May is National Barbecue Month! And what comes to mind when you think about BBQ if not ribs?—specifically juicy, tender, smoky pork spare ribs. Outstanding taste and texture in spare ribs are not hard to master if you understand the basic principles of time and temperature during your cook. We have the thermal tips to make sure your spare ribs are more than worth the wait.
What is Barbecue?
There are many legitimate definitions: verb, noun, and adjective. There is even a legal definition. One definition just will not do the job. When you cut through the haze, ultimately it is smoke that differentiates barbecue from other types of cooking. The fact is that there are many forms of barbecue around the world and it is the presence of smoke that unifies them all. —Meathead, AmazingRibs.com
Spare Ribs vs St. Louis Style Ribs
Pork ribs are divided into a few different cuts (see diagram to the right). The top ribs near the spine are baby back ribs. Baby backs are fairly lean, and need special attention so they don’t dry out. The spare ribs run the remaining length of the ribs near the pig’s fatty belly. Full spare ribs contain the brisket bone and surrounding meat and can weigh upward of 5 pounds. Most grills aren’t large enough to accommodate this cut. St. Louis-style spare ribs have the brisket bone and surrounding meat trimmed off for a more manageable cut in the range of 3 pounds. We used St. Louis-style ribs for our cook.
Why Low and Slow?
Spare ribs are most often the choice for barbecue because they are thicker and meatier than baby back ribs. This cut is tough with ample amounts of connective tissue. Cuts of meat with collagen-rich connective tissue need to be cooked low and slow for the collagen to dissolve into gelatin, giving barbecue meats their signature lip-smacking succulence. The safe doneness temperature for pork is 145°F (63°C), but the connective tissue in ribs doesn’t begin to dissolve until the meat is in the range of 160-170°F (71-77°C).
Higher Doneness Temps for Tough Meats
Slowly cooking the ribs at a lower heat, and pulling them from the cooker at a temperature of 180-195°F (82-91°C) gives them plenty of time for the gelatin to work its silky, juicy magic. This low and slow method of cooking turns otherwise inedibly tough cuts of meat into some of the most tender, juicy, and flavorful cuts you’ve ever experienced. Smoking at low and slow temperatures is at the heart and soul of traditional American barbecue.
This is a great method to follow for a novice, a good starting point to learn more about your smoker, functionality of thermometers, and how times and temperatures can be adjusted to your liking as you gain more experience. If you’re looking for a foolproof way to make some of the best ribs you’ve ever had, this well-known 6-hour cooking method is for you. In a nutshell, the cook is separated into three chunks of time:
- 3 hours in the smoker, uncovered
- 2 hours wrapped with liquid or sauce
- 1-hour cook, unwrapped and brushed with sauce
Ingredients and Supplies
- 3 lb. rack of St. Louis-style spare ribs
- Dry rub of your choice *
- 2 parts ground black pepper to 1 part kosher salt as recommended by barbecue expert Aaron Franklin.
- Barbecue sauce of your choice *
- Apple juice in a spray bottle
- Charcoal briquettes
- Wood chunks
- We used hickory. Oak, pecan, and mesquite also work well for ribs.
- Rinse ribs and remove any bone fragments left from fabrication, pat dry.
- Remove the membrane that covers the bone-side of the ribs by prying it up at one end with a butter knife, grip the membrane with a paper towel and peel it off while holding down the ribs with the other hand.
Removing the thin membrane lining the concave side of the rib rack makes the ribs easier to manipulate and allows smoke to penetrate both sides of the rack directly. —Cook’s Illustrated Meat Book, America’s Test Kitchen
- Apply dry rub and allow ribs to rest at room temperature while firing up the cooker.
- Preheat smoker to 225-230°F (107-110°C) with charcoal then add wood chunks. Using a grate clip, attach an air probe to the smoker’s grill grate and set ChefAlarm®‘s high alarm to 240°F (116°C) and the low alarm to 220°F (104°C).
- Place a needle probe into the thickest part of the meat away from bones. Transfer the prepared ribs to the smoker rib-side up, and attach the needle probe to a DOT® alarm thermometer. Set the high alarm to 195°F (91°C).
- Set a timer for 3 hours and allow ribs to cook, adjusting the coals or your smoker’s vent as necessary to maintain the correct cooker temperature.
➤ There are 2 reasons to spritz your ribs with water, vinegar, or juice during the cook:
- A wet exterior acts as velcro for the smoke, and this is especially important during the first part of the cook when most of the smoke will be absorbed.
- If spritzing with apple juice, the intermittent applications will create a sweet, sticky surface that enhances the flavor and provides a sweet, tacky surface ideal for barbecue sauce to adhere to.
Quickly spritz the surface of the meat with apple cider vinegar or apple juice (we used apple juice) once every hour. Some like to spritz once every half hour—be sure not to open your smoker’s lid so frequently that an adequate cooking temperature cannot be maintained.
- After the 3-hour cook has finished, remove the ribs from the smoker. The rib’s internal temperature should be around 160-170°F (71-77°C) at this point.
- Arrange a piece of heavy-duty foil large enough to wrap the entire rack. Spread sauce or other liquid ingredients onto the center of the foil where the ribs will be placed. Lay the ribs bone-side down over the sauce, evenly apply more sauce to the top of the ribs, and fold to seal.
- The bones can break through the single layer of foil. Wrapping the ribs in a second layer of foil is helpful.
- Transfer back to the smoker and let cook low and slow for 2 hours.
- During this portion of the cook, the wrap will help push the meat through “the stall,” and its connective tissues will continue breaking down to create the moist and silky texture we’re after.
- Once the 2 hours are up, remove wrapped ribs from the smoker, and transfer to a sheet pan to catch liquid that will escape. Unwrap the foil packet and discard foil.
- Brush ribs with barbecue sauce, set a timer, and cook for 1 hour longer. During this last hour, the barbecue sauce will “set”, giving the exterior of the ribs a glazed, sticky surface.
- Once the 1 hour is up the ribs’ internal temperature should be about 180-195°F (82-91°C). If the ribs haven’t reached this temperature range yet, cook them a bit longer.
- This stage of the cook can easily be adjusted to suit your personal liking. If the ribs are cooked for the full hour, they will be very tender. If you prefer the meat’s texture to have a bit more chew to it, increase your smoker’s temperature and cook for a shorter period of time until the sauce sets.
➤ Two Different Cookers
We smoked one of our three racks of ribs in a drum-style cooker (Pit Barrel Cooker). The meat was prepared in the exact same way with a dry rub and probe placement as for the ribs smoked in the Big Green Egg, and smoked at the same temperature. We did not wrap the ribs smoked in this cooker, rather we allowed the ribs to cook for about 3-4 hours with the first part of the cook, then basted with sauce as soon as the internal temperature reached 170°F (77°C), then cooked for about another 2 hours until the internal temperature reached our target range of 180-195°F (82-91°C). This type of smoker is another great option for beautifully barbecued meats.
Slice and Serve!
- Remove ribs from the smoker and allow to rest for about 20 minutes. Apply more barbecue sauce, carefully slice with a sharp knife between each of the bones (it can be easier to slice down between the ribs when held up on its side), and serve.
These ribs are sure to be a crowd-pleaser! Careful temperature tracking with the smoker’s temperature, and the meat’s internal temperature is critical to ensure tender, juicy results. Quality temperature tools (like the ChefAlarm) along with a bullet-proof cooking method will yield fantastic results time after time, and may turn into one of your favorite barbecue projects!
* Other Recipes Used: