Any seasoned pitmaster knows how to prepare a great rack of ribs regardless of their type.
But how can you choose the best type of ribs for smoking when you’re just a beginner?
After all, when you don’t have any experience under your belt most rib cuts seem nearly identical.
Fortunately, there’s an easy way to distinguish them and find which one will suit your needs.
Keep reading to find out what are the best ribs to smoke.
What are the best ribs for smoking?
Most butcher shops usually sell three different types of pork ribs: baby back ribs, spare ribs and St Louis-style ribs.
And in order to find the best type for smoking, we’ll first need to take a look at the differences between them.
Baby back ribs are located below the loin muscle of the hog and are attached to the spine. Due to this, they have relatively lean meat and are meatier on top compared to spare ribs.
They are, however, smaller in size than spare ribs and contain less meat overall. A typical rack of baby back ribs contains roughly a pound of meat when the bones get removed.
Spare ribs on the other hand, can yield nearly twice as much meat from a single rack.
Apart from size, this difference is largely due to the fact that spare ribs contain more meat between the bones.
In terms of flavor, spare ribs are a fair bit juicier than baby backs since they’re cut from the belly of the hog.
This area contains more intramuscular fat than the loin so the meat has more marbling as a result.
Spare ribs also contain bits of small bone and cartilage near the tips at the bottom of the rack.
When the rib tips get removed, the rack gets labeled as St Louis-style ribs. Which simply means that St Louis ribs are trimmed spare ribs.
With that said, choosing the best type of ribs for smoking mostly comes down to personal taste.
If you prefer juicer meats, then it’s better to use spare ribs or St Louis-style ribs for smoking. These types of ribs are rich in fat which renders during smoking and makes their meat more succulent. Baby back ribs are a better option if you’re looking for leaner, restaurant quality type of ribs.
You can also use beef ribs for smoking, even though they’re not as easily available as pork ribs.
There are three types of beef ribs you can find at a butcher’s shop:
- Back ribs
- Plate short ribs
- Chuck short ribs
Back ribs come from the rib primal beef cut on the back and sides of a cow. They’re either packaged in a rack of 7 ribs or sold individually.
Similarly to spare ribs, back ribs don’t have much meat on top, but they do have plenty on the sides.
Back ribs are the best beef ribs for smoking if you’re looking for a more traditional rib experience.
Just like with pork ribs, you can grab them with your hands and enjoy gnawing each rib like a caveman.
Plate short ribs, on the other hand, are anything but short. The bones on these ribs have a size of between 6 and 10 inches, and can weigh up to 10 pounds.
Having said that, plate short ribs are also great for smoking, but they’ll taste more like a brisket on a stick than ribs.
Chuck short ribs, as their name implies, are cut from the chuck roast near the shoulder of the cow.
As a result, they don’t have as much marbling as the other beef ribs and take quite a bit longer to smoke.
This is why I avoid using it and stick to plate short ribs and back ribs when it comes to beef.
If you’re a beginner, I recommend you stick to pork ribs until you gain some smoking experience.
Beef ribs usually take more time to smoke and aren’t as versatile when it comes to seasonings.
Best way to season ribs for smoking?
The best way to season ribs for smoking is to remove their silverskin before applying your dry rub.
The silverskin is a thin membrane that covers the back of the ribs. Unlike collagen and fat, the silverskin doesn’t break down during smoking.
Leaving it on will prevent the seasonings from penetrating the meat and make the ribs chewier.
To remove the silverskin from ribs, simply pry it up with a butter knife and pull it with your fingers.
If you’re having trouble taking the membrane off, you can simply score it with your knife in a criss-cross pattern.
This way the membrane will shrink during smoking and the seasonings will infuse the meat with flavor.
Apart from taking the membrane off, you’ll also want to apply a thin layer of liquid on both sides of the ribs.
This will help your dry rub stick to the surface of the meat and give it more flavor. You can use mustard, oil, bbq sauce or plain water.
