Baby back ribs are one of the most iconic BBQ dishes. Every smoker enthusiast should be able to pride themselves on making a perfectly cooked rack of ribs.
225°F is usually the golden rule for meat smoking, and it’s also true for baby back ribs. But how long should we smoke them for?
The short answer is between 4 and 6 hours. After three hours you should start to see the meat start to come away from the bone and the rack develop a beautiful BBQ color.
But before you run off to start charging up your smoker, it’s important to note that there are a lot of variables that can affect the smoking time for baby back ribs.
In my guide today I’m going to walk you through each of these so that you can know exactly how long you need to smoke them for.
10 Quick Tips for Better Ribs
Although smoking ribs is relatively straightforward, there are a lot of potential obstacles that you might run into along the way. Here are 10 key things to keep in mind as for your next rib cook off!
#1. Don't go too big
The simple rule is that the bigger the cut of the meat, the longer it will take to cook. As a guide, I’d recommend getting a rack that is about 2.5 pounds in weight, however you can go larger if your smoker will accommodate it.
Just be prepared to check for doneness with a toothpick during the process. You do this by inserting a toothpick into the meat. If it slides in with no resistance then your ribs are good to go, and should be beautifully tender.
If they haven't reached this stage yet then simply leave them to smoke for a longer.
#2. Use aluminum foil
Using foil divides a lot of people, and I can see the pros and cons on both sides of the debate.
Using aluminum foil can help shield the meat from unwanted smoky or charcoal flavors, it can help recycle the juices from the meat adding more flavor, and it can speed up the cooking process.
The major con is that the iconic BBQ ‘bark’ that can develop on the surface of the meat doesn’t come to the fore if the meat is wrapped in foil. This will help make the meat tender and maintain its beautiful color (rather than it becoming too dark or blackened).
Personally I like to fall somewhere in between. I do the first one or two hours without foil, and then at the halfway mark I will wrap the ribs in foil and apply some BBQ sauce. This helps cook the meat slower, add a layer of bark, while also helping to prevent it from drying out.
In total this tends to take around 4 hours.
#3. How tender do you want your ribs?
While a lot of us always want meat to be as tender as possible, sometimes this is a matter of personal taste.
For ribs in particular a lot of people want them to be ‘fall off the bone’ tender. This is a melt-in-the-mouth like consistency, with the meat falling off the bone as you start to eat it.
The standard with a lot of BBQ contests though is ‘bite through’ tenderness. This means that a given bite of meat will cleanly pull the meat from the bone while any remaining meat stays intact on the bone.
Don’t listen to the BBQ content experts though: Whichever you prefer is absolutely fine. If you do like them to be more tender to the point of ‘fall off the bone’ then they will need to be cooked for a further 30-45 minutes.
#4. Go easy on the smoke
Ribs are a delicate cut of meat that don’t have the same volume of flesh as other cuts. This means that the meat can’t withstand the same amount of exposure to smoke as, say, brisket.
Try to only lightly influence it with the smoke rather than engulf it. This is where foil can be your friend.
#5. Don’t forget the sauce
Sauce is sometimes up for debate with other types of meat, but ribs without a good BBQ sauce just aren’t ribs.
If you want to add sauce, only add it during the last ten to fifteen minutes of cooking and allow it to “set” on the meat.
If you overheat the sauce then it will wither and over caramelize, leaving the sugars burnes and crusted.
To add sauce, take the ribs out of the smoker and open the foil casing. Use a brush to generously paste on the sauce just on the top layer. Place back in the smoker so that the sauce can set.
#6. Stay at 225°F
There is a bit of debate around the best temperature for smoking ribs, with some going higher to sear them, and some going lower to really hammer out that tender texture.
The problem with higher temperatures is that they tighten the meat and dry it out, as well as burn any rubs or sauces that you’ve applied. I’m not saying that tender ribs can’t be achieved, but it requires a lot of skill.
As for lower temperatures, the lower you go the more time you are adding on. It can be a true test of patience when you reach 5 hours and you’re still somewhere off cooked ribs.
This can also prove problematic as your fire starts to churn out dirty smoke as your fire becomes increasingly oxygen-starved.
225°F (or 110°C) is a great balance between the two while still ensuring that you can achieve perfect ‘bite through’ or ‘fall off the bone’ tenderness.
#7. Remove the membrane
When you prepare your ribs you’ll notice a thin layer of shiny membrane covering the underside of the bones. This isn't harmful as such, but can make your ribs really tough and chewy when cooked.
