Baby back ribs: From start to finish

Most of you that know me well know I prefer baby backs over any other BBQ out there.  I’ve had some amazing brisket, pulled pork, spare ribs, fish, etc…but when I’ve had a long and stressful week, there is nothing quite like throwing some baby backs on the WSM and sittin’ back with a beer in hand just smelling that sweet smoke for hours.  I’ve been trying to tweak out my approach over the past year and though I’ve produced some amazing ribs, there are definitely some cooks where I’m a bit disappointed on the final product.  I mean, don’t get me wrong, they’re always super good, but if I plan on trying to do a competition one day I’ve got to learn how to nail down the tenderness of the ribs.  Usually…they turn out super tender, not completely falling off the bone, but do so after the first bite (which from what I’ve read is what they look for in comp’s), but every now and then they come out a bit tough and I’m trying to figure out exactly why.  Could be foiling techniques, duration, high pit temps, etc…but whatever it is, though everyone around the table is telling me how good they are, I tend to beat myself up a bit if they’re a bit tough.  Now, having said all this….in case you’re a newbie and are just getting into the hobby of BBQ smoking, I wanted to outline my typical process to help you work through your first cook.  Some of you that will read this are pros and could definitely school me on better methods, but for now, this is what I do and it usually works really well.  Hope this helps a bit.

1)  First thing is deciding what rub you’re going to use.  I like to make my own, mostly because it’s fun but also since once you buy a lot of spices in bulk then it ends up being a good bit cheaper than buying pre-made ones in the store or online.  Below is a pic of one of my favorite rib rubs to use that is a recipe from one of my favorite books called Smoke & Spice (I highly recommend you pick up your own copy).  It’s called the “KC Rib Rub” and is a blend of brown sugar, paprika, salt, pepper, chili powder, garlic powder, onion powder and cayenne.  Search around online to find all kinds of recipes to try out and just have fun with it.  One company I just came across the other day that gets a lot of positive feedback from a lot of competition guys out there is Simply Marvelous.  Me and a friend are going to split a bulk order of their cherry, pecan and apple rubs soon and I’ll post a review after a few cooks.

Kansas City Rib Rub
2)  Remove the rib membrane.  This can be a pain if you’ve never done it before, so check out my post on removing the rib membrane to give you some pointers.

3)  Generally speaking, you want to try and get the ribs rubbed down the day or night before you plan on smoking them.  I like to just put a light coat of rub on them because I’ve found when I’ve gone heavy on the rub I feel like it takes away from the flavor of the meat.  I sprinkle the rub on the ribs and then rub it in so you end up with a nice reddish-orange texture as seen below.

baby back ribs rubbed down

4)  You want to wrap them in a plastic bag at this point and thrown them in the fridge.  I use plain ol’ garbage bags.  I use super cheap ones when I’m storing butts, briskets and chickens, but for ribs I usually use a heavier duty bag because I’ve had the bones tear through the cheaper bags a couple times.

baby backs wrapped in garbage bag

5)  Depending on your process and how hot you’re going to run your smoker, baby backs can take anywhere between 4-6 hours to cook.  Regardless of how long it’s going to take you, 1 hour before you plan on throwing them on the smoker you need to take them out of the fridge and let them get to room temperature.  This helps with cook times.  If you have a goal of when you want to take them off the smoker, then throwing them on the smoker straight from sitting in the fridge overnight will add to your cook time.  There are different opinions on how long you should let them sit out before cooking, even folks that prefer not to, but either way, I go with the 1-hour approach.  I’ve read that taking them straight from the fridge to the smoker helps produce a better smoke ring, but it has zero impact on flavor.

6)  While the ribs are getting to room temp you want get the fire going in your smoker.  If don’t already have one, a chimney starter is an essential piece of equipment that you need for BBQing.  For “low and slow” cooks on a smoker, most guys follow the “minion method“.  People have tweaked this method out all kinds of ways, but basically, the premise of the minion method is adding a small amount of lit briquettes to a bed of unlit briquettes.  The amount of lit briquettes is dependent upon the temperature outside.  Here where I live in Florida, it’s usually quite warm, so I only throw 20-30 briquettes in the chimney.  Light the briquettes with either crumpled up newspaper or lighter cubes.  Lighter cubes are a bit safer than newspaper because with newspaper you’ll have bits of lit paper blowing around with even just a bit of wind.  Once the briquettes are white-hot, spread them out on top of the unlit briquettes in your cooker.  Make sure to use a pair of bbq gloves that will protect your forearms from potential burns.  Make sure your vents are wide open (if you don’t have a temperature controller like the BBQ Guru “DigiQ”) and let the smoker get up to a temp of 200°-225°.  All smokers are different and it will take you some time to get yours dialed in.

7)  5-10 minutes before throwing the ribs on, you’ll want to go ahead and toss some smoke wood on top of the charcoal bed.  For ribs, I prefer cherry or apple wood, accompanied with oak.  Go HERE for a great article on smoke woods to learn everything you need to know.  I get all of my smoke woods from guys that have listings on Craigslist.  You can certainly order online, but it’s a lot cheaper to get it locally.  Below is a picture of my current stash of smoke woods.  Cherry is on the right, pecan in the middle and “blackjack” oak on the right.  I keep it covered w/ a tarp at all times when I’m not using it.

BBQ Smoke Woods

8 )  If this is going to be your first time smoking baby backs, then a great method to follow is the “3-2-1” method.  That stands for 3 hours no foil, then 2 hours foiled then 1 hour sauced.  This is a very popular method and many guys, including myself generally follow this method, but it can be (and will be…) tweaked out to meet your personal preferences and also will depend a lot of what type of smoker you have.  For the first 3 hours, I usually flip the ribs every 45 min – 1 hour and baste them with apple juice.  The apple juice gives them a nice flavor, but I’m not convinced yet if it makes the ribs any more tender or not.  For the next 1-2 hours I will foil them to help with tenderness.  I try different amounts of time almost every time I smoke ribs and still haven’t got it completely dialed down.

Go here for more info on foiling and tweaking out the 3-2-1 method: (Note that this guy suggests hitting the sauced ribs with direct high heat right at the end.  I don’t do that b/c I’m too lazy to fire up the grill when I’ve already been busting my butt with everything else I’m preparing.  They come out just fine leaving them on the smoker in my opinion…)

9)  What ever method you end up using, once it’s time to sauce them, I recommend 30 minutes before you’re ready to pull them off.  30 minutes will give the ribs a wet, sticky glaze which is what we all drool over, right?  Make sure to check out the sweet rib sauce post.

10)  In the end, you want the ribs to be tender enough to fall off the bone when you bite into one, but not so tender (or mushy) that they fall completely off the bones when you try to pick them up.  Competition guys will tell you that you’ll get docked if they’re too tender.  In the picture below, the two bottom racks came out perfect, but the top rack was soooo tender that it broke in half when I tried to flip it towards the end.  (It tasted amazing, but I would have received a lower score in a comp for that…)

baby backs on a weber smokey mountain

11)  Once you pull the ribs off, if you’re done cooking then I just shut all the vents (again, only if you don’t have a temp controller) and let the fire die out.  Here are some clean up recommendations for a Weber Smokey Mountain that can be applied to other cookers as well:

Enjoy and have fun with it!



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4 Responses to Baby back ribs: From start to finish

  1. Troy May 11, 2013 at 11:33 pm #

    do you just put wood on the one time when you start or add more through the cook

    • Steve May 13, 2013 at 7:38 pm #

      Hi Troy-

      As I’ve cooked ribs over the years, I’ve slowly dialed in my process to where I just add 2 or 3 decent size chunks (about the size of your fist or smaller) at the beginning of the cook and no more after that. That gives ribs the perfect amount of smoke flavor in my opinion 🙂


  2. Matt September 3, 2013 at 4:27 pm #

    Quick question, do you put yours on the top or bottom rack? I recently purchased the smaller WSM, and on my first run I had a couple slabs on the bottom and was curious what worked the best for you. i’ve read that the top runs about 20 degrees hotter. Also, when you first purchased yours did it tend to run a little hot? Thanks!

    • Steve September 4, 2013 at 6:59 pm #

      If I’m just cookin’ enough to fit on one rack, then I keep them on the top. My theory is the farther away from the heat source, the better. Though….WSM’s do a really good job or keeping the temp down, especially when you’ve got water in the water pan….so don’t worry about having stuff on your bottom rack coming out dry or anything…. One other thing I do is put my pit probe (Maverick or DigiQ) clipped to the bottom side of the top rack which gives me a pretty good read of the temp between the bottom and top racks.

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