Ribs are one of my favorite things to smoke - they're also the first thing I ever smoked on the Weber Kettle.
Needless to say, my ribs have greatly improved since then.
I also know what not to do when smoking ribs on the kettle as well other nuanced information you might wonder about.
Note: This guide is long and features dozens of pictures and illustrations of everything I'm talking about. I've attempted to make it for all experience levels and tried not to leave any stone unturned.
When it comes to pork ribs, there are two options - Baby Back ribs or Spare ribs; My personal preference are baby backs.
The main difference between spare ribs and baby back ribs are:
There are also a few other differences.
For instance, a whole rack of spare ribs can be trimmed to a St. Louis cut. There's also a difference in weight, smoke time, and serving sizes.
If you're interested in learning more about these difference, be sure to check out my article that goes way more in depth.
Enhanced ribs are typically found in grocery stores/supermarkets.
The word "enhanced" simply means that the ribs were injected with a solution of water and other ingredients like phosphates, salt, and flavorings.
As you might expect, if you take a salt-based rub and apply it to the ribs, you'll up with a salty tasting rib.
I'd strongly suggest avoiding enhanced ribs and to go as fresh as possible - preferably never frozen. Even still, frozen ribs are markedly better than injected ribs.
If enhanced ribs are your only choice, just be cognizant of the salt in your rib rub or don't use salt if the recipe calls for it (like mine).
Trimming baby back ribs is super straightforward.
You should remove the membrane, remove the flap meat, trim scraggly pieces, and remove small bones.
To remove the bone-side membrane:
You will need the following:
1. First start by pat drying the meat side and the bone side of the ribs with a paper towel.
The reason for doing this is to make the surface of the meat easier to work with, especially the membrane.
Keep in mind, some people like to use the wet surface as their binder where-as others like to use mustard or cooking oils. Personally, I don't think binders are necessary with pork ribs.
2. Then, use your butter knife to initially lift the membrane.
Note, there are two membranes - you want to get your butter knife between them. The membrane you're removing is the tough silver skin.
3. Once lifted, use the underside of a spoon to continue lifting the membrane.
A lot of people like to only use a butter knife but I've found that a spoon works best to entirely lift it off the rack.
I've had way too many instances where I tear the membrane with the butter knife and it makes it much harder to remove.
4. Once enough of the membrane is lifted, use a paper towel to tear the membrane horizontally so that it pulls away from the bones.
5. Discard the membrane.
To remove the bone-side flap:
This rack of ribs didn't have a flap that was worth trimming. However to illustrate, here's a rack of baby backs with a flap:
You essentially just take a sharp knife and run it underneath the meat to remove it.
This piece is apt to burn when smoked with the rest of the rack.
To remove smaller bones:
Typically on baby backs there will be one end with a bone that has virtually no meat on it and I'll typically remove it.
To remove the bone, simply use a sharp knife and cut as close to the bone as possible. This way the next bone has as much edible meat as possible.
To remove scraggly pieces:
Typically on the tops of baby backs there will be scraggly pieces that are apt to burn.
This rack had a piece that almost resembled the mohawk on a brisket - likely happened due to butchering.
Either way, I ran my knife underneath it and removed it.
I also don't think trimming fat from the top of baby backs is necessary. All of the fat is renderable and will help when it comes time to wrap (more on that below).
Personally, I like to keep things as simple as possible with rib rubs.
A lot of recipes will use a number of different spices ranging from sugars, chilis, salts, paprikas, etc. It gets to the point where you can barely taste pork.
Personally, I'm a big fan of just kosher salt, cracked peppercorns, garlic powder, and dark brown sugar.
I've done pork ribs with and without dark brown sugar and I find that I do like a little bit of sugar in the rub. The main reason being - I think it helps to cut through some of the fattiness of the ribs.
For this recipe I used:
I used roughly half this mixture on the ribs - front and back. The rest I saved for the next time I smoke pork.
If you opt to use a commercial rib rub, you can also be rather liberal with ribs; Again, some folks even prefer them that way.
The above are just my taste preferences. You should smoke ribs how YOU and your Guests like.
There are a few different ways to smoke on a charcoal grill.
To name a few popular methods:
I personally use the Slow N' Sear when I smoke on my Weber. However, I've used both the Minion method and the Charcoal snake too many times to count - both work really well.
In terms of temperature, my goal when smoking is 250F.
With the Slow N' Sear, I simply dumped unlit lump charcoal into the basket. I then lit a few pieces with my butane torch and allowed the coals to build for 15 minutes.
If you have a charcoal chimney, you can light a few pieces of charcoal that way too.
Once the charcoal is lit, I then put the lid on the kettle and I opened both my intake and exhaust vent. You want both the intake and exhaust completely open so that airflow is maximized.
