This smoked ribs recipe gives you all the details you need to make the best BBQ smoked ribs at home. Already have a smoker? Great! If not, no worries: I also explain how to make these smoked ribs on a basic charcoal grill.
Do you love smoked ribs? I sure do. . . when they're cooked right! I always find it risky to order ribs at a restaurant, even popular BBQ joints. More times than not, they aren’t very good.
It was this continual disappointment that inspired me to perfect them at home, on my charcoal grill. Well, after much trial and error—and eating a lot of ribs—I finally have a recipe that is worth sharing.
First, let’s talk smokers. Regardless of the type of smoker you have, this recipe will work for you. If you don’t have smoker, you can make these babies on a standard charcoal grill. Just make sure to follow my instructions on How to Smoke on a Charcoal Grill.
Here’s a little secret: I own three dedicated smokers, but prefer to make these smoked ribs on my Weber kettle. They just taste better.
If you are smoking on a charcoal grill, watch out for these red boxes in the post: they have additional instructions to follow.
Second, let’s talk ribs—more specifically, pork ribs. This recipe covers how to make both baby back and St. Louis spare ribs. Personally, my faves are St. Louis spare ribs. They have more fat, which keeps them juicy, and they're a bit meatier. Don’t worry about the fat: most of it renders off in the cook process.
So stick around…and learn how to make the best smoked ribs you will ever eat.
Below is a linked outline of topics. Feel free to jump around or just follow along in order.
- What do I need to smoke ribs?
- How long does it take to smoke ribs?
- How many ribs per person?
- How to prep ribs for smoking
- Pork rib rub recipe (no-salt)
- How to apply rub to the ribs
- What temperature to smoke ribs
- Pre-heat the smoker
- How to smoke ribs
- How long to let ribs rest
- What to serve with ribs
- Want more smoked meat recipes?
- Smoked Ribs (Charcoal Grill or Smoker)
What do I need to smoke ribs?
- A smoker (or charcoal grill, set up to smoke)
- Pork ribs (St. Louis spares or baby backs)
- Spritzer bottle
- Apple juice
- Rib rub (recipe below)
- Favorite BBQ sauce
How long does it take to smoke ribs?
This can vary widely on a variety of factors such as cooking temp, if the ribs are wrapped or not, and what type of pork ribs you are cooking. For my recipe, the approximate cook times are below.
St. Louis spares: ~5 ½ hours
Baby backs: ~4 ½ hours
Times are never exact. As the popular saying goes: they're done when they're done. Don’t worry! I explain how you can tell when ribs are done later in the post.
How many ribs per person?
If you're hosting a party, you want a good idea about how many ribs to smoke. To figure that out, there are some questions to ask yourself first:
Are the ribs the only main course?
How many side dishes are there?
Will there be dessert?
Are your guests big BBQ eaters?
A good rule of thumb is to assume about 2-3 servings per rack of pork ribs. You may need to adjust this up or down depending on your answers to the questions above.
Want to fill your guests up on something other than ribs? My creamy pasta salad is tangy and rich, and goes great with BBQ.
How to prep ribs for smoking
Before we can smoke ribs, we have four prep steps to complete:
2. Rinse and dry
3. Remove the membrane
4. Dry brine (optional, but worth it!)
How to trim ribs
There are three areas on pork ribs to consider trimming.
One: on the underside or bone side of your ribs, there is typically a flap of meat. Trim as much of this off as you can.
Two: trim any major fat pockets on the top side of your ribs. Don’t try to get all this off, but rather simply reduce the thickness of any fat pockets you find. Remember, the fat will render off pretty well during the cook process.
Three: I like to square up my ribs. I trim off the last one or two ribs from the small bone end to make them a bit more uniform. This is more common with St. Louis spare ribs than baby backs. This is optional and more about aesthetics than anything else.
Rinse, then dry the ribs
After trimming, it’s a good idea to wash off any residual brine and/or blood that is on the ribs.
Note on rinsing: don't hold the ribs under a running faucet. This will splatter raw meat all over your kitchen. Instead, add cold water to a large measuring cup or pitcher and gently pour over the ribs into your sink.
Then, dry the ribs well with a paper towel.
How to remove membrane from ribs
All pork ribs have a tough membrane on the backside. This needs to be removed because your salt and rub won’t penetrate it. Also, it doesn’t make for fun eating when your teeth can’t bite through it very well.
To remove the membrane, it's a simple matter of inserting a butter knife between the membrane and one of the middle bones and prying away. Once you get it started, continue to work along this bone with the knife, always prying the membrane up a little at a time until you get to the other end.
