Smoker Recipe: Smoked Baby Back Ribs

Smoker Recipe: Smoked Baby Back Ribs

Editor's Note: This is the first in a three-part series we're dubbing "The Summer of the Swine," in which we'll look at a few great ways to prepare and enjoy pork on your Smokin' Ugly Drum Smoker.

There's no question that when it comes to smoking there are a few meats that instantly come to mind.

Beef brisket. Pork butt. Whole chicken. And, of course, ribs.

This should come as no surprise; there's good reason why each has found its place in the Pantheon of Smoked Meat Greatness. One bite should leave little question as to why.

Ribs however have a particularly special spot in the high court of smoked meats. A beautifully prepared rack of ribs with the right flavor profile can give even the most expensive & sophisticated cuts of beef (filet mignon, anyone?) a run for the money. And to a certain extent, a rack of ribs is synonymous with a special occasion – you never go to the trouble of preparing or simply enjoying a full rack just because.

In this article, we'll take a look at one of our favorite – and one that's practically universally loved – types of ribs: the baby back.

The Beauty of Baby Back Ribs

Perfect for smoking, baby back ribs are great for both beginners and experienced cooks. They are readily available in most grocery stores, making them a popular choice for family meals and backyard gatherings. 

Known for their small size, baby backs come from the top of the rib cage, between the spine and spare ribs. These shorter, tender ribs are leaner than other types, making them ideal for those who prefer less fat.

But just because they are lean doesn't mean they lack flavor. In fact, when properly smoked, baby back ribs can be incredibly tender and juicy with a perfect balance of meat and fat. And thanks to their smaller size compared to spare ribs, they cook faster and are more convenient for smaller gatherings or even weeknight dinners.

Basics of Smoked Baby Back Rib Prep

Ribs are just like any other meat you might prepare on your ugly drum smoker – a little prep goes a long way. Conversely, without spending at least a few minutes getting your ribs ready, you can all but guarantee creating a finished product that will likely require a pallet cleansing and a memory wipe.

So how do you get your baby back rack ready? A few simple steps:

  • Removing the Membrane: Also known as the peritoneum or silverskin, the membrane is a thin, tough layer that covers the bone side of a rack of ribs. It is composed of connective tissue that can be quite resilient and impermeable to flavors and smoke. Using a dinner knife, gently lift one corner of the membrane, then grab it with a paper towel for a better grip and peel it off in one piece if possible. Removing the membrane allows the smoke and seasoning to penetrate the meat more effectively, enhancing the flavor and texture of the ribs.
  • Removing Smaller Ribs: Examine the ends of the rib rack and trim off any smaller ribs or loose pieces. These smaller ribs often cook faster than the rest of the rack, which can lead to uneven cooking and potentially burnt sections. Trimming them helps ensure that the entire rack cooks uniformly.
  • Trimming Excess Fat and Loin: Look over the rib rack for any large patches of fat and excess loin meat that may still be attached. Trim these away as they can cause flare-ups during cooking and may result in uneven cooking. Leaving a small amount of fat on the ribs can help maintain moisture and flavor during the smoking process.
  • Patting Dry: After trimming, use paper towels to pat down both sides of the ribs to dry them thoroughly. This step is crucial because a dry surface allows your binder and rub (more on those later) to adhere better to the meat. Excess moisture on the surface can cause the rub to clump and prevent it from evenly coating the ribs, which affects the final flavor and crust formation during cooking.

3(2)-2-1: Smoking Your Baby Back Ribs

What's the ideal rack of ribs?

Let's go over a few descriptors that it's not:

Dry. Flavorless. Chewy. Burnt. Full of fat and cartilage. Undercooked. Greasy.

Terrible.

The perfect rack of smoked baby back ribs is one that has the glorious trifecta: the meat is tender and slides off the bone(s),  has good bark,  and a nice smoke ring.

While there is no one way to smoke ribs of any sort, achieving these three points of perfection isn't the easiest thing in the world. As the great rib chefs of the world will tell you, smoking baby backs is an art and it's not one to cut corners with. 

For those looking for a relatively simple answer to many questions about preparing baby back ribs – such as, how long to smoke baby back ribs –  we submit an adjusted version of the 3-2-1 method.

What is the 3-2-1 Method?

Renowned for producing exceptionally tender and flavorful results, this method involves three distinct phases of cooking, each designed to enhance the texture and taste of the ribs:

The 3-2-1 smoking method breaks down into three time-based phases for smoking your ribs:

  1. 3 Hours of Smoking: The foundational phase, the ribs are smoked unwrapped for three hours directly on the grill. During this phase, the ribs develop a rich, deep flavor and a mahogany color.
  2. 2 Hours of Cooking Wrapped: After the initial smoke, the ribs are wrapped in foil with a splash of liquid (like apple juice, beer, or a vinegar-based mixture) to braise in their own juices and added moisture. This step is crucial as it gently steams the ribs, making the meat incredibly tender and allowing it to pull back from the bone.
  3. 1 Hour of Finishing: In the final phase, the ribs are unwrapped and returned to the smoker. This allows the exterior to dry slightly, forming a sticky, caramelized crust if a sauce is applied. It’s also a chance to firm up the ribs a bit after their moist braising.

