal arrangement, place the basket back in the smoker and put the lid on.
With the PBC, the intake damper is adjusted based on relative elevation. The exhaust are the holes where the rebar is placed to hang your meat. I live in New Hampshire and my relative elevation results in the damper being 1/4 open.
Typically it takes roughly 20 minutes for the smoker to come up in temperature. During this time you might see a lot of white smoke as the charcoal continues to ignite. As the fire continues to build and get hotter, the white smoke will dissipate and you should see faint thin blue smoke. At this point I'll typically add two large cherry wood chunks to the fire and allow those to smolder.
Due to how the PBC is engineered, it takes out the complication of messing with the intake damper and exhaust vents (the exhaust is the holes where the rebar is placed). You also don't have to worry about temperature regulation because of how the convection works inside the smoker.
The PBC allows you "hook n' hang" the meat. I put the meat hook on the thinner end and counted two ribs and then inserted the hook.
I then put the rebar inside one of the allocated slots and hung the ribs.
Just a few pro-tip for folks who have the PBC. A big problem that can occur with pork ribs is that the meat closest to the fire will become "charred." I've heard various BBQ folks say they "like it" or a YouTuber will sort of brush it off; However, I personally don't care for it.
PBC says the meat can be in close proximity to the fire because the meat drippings cause it to cool down. While this certainly may be true, you can't deny there is some form of char to the end; Most of which isn't palatable.
This is the main reason I made a point of stating I hung the thin side up, and the thicker side down.
In order to combat this issue, I take the charcoal basket and put it towards the back of the barrel. I then take the ribs and put them towards the front of the smoker. This creates a gap between the outside perimeter and the charcoal basket. This way the ribs are not right above the fire.
I then allowed the ribs to smoke for 1 hour. After an hour, I take them off the smoker and spritz with water. The water helps to prevent the bark from drying out and encourages more smoke particles to stick to the meat.
After spritzing, I put the meat back on the smoker. From this point, every 30 minutes I was spritzing the surface of the ribs until I was happy with the color of the meat; This only took another hour.
After two hours, I was fairly happy with the color and was ready to wrap the meat.
For backyard barbecue, I prefer to wrap with butcher paper because I really like the bark that forms and want to preserve it as much as possible while still gaining the benefits from wrapping; Butcher paper is a healthy medium between no-wrap and tin-foil.
Wrapping ribs is fairly straightforward - it's akin to wrapping a Christmas present.
I lay out two sheets of butcher paper and have them overlap by a few inches at the center. I then spritz the surface of the paper with water and place the ribs in the center of the two sheets, meat side down.
When wrapping, I always try to keep things "tight" so to speak; Similar to wrapping a burrito.
Once wrapped, put grill grates on the PBC and place the wrapped ribs, meat-side down - so that the meat side is facing the fire.
Put the rebar back in the slot where you hung the ribs and put the lid back on.
After a while of smoking ribs, you start to figure out when ribs are "done." This is a big reason I don't care for gimmicky ideas for smoking ribs like "321."
Rather, I prefer to use visual queues in order to determine when ribs are done. The first test I tend to use is the twist test. It involves grabbing one of the center ribs and moving it around. A quick check I usually do is a light tear near the bone. If you can see the meat pulling away from the bone, they're likely done.
Note: Twist, bend, and tear tests are harder to explain and it usually just comes down to experience. This is a big reason I think being probe tender is the best way to explain when a rib is considered done.
After which, I use my temperature probe to poke between the meat. If it feels like the probe is sliding through hot butter with no resistance, they're likely done.
The last thing I typically do is take an internal temperature. Pork ribs typically finish somewhere between 195 - 205F. However, keep in mind, temperature is not the best indication that the meat is tender. It's just a general guide and finishing temperatures are usually within that range.
So from the images above, we can see the meat pulling away from the bone in the twist/tear test, the meat was probe tender and slid through with no resistance, and the internal temperature was 198F.
After this point I took them off the smoker and prepped my sauce.
At this point, you could technically dig in. If you're not a big fan of sauce on your ribs, you can skip this step.
I've tested a lot of barbecue sauces for ribs. What I can tell you is that I personally like sweet flavors in the sauce to complement the pork. My favorite sauce is Sticky Fingers, Carolina Sweet (I also use this sauce for my pellet grill wings). As an added bonus, Sticky Fingers is usually the cheapest sauce on the shelf.
Something I like to do is combine the barbecue sauce with a "red sauce." Red sauce is usually vinegar-based and will typically have some element of heat (another reason I don't bother with heat in the dry rub). I've also tested a lot of red sauces and my favorite is Blue Hogs, Tennessee Red. Unfortunately, I didn't have any on-hand but I did have Yes, Dear's Red Sauce so I used that instead.
For the sauce, I used a cup of Sticky Fingers and a 1/4 cup of Yes, Dear's Red Sauce. Combine these in a saucepan on low heat.
By the time the ribs have rested 15 minutes, the sauce should be up to temperature. Use a basting brush to paint the sauce on the ribs. I typically don't bother with the bone-side and stick to the meat-side.
Once sauced, slice between the bones and enjoy!
In terms of recipes for baby back ribs, I've yet to see other home cooks and backyard barbecue bloggers stick to the basics like this. Rather, they all seem to copy each other and treat you like a barbecue competitor. That or they tell you to follow the "3-2-1" method; Truth be told, if you were to 321 baby back ribs on the PBC, by hour six your ribs are likely mush.