Once the temperature climbs to around 200-225F, you can start making vent adjustments.
My first adjustment is the intake damper (bottom vent) - I close it so that it's half way between the first and second dot.
Once the grill is at 250F, I close the the exhaust damper (top vent) half way.
Based on my photos, I can read your mind: "Dylan - I don't have that type of Lid thermometer on my grill!"
I added the Tel-tru thermometer to the lid of my Weber kettle because the standard lid thermometer on the Weber kettle is setup incorrectly for smoking.
It's on the opposite side of the exhaust damper - meaning, it's giving you the temperature above your fire, not above your food.
When smoking, you want the exhaust damper so that it pulls smoke over your food.
Here's a visual to understand what I mean:
What I've found is that roughly 400F over the fire on my regular lid thermometer is roughly 250F above the food.
Alternatively, you could also dangle a meat probe in the exhaust damper.
Once the kettle is cruising at 250F, I placed the ribs in the cool zone.
The baby backs went on my smoker at 10:58 am, meat side up.
Something that I think is somewhat useful that rib guides don't mention is that the way you set the ribs up is how they'll cook.
What I like to do is scrunch the meat up so that I get more meat on top of the bones, rather than the sides.
Simply push the sides of the ribs inwards - as indicated by the arrows:
If you're someone who likes to probe the meat - the raised edges also make it easier to probe the meat, rather than probing a bone.
With how the Weber Kettle works, you want to minimize how often you peak at the meat or take the lid off.
The old adage of "if you're lookin' you ain't cookin'" truly applies here.
This can actually be to your benefit in certain situations. If the kettle is running a little hot, you can take the lid off and allow the heat to escape.
You can also remove a few of the lit coals with tongs so that the fire can calm down.
At this point, I'm only opening the lid every hour and half or so to add more wood.
The first cherry wood chunk smoked for roughly an hour and a half. After which I added a chunk of Pecan.
Here are the ribs 2 hours and 30 minutes later:
Cherry wood works great for adding color to pork - it will give it a deep red hue. I also use Pecan because it's great for short cooks like ribs and offers a subtle smoke flavor, albeit stronger than cherry.
All we're waiting for now is for the meat to come up in temperature and for the exterior to get to a color we like. Typically for me this happens at around 175-180F internal.
Here's the ribs an hour later probing 176F. The bark is definitely set and has taken on more than enough smoke.
I then wrap the meat with foil.
I was a big believer in wrapping ribs in butcher paper for a long time. However with how I smoke ribs now, it's not super necessary.
Foil helps reach tenderness faster and by waiting longer to wrap, the bark is already well set. I also don't use a lot of spices that can tend to wash away like most other recipes.
Wrapping ribs with foil is fairly straightforward:
1. Lay out a sheet of aluminum foil - I prefer the large heavy duty sheets.
2. Spritz some water on the surface of the foil - the water helps with thermal conductivity in the wrap; The ribs will also continue to render fat and water which will accumulate in the wrap.
In a foil wrap it should only take roughly 30-45 minutes for them to finish.
Note: This is just another way I differ from most articles. Truth be told, most rib articles will teach you to wrap like a Barbecue Competitor and not a Backyard Barbecuer.
Most "liquid" wraps will use a combination of the following ingredients:
Again, it's to the point where you barely can taste pork. You also can't eat many of ribs and borderline need to take a nap after.
With baby backs, you may opt to add some butter simply because they're a lean cut of meat.
I do not smoke "fall off the bone ribs." To most folks who do barbecue, fall off the bone ribs are considered overcooked.
The tests I use to tell when ribs are done are the bend test and tear test. In my opinion, these are more consistent than temperature.
The bend test involves picking the ribs up at roughly the 5th rib. You then allow the ribs to bend. Ribs that are done should bend at a 45 degree angle or more.
You can learn more about the bend test in this article.
The tear test involves tearing a bone away from the meat. If the bone pulls cleanly away from the meat, they're likely done.
With that said, ribs typically finish somewhere between 195-205F.
These ribs were tender at 202F.
You can also use your probe thermometer or a toothpick to poke between the bones. The probe should slide through like it's going through hot butter - ie. with no resistance.
The goal with resting ribs is to allow them to come down to slicing temperatures of 150-165F this way the meat is cleanly sliced. You also want the bones so that they're able to be held.
Resting ribs typically takes 10-15 minutes at most.
During this time I use a basting brush to apply barbecue sauce to my ribs.
I prefer my ribs wet. However, if you like the sauce tacky, apply barbecue sauce to the ribs and then return the rack to the smoker for 10-15 minutes so that the sauce can glaze on the surface.
For me, these are perfect tenderness - they bite cleanly off the bone but don't fall off the bone.
Once rested, slice between the bones and enjoy!