How to Smoke a Tasty Rib

I have a confession to make. I love ribs. That’s not the confession – this is: I love Hormel extra meaty baby back ribs.

Why is that a confession? Because like much supermarket-grade Hormel product, the extra meaty baby back is “enhanced” for flavor and tenderness. Basically, it means that the meat has been brined in a salt solution to help retain moisture during the cooking process.

Unlike a lot of BBQ competitors, I don’t just shun “enhanced” meat out of hand. Instead I prefer to try it out and determine if it’s something I can work with – and in the case of these ribs, I can definitely work with them. They are in my opinion the best baby back rib that you can get outside of a specialty cut from a real butcher.

Most baby back ribs are not much bigger than the things you get at Chinese restaurants. They’re very thin and easy to overcook and/or dry out. That’s why most competitors use spare ribs for contests – they have a lot more fat, are generally thicker and definitely larger and are generally much more forgiving. But these Hormel babies are huge – they are very consistently thick from end to end and are at least as thick as a good spare rib.

So here is my version of the “3-2-1” rib method with a few recommendations for ingredients. Basically this is just a method, or perhaps a “rib cooking framework” that you can plug your own favorite ingredients in to.

Start with 1 or more racks of these Hormel baby back ribs. Look for the “extra meaty” label. They’re not easy to find – I know of two Hy-Vee stores in Kansas City that carry them. You can substitute spare ribs in this process without much difficulty, but if you use any other type of baby-back then you’re going to want to reduce the overall cooking time by 1-1.5 hours. Beef rib cookers should look elsewhere for ideas.

Remove the membrane covering the bone side of the rib. I find this easiest to do with a butter knife and a paper towel – use the knife the pry the membrane up from one end of the rib, then grab the exposed bit of membrane with the paper towel (for traction) and pull the membrane off. Watch out for tearing or problems if there are many gashes in the membrane. Some people don’t take the time to pull the membrane off of their ribs, and those people are called amateurs. Take an extra minute or two per rack and it’ll make a big difference in the overall quality of the product.

I like to apply a little something to the meat side of the rib to help the rub adhere. This can be something as simple as just a very thin coat of plain yellow mustard or a very thin wash of cider vinegar, or something more complex like a mustard slather. Make certain that whatever you use has very little sugar in it – these ribs will be cooking for upwards of 6 hours in your smoker and could burn if your fire flares up at some point. Sprinkle both the meat and bone sides of the rack with your favorite rub, but don’t be too generous. The “enhanced” label means that these ribs are a little bit saltier than natural meats, so if you’re using the extra-meaty baby backs you might err on the side of caution when applying rub.

What rub to use? Again, that’s entirely up to you. Most general purpose BBQ dry rubs are perfectly adequate. In Kansas City there are a lot of teams that sell their products at local shops, many of which are formulated specifically for pork and pork ribs. I’d recommend picking up a couple of bottles and trying them out. Good specialty BBQ stores will have open bottles that you can sample from.

Once the ribs are prepped and seasoned, start up your smoker with enough fuel for at least 6 hours (plus a little extra for transition time). For my Weber Smokey Mountain smoker that’s about a half of a ring of unlit charcoal topped with about 3/4 of a fully-lit chimney of charcoal. Over the six hours the unlit charcoal will ignite from the top down giving me a good clean burn that lasts a long time – this is a variant of the “Minion Method,” named after a nice gentleman by the name of Jim Minion.

Once your smoker is up to around 225f go ahead and put the ribs in the smoker. In my WSM I like to use rib racks for this step. My favorite are a set of racks I got from Cabelas, they are “supposed” to be able to cook ribs and potatoes (!) but they work very well for thick and thinner ribs. I can get 8 racks of ribs overall into my WSM without having to get too creative.

What type of smoke wood to use? My personal preference is for a mixture of cherry and pecan, but your choice is as individual as you are. Other great options include oak, apple, pear and of course hickory. Other more exotic woods may be available in your area – just avoid softwoods like pine.

After the ribs are in the smoker, the smoke is going and the temp is stable around 225f or so (anywhere from 220 to 250 is just fine), let the ribs smoke uninterrupted for 3 hours. That’s right – don’t touch them. Don’t spray them, don’t baste them, don’t even look at them. Let them have 3 hours of good cooking time.

Once three hours have passed, you’re entering the “tenderness acceleration” phase by wrapping each rack of ribs individually in heavy duty foil. When you do this, go ahead and baste the ribs with something tasty. Some folks like to spray the ribs with apple juice, others use a marinade, baste or sop of their own make or choosing. Personally I use whatever I happen to have on hand – sometimes apple juice, sometimes Dr. Pepper, sometimes just a concoction of stuff I have on hand. Once the ribs are basted and wrapped in foil, replace back into the smoker for another 2 hours. The only thing you need to check at this point is temperature – try to keep the smoker from spiking too high, because you don’t want foil packets full of mush.

When that 2 hours of foiling time has completed remove the ribs and return them to the smoker. At this point I baste the ribs again and stoke the fire a little bit to get a little additional smoke to “kiss” the meat at the last few minutes of cooking. This last phase of cooking is intended to both finish the ribs and to get the exterior of the meat to form a pleasing color and texture. The ribs coming out of the foil are probably quite wet and maybe a little gray in color – this last hour or so can be all the difference in making really great ribs.

After that hour has gone by you can baste the ribs with some BBQ sauce if you so choose. Personally I always serve sauce on the side, but I definitely wouldn’t put sauce on ribs until they were essentially done to your preferred level of tenderness. And how do you check to see how tender a rib is? Use a toothpick and push it into the meat between a couple of rib bones, preferably near the center of the rack. If the toothpick slides through without any resistance, you should have a nice tender rib that shouldn’t yet be “falling off the bone.” The meat should be pulling back from the end of the bones by at least a half-inch and should have a nice burgundy color (but that could be different depending on what is in the rub and/or baste you choose to use). If you do want ribs that are really “falling off the bone,” you might want to leave the ribs in the smoker a little longer during the last phase of cooking. Don’t increase the amount of time the ribs spend in foil – 2 hours seems to be the limit, any more than that and they’ll be mush before you can really finish them.

The really nice thing about ribs is that – unlike pork shoulder and brisket – they can easily be done in a day. You can get up in the morning, decide you’ve got a hankerin’ for ribby goodness – and have ribs ready for an early supper. They don’t require a crazy amount of preparation and can be very, very tasty and tender…it’s as simple as 3-2-1!

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