After you coat both sides with the liquid of your choice, you should coat the bottom of the ribs with your dry rub and let them sit for 5 minutes.
This will help the seasonings adhere to the meat and keep them from falling off when you turn over the ribs.
In terms of the rib rub itself, I’ve personally grown fond of Meathead’s Memphis Dust.
Meathead has practically reached a guru status in the smoking community and that’s no coincidence.
The guy was a judge at barbecue competitions back when most of us were still in diapers.
Anyways, you can check the recipe for his world famous dry rib rub here.
If you’re looking for a simpler rub, I recommend using a mixture of brown sugar, paprika, kosher salt, black pepper, garlic powder, onion powder and cayenne pepper.
I’ve used this rub plenty of times and it hasn’t let me down so far.
Here’s a detailed list of the ingredients and their quantities:
- 1/2 cup kosher salt
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 1/2 cup Spanish or Hungarian paprika
- 1 tbsp cayenne pepper
- 4 tbsp garlic powder
- 4 tbsp onion powder
- 4 tbsp coarse black pepper
The reason why I recommend using Spanish or Hungarian paprika is because the paprika in the U.S. almost doesn’t have any flavor.
In contrast, Spanish and Hungarian paprika add a mild but very noticeable flavor to smoked ribs.
If you’re making beef ribs, all you need to season them is some kosher salt, black pepper and garlic powder.
Beef ribs have plenty of flavor on their own and using more spices or marinades will only water down their taste.
What is the best temperature to smoke ribs at?
Similarly to smoking pork butt, pork ribs turn out the best when they’re smoked at 225°F (roughly 107°C).
However, the time it takes to fully smoke them will greatly depend on the type of ribs, their size, your smoker and the ambient temperature.
How long should you smoke ribs at 225?
Having said that, you’ll generally need 4 – 6 hours to smoke baby back ribs at 225°F and between 5 and 7 hours for spare ribs.
It’s also worth noting that pellet grills emit more heat than offset smokers so it’s a good idea to turn down the heat to 200°F when making ribs (~93°C).
In case you’re smoking beef ribs, then you’ll need about 5 – 6 hours for back ribs and 8 – 10 hours for chuck short ribs.
Plate short ribs can tolerate a bit more heat so you can crank up the temperature of your smoker to 275°F / 135°C.
At this temperature they’ll be ready in roughly 5 hours.
In any case, these time estimates should only be used as a guideline.
Check out: How good is Oak for smoking meat?
How to check if smoked ribs are ready?
Pork ribs are usually done when they reach an internal temperature between 190°F and 203°F or 88°C and 95°C.
If you cook them any longer than that, the meat will start to fall apart, which is a good thing for pulled pork but not for ribs.
Unfortunately, checking the internal temperature of pork ribs might not be the best way to tell if they’re ready.
Since the meat on pork ribs has an uneven thickness, a digital thermometer will give a different temperature reading depending on where it’s placed.
That’s why it’s better to check if your smoked ribs are ready by using a more traditional approach like the bend test.
To use this method, simply grab the rack of ribs with a pair of tongs near the middle and wiggle it slightly.
If the ribs are ready, the rack will crack in the middle. In case they don’t or there are only small cracks at the top, you should smoke them for a while longer.
Another way to tell if your ribs are done is to grab the tip of a bone and bend it with your fingers.
If the bone comes off clean from the meat, then the ribs are done.
Maybe read next: Vegetable Side Dishes That Go With Pork
My short recap
Smoked ribs are one of the most popular food items at barbecue joints and backyard grills.
If you’re just a beginner, then the best type of ribs to smoke will be baby back pork ribs.
Baby back ribs have a moderate amount of fat so they usually appeal to most people.
In fact, most restaurants who offer smoked ribs usually use baby back ribs.
In case you have smoking experience, then the rib choice will mostly depend on your personal preferences.