Now, grab the loosened membrane with your fingers and pull it up. The membrane should pull off from both ends of the rack. The membrane is a bit slippery, so it's best to use some paper towel to get a good grip.
Dry brine the ribs
Don’t be scared off by the term dry brine. Dry brining is simply pre-salting the meat a few hours before you cook it. How easy is that?
While this is optional, I strongly recommend it because it will produce tastier and juicier ribs. Here is a great article if you want to learn more about dry brining.
To dry brine, sprinkle ½ teaspoon of kosher salt per pound of meat evenly on the top side of your ribs. If you're using table salt, use ¼ teaspoon per pound.
Once salted, let the ribs rest uncovered in your fridge, anywhere from 6–24 hours before smoking them. This allows the dry brine process to do its work.
Only dry brine ribs if you are using a no-salt rib rub. I've included a great no-salt recipe below.
Benefits of dry brining
Dry brining allows the salt to penetrate deeper into the meat, rather than just sticking to the surface. This provides more flavor throughout the rib.
An added benefit is that when the salt penetrates into the muscle cells, it essentially traps water molecules and holds them during the cook process. This prevents the meat from drying out during long cook times, leaving you with juicier meat.
Pork rib rub recipe (no-salt)
I prefer to make my own pork rib rub. I have tried many recipes but always come back to this basic sweet rub when making smoked ribs.
Again, my rub does NOT include salt. Whether I am dry brining or not, I like to salt it separately because this enables me to apply the correct amount of salt for what I am cooking. If the salt is mixed into the rub, it is very hard to tell how much is actually being applied to the meat.
Mix ingredients below thoroughly and store in airtight shaker. This makes enough for about 4 racks of ribs.
½ C Light brown sugar
¼ C Sweet paprika
1 Tbs Black pepper, ground
1 Tbs Chili powder
1 Tbs Garlic powder
1 Tbs Onion powder
½ Tbs Ground mustard
½ teaspoon Cumin
½ teaspoon Cayenne
How to apply rub to the ribs
Apply the rub to the ribs about 1–2 hours before putting the meat on the grill.
Many recipes call for rubbing the night before so the rub can penetrate the meat. That’s just not true. Only the salt will penetrate the meat, which is why I recommend dry brining the day before.
If you dry brined, then you can proceed and apply the no-salt rib rub.
If you did not dry brine, salt the ribs on both sides at a ratio of ½ teaspoon kosher salt per pound of ribs (use ¼ teaspoon if using table salt). After doing this, you can immediately apply the no-salt rub.
If you are using a commercial rib rub, it likely has a lot of salt in it. If that is the case, DO NOT dry brine or salt the ribs separately. Just go directly to rubbing your ribs.
I don’t use any binder like mustard, oil, water, etc to get the rub to stick to my ribs. Simply sprinkle the rub evenly on both sides of the naked ribs (including the edges).
When applying your rib rub, it is always a good idea to season it from about 12 inches above the meat. This allows for more even distribution.
Once you've applied the rib rub to a side, use the back side of a spoon to work it into the meat. This is a good trick so you don’t end up with sticky, rub-caked fingers.
How much rub to put on the ribs
Estimate 1 tablespoon per pound of ribs. My ribs below are about 3.5 pounds each, so I put on 3.5 tablespoons of rub to each rack.
After it is rubbed down, put it back into the fridge until it’s time to smoke. We want the ribs cold when they go on the smoker. Colder meats take longer to cook, which allows for more smoke absorption.
What temperature to smoke ribs
I have found that 250 ºF is the ideal temp for smoking ribs. It does a better job of rendering the fat than the more common temp of 225 ºF.
Pre-heat the smoker
Time to get smokin'. Pre-heat your smoker to 250 ºF.
If you don’t have a smoker, just cook these ribs on a basic charcoal grill. Make sure to follow my instructions on How to smoke on a charcoal grill.
How to smoke ribs
There are many ways to smoke ribs, but usually it comes down to two types of people: those who wrap and those who don’t. The term “wrap” means that at some point in the cook process, you wrap the ribs in tinfoil.
I have smoked ribs both wrapped and unwrapped many times, and have determined the best way to smoke ribs is to wrap them. They just come out juicier and more tender.
There are three phases in the cook process when you wrap ribs:
Phase 1 - Smoke the ribs unwrapped
At this point the smoker should be pre-heated to 250 ºF and clean smoke should be coming from your grill. Clean smoke is important because it is in this first phase that all the smoke absorption into the meat happens, and you don't want your meat tasting like creosote.