How to Smoke Baby Back Ribs Using the 3-2-1 Method

So how do you apply this method to baby backs?

Simple: adjust it to 2-2-1.

Why the adjustment? The answer is obvious.

Consider a rack of beef spareribs. They're big. They’re fatty. And they have plenty of connective tissue. Suffice it to say, getting them to a meat-fall-off-the-bone state takes some doing.

Baby backs, however, are a different story, with the most noticeable difference being their size. With less meat, fat, and connective tissue, subjecting them to the same level of smoking is practically a one-way ticket to creating a rack of regret. Less dramatically, you'll likely overcook your baby backs if you treat them the same as a bigger type of rib.

Adjusted down to 2-2-1, you'll still employ the same principles as the unaltered method:

  • Low and Slow Cooking: By cooking the ribs at a low temperature (225°F) for an extended period, the collagen and fats within the ribs break down without drying out the meat, ensuring the ribs remain juicy and flavorful.
  • Controlled Moisture: The wrapping phase prevents the ribs from losing too much moisture, which is especially important for the leaner baby back ribs. This controlled environment helps the meat stay succulent and tender.
  • Enhanced Flavor: The final unwrapped hour allows the smoke to further penetrate and enhance the ribs, creating a perfect balance between smokiness and moisture. It’s also an opportunity to add a layer of glaze or sauce that caramelizes beautifully.

Smoked Baby Back Ribs Recipe

For this recipe, we'll go over how to prepare a single rack of baby backs in your ugly drum smoker.

Ingredients

  • A rack of baby back ribs
  • Yellow mustard
  • Apple cider vinegar or apple juice 
  • Your favorite BBQ sauce

For the Rub

  • 1/4 cup dark brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons chile powder
  • 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  • 1 tablespoon onion powder
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper

Smoker Wood Recommendation: Let's not fool around – a staple cut of meat for smoking deserves a staple smoking wood. For this recipe, we suggest hickory. For those feeling like doing something a little different but low-risk with their smoker wood, applewood works well, too.

Instructions

1. Prepare the Ribs:

  • Remove the Membrane: Peel off the thin membrane from the bone side of the ribs for better flavor absorption and texture. Using a paper towel to get a better grip goes a long way in removing the membrane easily.
  • Apply the Rub: To do this you'll need a binder. We recommend using mustard – and don't worry, you won't taste it when all is said and done, it's simply there to give the rub something to grip. Generously coat both sides of the ribs with your rib rub. And despite what you might think, do not rub your rub on, simply coat each side of your rack and gently pat it on. Let them sit at room temperature while you heat the smoker.

2. Preheat Your Ugly Drum Smoker:

  • Set Temperature: Preheat your drum smoker to 225°F (107°C).
  • Add Wood: Place wood chips or chunks in the smoker to start generating smoke.

3. Phase 1: Smoking (2 Hours):

  • Smoke the Ribs: Place your baby back ribs in your smoker bone-side down on the smoker grate. Close the lid and smoke the ribs for 2 hours, maintaining a steady temperature. Avoid opening the smoker too often to keep the temperature stable.

4. Phase 2: Wrapping (2 Hours):

  • Wrap the Ribs: Tear off large sheets of aluminum foil and place each rack of ribs meat-side down on its own sheet. Before sealing, spritz or pour a little apple cider vinegar or apple juice over the ribs for moisture.
  • Seal Tightly: Wrap the foil around the ribs so they are completely sealed. This will trap steam and accelerate the cooking process.
  • Return to Smoker: Place the wrapped ribs back in the smoker. The foil will protect them from direct heat and smoke, allowing them to tenderize.

5. Final Smoking Phase (1 Hour):

  • Unwrap the Ribs: After 2 hours, remove the ribs from the foil and place them back on the smoker grate, bone-side down.
  • Apply Barbecue Sauce: If you like your ribs with a glaze, apply your favorite barbecue sauce using a basting brush. Do this during the last 30 minutes of cooking to prevent the sauce from burning.
  • Finish Smoking: Allow the ribs to smoke uncovered for the final hour. This step will help the surface dry out slightly and form a crust if you’re using a sauce.

6. Rest and Serve:

  • Rest the Ribs: Let your now smoked baby back ribs rest for about 10-15 minutes after removing them from the smoker. This helps the juices redistribute.
  • Serve: Cut between the bones to separate the ribs and serve them up with additional barbecue sauce if desired.

Hungry for More? 

Check out our other Smokin’ Ugly Recipes. Download our cookbook: 

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