The majority of BBQ ribs recipes out there seem to only cover charcoal or gas smokers, so today I wanted to put together a guide to smoking ribs on an electric smoker.
Electric smokers are a great way for users to get into BBQ smoking, but with less hassle and less mess. But going for one shouldn’t mean that you miss out on classic barbecue dishes.
I have a lot of time for electric smokers. Purists might look down on them, but my first ever BBQ smoker was an electric, and I have really fond memories of using it.
So today I’m going to cook some good old fashion smoked ribs on the smoker (I have a Masterbuilt), and walk you through all the steps to smoke the perfect rack of ribs.
The best smoked rib recipes are so nuanced in layers of flavor that it’s almost impossible to replicate with any other form of cooking.
The mix of flavors from fat rendering over the course of hours, the hickory smoking wood, and the BBQ rub, all come together to create beautiful layer upon layer of mouth watering flavor.
There’s nothing quite like it.
How to prepare pork ribs for the electric smoker
There are in fact a few different rib cuts that you can go for, but for the sake of simplicity today we’re going to go for a St Louis 3lb cut of ribs.
You can of course go for something else, but I wanted to use a relatively small cut just to help keep things simple for the sake of this recipe.
To kick things off, we’re going to cut the membrane off the ribs.
You can check out my full guide on removing the membrane from pork ribs, but to quickly recap:
Find the layer of membrane that covers the backside of the ribs, and use a knife to get under it. Once you have some purchase with your fingers, start working away at the skin to remove it.
Tip: If you’re struggling to get good grip on the membrane, then try using a dry paper towel to give you more purchase.
Sometimes the skin comes away easily in one go, but more often than not it will come away in bits. Either way is fine! It can take a while, and is almost never as easy as it sounds.
Once you have gotten the membrane off, use some meat scissors to trim away any other excess fat or skirt. If you’ve bought the smaller rib cut directly from a butcher then they may well have removed all of this already, but if you’ve cut the ribs from full spare ribs yourself then you might notice a lot of leftover fat attached to the rack.
Pay attention to size
Now, a big thing you need to take into account when preparing your ribs for the smoker is the length of the rack compared to the width of your smoker.
In most cases, electric smokers don’t offer as much cooking grate width as other types of smoker. For some types of meat this isn’t a problem, but in the case of a long cut of meat like ribs, we need to be careful that the ribs aren’t too long to fit in the smoker.
The most obvious thing to do is to compare the length of the ribs against your smoker, but regardless I prefer to cut the rack in half for the smoker.
This won’t have any real effect on the cook of your ribs, and will help ensure that your ribs get better coverage.
Locate a midpoint across the length of your ribs and use meat scissors to cut the ribs in half. Doing this might present more areas of fat, so be sure to trim those off too.
Now it’s rubbing time!
BBQ rub for electric smoker ribs
Like with any form of smoking, we’re going to start with a good rib rub.
You can buy a store bought rib rub but I really recommend making it yourself. Rubs are easy to make, and you can easily tweak them to suit your preferences.
- Half a cup of brown sugar
- 2 tsp granulated garlic
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 1 tsp ground black pepper
- 1tsp paprika
Mix the ingredients together in a plastic container with a spoon or fork, and try to combine them as well as possible. Make sure any visible clumps are broken down.
Put the lid on the container and shake as thoroughly as possible. Shake until the ingredients look evenly combined.
Now it’s time to apply the rub to the ribs.
Coat the top side of each piece of your ribs generously. Use your hands to firmly apply the rub to the ribs, and then flip them so you can apply the ribs to the other side.
Once you’ve coated the ribs, put each cut in a ziploc bag and leave overnight in the refrigerator. Quite often we tend to cook right after applying a rub, but for electric smoking I prefer to allow these to sit overnight so that they can absorb as much flavor as possible.
Electric smoking naturally doesn’t infuse meat with as much smokey flavor as charcoal smoking, so it’s important to prepare your meat as best as possible to carry the flavors through.
How to electric smoke ribs
Now we’re really ready to get going.
With your ribs having rested overnight, start up your smoker and bring it to temperature. Most BBQ smoking involves a cooking temperature of 225°F (107°C), and this method is no different.
Every smoker is different, but allow your smoker 20-30 minutes to get a good even cooking temperature going.
Prepare your smoker’s wood box, also called a smoker box, with your chosen wood. You might have your own preference, but if you haven’t done this before then I recommend going with either hickory or pecan.
Check out my full guide to the best wood for smoking ribs here.
Place your water pan in the smoker chamber. This will help keep moisture in the smoker, but be careful here because it is easy to overdo. I tend to only fill it by one-third to a half way full.
Place your ribs on your smoker racks. I prefer to have each rib cut on a different rack as this tends to produce better heat coverage. I also try to put them on my smoker’s middle racks, just to make sure that they’re getting the best cooking temperatures possible.
If you have a meat probe thermometer (and if you don’t, definitely get one!), place it on one of the racks holding your ribs.
Quite often with smoking, we insert the probe into the meat. However because ribs don’t contain as much meat, we’re just going to measure the ambient temperature near the meat instead.
Close the smoker door and leave to cook! Smoking time will depend on meat temperature and tenderness, but as a rough guide this should take somewhere between 4 to 6 hours.
I do recommend checking the ribs a couple of times during this process to make sure that things are ticking along nicely. After 2 hours, have a brief check to make sure that the ribs are starting to turn tender.
We can check this by taking the end of our meat probe, and just nudge the ribs slightly. If the probe can sink a few millimetres into the rib flesh while still providing a little bit of resistance, then we’re looking good. Other positive signs are if the meat has receded ever so slightly on the bone.
If at this point they haven’t turned tender, then I recommend wrapping them in foil. This will help them retain moisture and heat better, without running the risk of drying out.
You can either wrap directly into aluminum foil, or use a foil pan (with a foil lid). When you put them in the foil, add a little bit of apple cider vinegar and water. This will help keep the ribs moist and infuse with flavor.
Put back in the smoker and check again after 90 minutes.
For the final stretch we’re going to apply a generous amount of sauce onto the ribs. Use a brush to apply the sauce.
Use whichever BBQ sauce you like here. I tend to just use standard store bought BBQ sauce, but if you want to go all out and make your own then check out my homemade barbecue sauce recipe.
Pro tip: A lot of BBQ sauces can be a bit too thick to smoke with. Try thinning your sauce slightly by adding a couple of teaspoons of apple cider vinegar to every half-cup of sauce.
Once you’ve applied the sauce, transfer ribs back to the smoker (this time not in foil). Cook for a further 20-30 minutes.
At this point we should see significant pull back on the bones, and the pork meat should be outrageously tender.
Remove from rib racks and transfer to counter surface. Wrap in foil and allow to rest for about 10-15 minutes.
You can serve these either by serving up the full half-rack, or you can slice them for full individual ribs.
Ideally we don’t want these to be completely ‘fall of the bone’, youtube tender but still with some bite and structure so that the mat still grips the bone.