Place your ribs on the smoker and cook for the time listed below:
St. Louis spares: cook unwrapped for 3 hours*
Baby backs: cook unwrapped for 2.5 hours*
* At the halfway point, spritz the top of your rib with warm apple juice.
If you're smoking on a charcoal grill, make sure to rotate the meat and cooking grate halfway through this cook time.
Phase 2 - Wrap the ribs
After the ribs have cooked unwrapped in phase 1, it's time to wrap them in heavy duty tinfoil. Wrapping has a bunch of benefits.
Why wrap ribs in foil?
- It stops the absorption of smoke. Two to three hours of smoke is plenty: nothing ruins BBQ more than too much smoke.
- It shortens the cook time. That’s always a good thing.
- It keeps the ribs from getting too dark.
- Most importantly, it keeps the ribs juicy and tender.
How to wrap ribs
Start by placing a layer of tinfoil over the top of a rimmed baking sheet. The tinfoil needs to be large enough so that there will be at least 4 inches of exposed tinfoil around the entire rack of ribs once you place them on top.
In the center of this tinfoil and baking sheet, press down to create a shallow well or bow in the middle. This will hold the wrap juice.
Wrap juice adds flavor to the ribs while they cook. To make your wrap juice, simply add equal parts apple juice and your favorite bbq sauce to a container and stir.
Before pouring this wrap juice to the tinfoil, microwave it just long enough to warm it up. We don’t want to put cold liquids in with the hot ribs. Once warmed, pour a ½ cup of this mixture into the well created in your tinfoil sheet.
Now place your phase 1, partially cooked ribs, meat side down, on the tinfoil with the juice and sauce mixture:
Lastly, take a second sheet of tinfoil, the same size as the first, and lay it over top of the first sheet that is holding your ribs and juice. Then, continue making multiple folds on all four sides to create a tight seal. Take these folds right up to the edges of your ribs, being careful to not to let a rib bone puncture the foil.
Then place the wrapped ribs back on the grill, meat side down.
How long to cook ribs wrapped in foil
You will find many smoked rib recipes that call for a 3-2-1 method. Where the “2” represents how many hours the ribs should cook in the wrap. Two hours is WAAAAAY too long. Your ribs will turn to mush. Don’t do it!
Follow the shorter times I list below. The ribs will still be incredibly tender and pull from the bone cleanly.
St. Louis spares: cook wrapped for 1 hr 15 min
Baby backs: cook wrapped for 1 hr
If you're smoking on a charcoal grill, make sure to rotate the meat and cooking grate halfway through this cook time.
Phase 3 - Unwrap and cook until done
Carefully unwrap the ribs and place them back on the grill, bone side down, for 15 minutes. This time is needed to firm them up a bit.
Once 15 minutes has passed, we need to start checking to see if they are done.
If you're smoking on a charcoal grill, make sure to continue to rotate your meat every 15 minutes until done.
How to know when ribs are done
Properly smoked ribs are done when they reach a temperature of around 200 ºF. But let me warn you: it is very difficult to take this temperature accurately due to how close the bones are to each other. The best way to know when ribs are done is to use the bend test.
To perform a bend test, use a set up tongs to lift up about a ⅓ of the rack. If the remaining ⅔ of the ribs fold over to about a 90 degree angle, they are done. You will also see the rib meat start to crack at the point of the bend.
Continue to perform this bend test every 15-30 minutes, depending how close to done the last test result was. When they are close (15-30 min away—just estimate), it’s sauce time.
When to add BBQ sauce to ribs
You should always add bbq sauce to ribs when they are almost done (see above). Most sauces have lots of sugar that will burn if added too soon.
Start by turning the ribs over to sauce the bone side first, using a basting brush to apply the sauce. Then flip them over again and sauce the top side. Close the grill and allow the sauce to set for at least 15 minutes before performing another bend test and/or saucing again. If you do sauce again, only apply sauce to the top of the ribs.
Once they pass the bend test and have cooked for at least 15 minutes with the sauce, it’s time to take them off the smoker and let them rest.
How long to let ribs rest
I rest my ribs for 10–15 minutes on a baking sheet loosely covered with tinfoil. They can rest up to an hour like this if needed. Food done too early? Follow the "foil-towel-cooler" rest method!
What is the foil-towel-cooler (FTC) rest method?
Your food can safely rest for up to 4 hours if you use the foil-towel-cooler rest method.
First, wrap your meat in tinfoil.
Second, wrap the foiled meat inside a towel.
Third, place the towel-and-foil-wrapped meat in a sealed cooler for up to 4 hours.
What to serve with ribs
Here are some of our best sides to enjoy with smoked ribs.