Thankfully it’s really easy to remove the membrane from ribs.
At one end of the ribs, slide a table knife between the membrane and rack to separate them. Slowly tear the membrane from the ribs.
Here's an easy step-by-step guide to removing the membrane:
#8. Don’t forget to season
Key to any good BBQ is a good rub. Everyone has their own preference, but here’s a simple good rub recipe here as a starting point.
Whichever rub you opt for, add it generously on both sides of the rub.
Also, coat on a thin layer of mustard after seasoning the ribs. This will help inject a little more flavor as well as making it a bit more tender.
#9. Marinade, Marinade, Marinade
Not to be outdone by seasoning, a good marinade is a great way to enhance your ribs.
Once you have seasoned the ribs, use plastic wrap to wrap them tightly, then put them in the refrigerator overnight. This will allow the seasoning and mustard to really soak into the meat.
Once your smoker has warmed up, unwrap the ribs and re-season with more rub and mustard.
#10. Choose the right wood
One of my favorite thing about smoking is matching beautiful meat with the right wood.
I recommend matching a fruity wood with ribs. Something like cherry wood or apple wood works really well without overpowering the meat.
We don’t want to overpower the meat, so only add a few chunks of wood to the smoker.
How to Smoke Baby Back Ribs
Baby back ribs are one of the most iconic smoking recipes you can make, and they couldn't be simpler to make.
Here's my detailed guide to cooking the perfect rack, as well as a print-off recipe for you to follow as you cook. Enjoy!
you will need
Start by preheating your smoker to 225°F/110°C. This often serves as a popular temperature for smoking meat, and smoking ribs is no different.
The first important stage here is to remove the membrane from the back or under side of the rack. There are some people who prefer to leave this on, but in my opinion this turns into an inedible layer of fat that only toughens as it smokes. You can either remove this yourself at home, or ask your butcher to do it for you.
Then move on to applying your rub. A lot of people have BBQ rubs that they remain loyal, but if you don't have one then I recommend trying this beautiful dry rib rub recipe.
Start by applying a layer of dijon mustard across the rack, and then move on to the rub. When applying your rub, don't be shy. Apply a really generous layer, making sure that it sticks to the mustard.
Your ribs are now ready for smoking! Put them in your preheated smoker, and insert a meat thermometer in to the flesh between the bones of the ribs.
If you don't have a thermometer, then check out my guide to meat thermometers. It's really important that we can accurately read the internal temperature of the ribs so we know when they reach our target of 195°F.
After about 3 hours your ribs should be around the 170°F mark. At this point, remove the ribs from the smoker and wrap them in aluminum foil. This will help the ribs cook in their own juices while they finish.
Place the wrapped ribs back in the smoker, re-insert the thermometer, and allow to cook for one further hour.
In this time the internal temperature of the meat should reach our target temperature of 195°F.
Remove the ribs from the smoker and unwrap the foil. Brush the top side of the ribs with BBQ sauce.
Place the ribs back in the smoker and allow to cook until the meat temperature reaches 195°F again.
Once we reach our target temperature, remove the ribs from the smoker and leave to cool for 10-15 minutes, before cutting up the ribs and serving.
Smoked Baby Back Ribs Recipe
Smoked Baby Back Ribs
- 1 rack of baby back ribs
- 4 tbsp dijon mustard
- BBQ sauce
- BBQ rub
- Preheat your smoker to 225°F/110°C
- Peel the membrane from the back or under side of ribs. Start by using a knife in the corner of the rack. Once you get a grip of the corner of the membrane, slowly pull it off with your hands.
- Apply the dijon mustard across all sides of the rack. Follow by applying the BBQ rub generously, pressing it to help it stick to the mustard.
- Place ribs in the smoker and insert a meat thermometer into the flesh of the ribs.
- Smoke the ribs for 3 hours. In this time the internal temperature of the meat should be around 175°F/80°C.
- Remove the ribs from the smoker and wrap in aluminum foil. Re-insert the thermometer into the ribs and place the ribs back in the smoker.
- Smoke for 1 further hour. In this time, the ribs should reach the target temperature of 195°F/90°C.
- Remove the ribs from the smoker and unwrap. Brush the top surface of the ribs with BBQ sauce.
- Place the ribs back in the smoker and allow to cook until the meat temperature reaches 195°F again.
- Once we reach our target temperature, remove the ribs from the smoker and leave to cool for 10-15 minutes, before cutting up the ribs and serving.