How Long To Smoke Ribs

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Grilling never makes smoked ribs!

Grilling and Smoking are only related in terms of heat and meat. Grilling is the use of high, direct, fast heat to cook food to the point of doneness, while low and slow BBQ heat is used to cook it to the point of tenderness. Grilling is convenient and adequate for burgers, steaks, and whatnot, but it cannot compare to smoking for meats (especially ribs) that would be tough any other way. Someone said collagen makes bad meat, but good barbecue. Collagen will never be your friend if you attempt to grill it. It is a 'tough guy' that only breaks down after an extended period of heating.

But can't I get smoke flavor from grilling?

Maybe a little. Maybe more if you use liquid smoke. (I'm joking. I do NOT recommend liquid smoke.) Meat isn't smoked just to get the smoke flavor. Low and slow smoke performs a magical transformation to the meat through nitric acid, which softens and enhances the meat...but I digress. Most of your 'smoke' from grilling is from fat hitting flame or coals, and can often produce a sooty, carbon-full residue that is not very tasty on anything. Besides, charred meat may have cancer-causing nasties in it.

How low for 'ribs low and slow'?

Some folks argue on about the ideal temperature- 200, 225! No! 250 degrees. Perhaps if we can introduce a couple of 'No Zones', it will help you understand the ideal range of temperature. The first 'No Zone' is any temperature below 140 degrees, because this is the upper range of where bacteria can grow and multiply. If you hear of someone smoking meat at 165 degrees, you need to know whether that is the internal temperature of the meat (which may be the recommended 'doneness' temperature for ribs) or the temperature in the smoker? I have never smoked any meat below 200 degrees. I would say that anything lower would drag out the cooking time and raise the risk of bitter meat from too much smoke over too much time.

The second 'No Zone' in my opinion is above 275 degrees, because of two considerations. First, the higher you go in temperature, the quicker you will produce smoked ribs that are done (or overdone) without being tender, and these ribs will tend to be drier. Secondly, any sugar in your rub is going to start to over caramelize or burn, and that ruins the ribs. If you read or hear of rib cookers using a base of 275 degrees or higher, they may be cooking in a temp range with little room for error. One temperature spike above 350 degrees which isn't quickly contained could begin to burn the rub and the ribs. to top

OK. Tell us now... How Low?

A good range for low and slow is between 225 and 275 degrees. An even better more narrow range would be between 240 and 260 degrees, but we need to keep two things in mind. 1- You can never keep a smoker at one temperature; that isn't the goal. 2- There's no need to get upset with the natural highs and lows of the temperature. They will happen when you add fuel or water, burn low on fuel, turn the meat, etc. You can develop skill with practice to manage the temperature extremes, and isn't practice what makes barbecue fun?

When it comes to temperatures and fuel, there is no 'one size fits all' rule. It all depends on the size and type of your smoker. If you're using a smaller gas grill, plenty of ceramic briquettes, fire bricks, or lava rocks will help hold the heat, so you may only need to fire the burner every 30 minutes. If you are using charcoal, you should usually have to add fresh fuel only about every hour. A similar rule of thumb would apply for using all wood. Although I personally prefer to use lump hardwood charcoal every time I smoke food, I have used each of these methods with really good or great results. I am all for great-tasting results, and will not insist on one method as 'the only way.' It's up to you to decide what method and device fits your budget, lifestyle, experience, and skill top

Need a better thermometer? Look Here.

How slow is s-l-o-w heat for smoking ribs?

There are several things to consider in answering how long it takes for ideal low and slow tenderness.

Time Factors

  • -What type rib are you smoking? St Louis (or Spare Rib) style ribs have more fat and meat, so expect 45 to 60 minutes a pound as an estimate. Baby Back (or Loin Back) ribs have less fat and meat, so expect 30 to 45 minutes a pound as an estimate.
  • -It would be good to know BOTH the temperature in the smoker and in the ribs. Ribs below 165 degrees aren't done.
  • -Ribs at 165 degrees may be done but NOT tender.
  • -Look for three tenderness signs: 1. Meat has pulled away from bone ends 2. The rack 'sags' when you pick it up 3. The meat tears apart easily when you push two ribs in opposite directions.
  • -An efficient (temperature-consistent) barbecue smoker will avoid temp swings and delays.
  • -The more you 'check' on the ribs or gawk at their beauty, the longer it will take. Stop

What do you mean by an efficient barbecue smoker?

You want an ideal smoking range of 225 to 275 degrees, but you don't want to fiddle with the smoker every five minutes. We can talk about thermal dynamics without wearing a lab coat, so here goes. Two factors help make for efficiency: precisely adding heat and aggressively holding heat.

Most fuel types for smoking ribs can be precisely measured, be it charcoal, wood, gas, electric, or whatever. A gas burner can be turned off and on and flame-adjusted, you only need to measure the effect. You can learn by experience how much wood and what size is just right for adding heat. You will get experienced and know whether five or ten briquettes will be enough. And you can get the touch on the dial of an electric smoker for the temp range of the thermostat. There is no substitute for experience here.

Great buys on low and slow barbecue smokers.

By holding heat, we mean thermal mass, the capacity of materials for retaining heat and giving it off slowly. Good thermal mass is why you see lots of smokers made of thick steel plates or bricks rather than aluminum or plastic. Thermal mass is what's behind water pans and ceramic briquettes. There's one guy who made a smoker in the shape of a pig and coated it with nuclear reactor insulation. Stylish AND efficient. He has to add fuel only rarely. to top

Dude, I'm not buying another smoker right now....

Okay, but you can enhance and protect your thermal mass. I used to say you could simply throw out the water in that pan and use sterile sand. It is a larger thermal mass and doesn't evaporate. The problem with sand in the pan where water used to be arises during longer cook times. You can have too much of a good thing, and the sand accumulates too much heat during these longer times. It is closer to the meat, and so overcooks it.

You can keep your water in your pan, and still reduce its hassle factor. Go to the page about smoking ribs to learn my tips about your water pan.

You need to find a place inside your smoker for some fire brick, lava rocks or ceramic briquettes, so you can benefit from more stable temperatures. If your smoker has no adjustable vent, try to install something to help regulate heat and smoke. Weather and wind can take away your heat in a hurry; insulate your smoker or maybe find a more protected spot, like your living room (joking). More importantly, get two thermometers, one for the meat and one for the smoker's interior near the meat. Most of all, if you like to take off the lid or open the door and look at your work, for the love of ribs, get some help and stop destroying your thermal mass. to top