Creamy Pasta Salad
Easy, Zippy Coleslaw
Traditional* Potato Salad
Loaded Baked Potato Salad
Chimichurri Pasta Salad
And don't forget dessert! Our favorite is the Cast Iron Chocolate Chip Cookie.
Want more smoked meat recipes?
- Smoked brisket
- Smoked pork butt (pulled pork)
- Smoked corned beef brisket - coming soon!
- Smoked tri-tip - coming soon!
Good luck and happy smoking!
- 3.5 lb rack of pork ribs (see Recipe Note #1)
- 2 tsp. Kosher salt (see Recipe Note #2)
- 3 oz. Apple juice
- 4 oz. Favorite BBQ sauce (see Recipe Note #3)
For the rib rub (enough for 4 racks)
- ½ C light brown sugar
- ¼ C sweet paprika
- 1 tablespoon black pepper, ground
- 1 tablespoon chili powder
- 1 tablespoon garlic powder
- 1 tablespoon onion powder
- ½ tablespoon ground mustard
- ½ teaspoon cumin
- ½ teaspoon cayenne
- Rinse and trim ribs. Strip membrane from the bone side of the rack, discard.
- Apply salt evenly to the ribs on both sides; place on a rack set into a baking sheet and refrigerate, uncovered, from 6–24 hours to dry brine (see Recipe Note #3).
- Mix all ingredients for the rib rub; apply rub to the ribs by sprinkling generously onto a side (see Recipe Note #4), then working the rub into the meat with the back of a spoon. Repeat on the other side.
- Refrigerate ribs while you prepare your smoker or grill.
- Preheat smoker or grill to 250ºF (see Recipe Note #5).
- When the smoker is preheated and the smoke is coming out clean, add your ribs to the smoker or grill, bone-side down. Smoke, unwrapped for 3 hours (St. Louis spares) or 2.5 hours (baby back ribs). Halfway through this time period, spritz top of ribs with warm apple juice. If you are smoking on a charcoal grill, also rotate your grill grate and meat at this halfway point.
- 5 minutes before the end of this smoke time, prepare your wrap juice by mixing ¼ cup of apple juice and ¼ cup of your favorite BBQ sauce. Microwave on high for 30 seconds.
- Lay a large sheet of heavy-duty tinfoil on a baking sheet. Make a shallow well in the center of the tinfoil and add the wrap juice.
- Remove ribs from the smoker; place meat-side-down into the wrap juice. Lay another sheet of tinfoil (same size) on top of the ribs. Bring the edges up and fold multiple times on all four sides to create a tight seal. Make sure that the foil is folded up close to the meat, but take care not to let any of the bones puncture the foil.
- Place the foil packets onto the grill (meat-side-down). Cook for 1 hour and 15 minutes for St. Louis spare ribs, or 1 hour for baby back ribs.
- Remove ribs from wrap and replace in smoker or grill, bone-side-down. Smoke an additional 15 minutes.
- Use a set of tongs to lift up about a ⅓ of the rack. If the remaining ⅔ of the ribs fold over to nearly a 90 degree angle, it's time to sauce (you will also see the rib meat start to crack at the point of the bend).
- Turn the ribs bone-side up and apply BBQ sauce with a basting brush. Turn over and repeat on the side with meat. Close the lid and continue smoking for another 15 minutes, then repeat bend test (your ribs are done if they bend to a full 90 degrees). If desired, apply more sauce (meat side only) and to continue to cook until done.
- When ribs are fully cooked, remove to a baking sheet and loosely tent with foil. Rest a minimum 10 minutes and up to an hour (See Recipe Note #6).
- Use either St. Louis-style spare ribs or baby back ribs.
- You'll need ½ teaspoon kosher salt per pound of ribs.
- If you don't have time to dry brine, apply salt to the ribs and then proceed directly to step 3.
- Apply 1 tablespoon of rub per pound of ribs.
- For instructions on preparing your charcoal grill for smoking, see How To Smoke on a Charcoal Grill.
- Your food can safely rest for up to 4 hours with the foil-towel-cooler rest method: First, wrap your meat in tinfoil. Second, wrap the foiled meat inside a towel. Third, place the towel wrapped meat in a sealed cooler for up to 4 hours.
Store extra rib rub at room temperature in an airtight container.
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Nutrition Information:Yield: 3 Serving Size: 4 ribs
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 298Total Fat: 6gSaturated Fat: 1gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 3gCholesterol: 12mgSodium: 1334mgCarbohydrates: 60gFiber: 6gSugar: 46gProtein: 6g
Nutrition data provided here is only an estimate: if you are tracking this information for medical purposes, please consult a trusted external source. Thanks!