Monday, July 18, 2016

How to Make Perfect Ribs on the Smoker (Illustrated)

In an effort to branch out from the soul-crushing drudgery that is politics, I'm going to try and do a cooking-related blog post more often. I've always enjoyed cooking, as you have an actual, tangible result at the end. In that way, it's sort of like construction - you work with your hands to create something that you (and others) can enjoy.

Let's start with a classic American dish that everyone likes. Ribs. If you don't like tender, fall-off-the-bone, slow-smoked ribs, please discontinue reading this post. If you do, read on. I got you.

Ribs. Just saying it conjures up an image of meat layered over curved bones with sauce and deliciousness.

In my opinion, ribs are the pinnacle of good BBQ. Some people in Texas like brisket, and lots of people around the Carolinas like pulled pork, but for my money, give me a big slab of baby-back ribs every day of the week and twice on Sunday.

Here's everything you need to know about cooking ribs:

Step One: Gather your hardware.

This is an instructional guide on how to make ribs on your smoker. Accordingly, you'll need a smoker. You can use your grill and set it up to be a smoker, but it's a bit complicated, and odds are that you'll need to fuss with it quite a lot during the long cook time. If you're at all interested in smoking things on a regular basis, I'd go ahead and get a dedicated smoker. The one I have is a Weber Smokey Mountain. It looks like this:

As you can see, this smoker comes in three different sizes. Mine is the medium size, which is plenty big enough for me. There are two cooking levels inside, which are shown on this cross-section:

What you're basically doing with this smoker is separating your heat source (the coals on the bottom) from your food by placing a big metal bowl (typically filed with water) between the two. The water bowl acts as a heat sink and keeps the whole smoker at a constant temperature. There are a few tricks you can do with the charcoal to make it burn slowly, but it's not totally necessary. You control the temperature with the air vents on the bottom. More air means a hotter fire, less air means the fire burns less. It's not rocket science, but it does require a bit of practice to get the hang of it.

Now to the food.

Step Two: Gather and Prepare Your Software.

There are several different kinds of ribs. St. Louis cut, country ribs, spare ribs, and of course, baby backs. I like baby backs because they are very meaty and widely available. I usually get mine from the grocery store in those big plastic vacuum sealed packages. When you get it home, the first thing you want to do is pull it out of the packaging and give it a good rinse in cool water. Pat it dry, and put it on some sort of tray. If the tray has a raised lip around the edges, even better. Your ribs should look something like this:

I actually use the lid that goes on top of a cookie sheet because it's the perfect size, has a lip, and is easy to clean. From this point, you need to remove the membrane on the underside of the ribs. Don't skip this step. It might be a bit difficult the first time you do it, but it's important. All you need to do is flip your ribs over, and slide a knife under the translucent membrane. Then, using a paper towel for grip (using just your fingers will be too slippery) just slowly pull the membrane down the length of the ribs. When you get it all off, you'll have exposed the nice underside of the meat.

Removing the membrane has two purposes. First, you don't want to eat it. It's tough, chewy, and will be all stuck in your teeth and be gross. Second, it prevents the flavor of the rub, sauce, and smoke from getting to the underside of the meat. Don't skip this step.

Now that you've got your ribs undressed, you can start to flavor them. The basic flavors you bring to the meat will be from (a) the dry rub; (b) the smoke; and (c) the sauce. Done correctly, all three of these flavors will balance each other out and result in a perfect harmony of pork.

For your rub, there are endless varieties depending on what you like. In any event, at this stage, apply your rub, just pressing it into the meat on both the top and on the underside. It will then look like this:

My rub had some rosemary in it this time, so that is the large  stuff  you're seeing in this picture. Once you have your ribs dressed up, you can let the rub get happy for a few hours, or a few minutes. I usually let them sit for about 30 minutes, but you can do whatever.

Step 3: Fire the Smoker.

I recommend using a chimney to get your charcoal going. Using lighter fluid just releases all sorts of fumes that are not what you want going into your ribs. A chimney basically keeps the charcoal in a vertical stack, so it can light much easier. I take about three-quarters of a Weber chimney and put it on the side burner of my grill, and put the heat on for about five minutes. After that, you just let it get nice and hot. It looks like this:

Meanwhile, get some charcoal and put it in your smoker so there's a sort of donut hole in the middle. That's where you're going to pour the hot coals. Like this:

Once you have your charcoal in the chimney nice and hot, pour it on in. Careful, you'll want to use some sort of hot-pad or insulated glove to hold onto it. Oh, and it makes cool sparks:

I love that picture, by the way. (This is my most art-sy BBQ photo.)

Anyway, let the smoker get nice and happy at 225F. This is where you do your cooking. It can get a little higher or lower, but your goal is to keep the smoker at this temperature for the entire cook. I usually close the bottom vents about two-thirds of the way as a baseline.

Oh, and to digress for a bit: Get a good digital thermometer. The little bi-metal thermometers that are built in on your smoker or grill are worthless. Well, not completely worthless, but close. Get a good thermometer so you know what the temperature is.

Once you have your smoker at 225, go ahead and put the ribs on. At this point, I open the door in the side of the smoker and add in about two handfuls of smoke wood. You can use whatever you like based on your personal preference, but for your first time, go with one handful of hickory and one of apple. You only need to actually let the hardwood smoke go for about thirty minutes. After that, you're done with the heavy smoke. You don't want to over-smoke the ribs. Remember, you're going for a balance of flavors, not a big smoke bomb.

Step Four: Wait.

Drink a beer. Wait. Relax. Keep an eye on the temperature and adjust your vents a little, but don't open the top to check on the ribs. They're still there. Quit looking at them. I like to cook my ribs about six hours, and then foil them for the last hour. You can tell they are done when the meat sort of shrinks back from the bone and when you pick them up they bend really easily.

No sauce while it's on the smoker, as that will keep the bark from forming as well as you want it to. After I take them off, I let them rest in the foil for about thirty minutes. Then you just slice them up into sections and sauce to taste.

It should look like this:

Step Five: Eat.

In my opinion, this is the best step. Be sure to serve hot and maybe throw in an appetizer or two. I like bacon-wrapped jalapeƱos. (And a beer) Cheers!


  1. I'm hungry now. (Amazing, since Mrs. Permanent Press has fed me all weekend...) It may be a while before I can get there to check out your technique, so keep practicing!

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  3. Sounds good. I would suggest (a small suggestion, no, smaller than that) that you try lump charcoal. IIRC, Sams usually sells a nice big bag for 10-15 bucks or so. Much more pleasant smoke, though it does burn hotter..