10 Tips for Smoked Ribs from Pitmaster Melissa Cookston

Staff Writer
Melissa Cookston, world-champion pitmaster shares 10 tips for the perfect rack of smoked ribs

Photo Sasabune Omakase Modified: Flickr/erin/CC 4.0

Despite what you may have heard, “fall off the bone” ribs are overcooked — look for a rib with a bite that pulls cleanly from the bone and doesn’t take all of the meat with it.

I’m known on the competition barbecue circuit and in the media as the queen of whole-hog cooking. While I’ve done extremely well in that category including four world championship titles, I’ve won a whole lot more contests with ribs. While smoking ribs at home can be a little intimidating at first, once you get a handle on these 10 simple tips, you’ll be turning out perfect racks each and every time! 

The Perfect Rack
When selecting ribs, there are three different cuts to choose from: baby backs, spare ribs, and St. Louis spare ribs. In Memphis, we tend to prefer the leaner and more tender baby back ribs but in most parts of the country the meatier and more flavorful spare ribs are the cut of choice. At our Memphis Barbecue Co. restaurants we serve spare ribs with the breastbone area trimmed off to create a more uniform rack known as a St. Louis cut. 

The Perfect Preparation
Once you choose your rack of ribs, flip them over and you’ll notice a shiny thin layer of membrane covering the bones; it’s rather tough and will make the ribs chewy when cooked. To remove it, simply take a butter knife and insert it between the bone and membrane in one corner of the rack of ribs. Then, use your fingers to separate the membrane slightly, grasp the membrane with a paper towel, and pull it from the rib bones. Trim one bone from the large end of the ribs and two bones from the small end in order to create a consistent sized rack for smoking. Remove any additional membrane from the ribs before seasoning them.Despite what you may have heard, “fall off the bone” ribs are overcooked.

The Perfect Seasoning
Once the membrane has been removed, it’s time to pump up the flavor with some seasoning. Simply sprinkle about one tablespoon of your favorite BBQ dry rub seasoning on each side of the ribs. And, remember that yellow mustard is your friend when you’re barbecuing — a light coating of mustard (after seasoning the meat) will help tenderize and adding more flavor (without a distinct “mustard” taste).

The Perfect Marinating
Once the ribs have been seasoned, wrap them tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least eight hours. When the ribs to rest in the mustard and dry seasonings the flavor has time to fully penetrate the meat. When your smoker has come to temperature unwrap the ribs and re-season with dry rub and mustard.

The Perfect Grill
A smoker is the most common way to prepare ribs but almost any grill can be made in to an indirect smoker and used for longer cooking times. For a charcoal grill, simply build your fire to one side of the grill and cook on the other. Placing a small pan with water or apple juice underneath your food will also help create a smoky environment.

The Perfect Temperature
For most BBQ recipes, I find that 250 degrees Fahrenheit is a great temperature for smoking at the house. At this temperature, babyback ribs will cook in approximately four hours and St. Louis-cut ribs will cook in approximately five hours.

The Perfect Smoke
When smoking meats such as ribs, use smoking wood in moderation — too much smoke will overpower your finished product. A fruit wood such as apple or cherry is typically the best choice for the backyard cook — you won’t run as much of a risk of overpowering the meat or making it bitter. When your cooker comes to temperature, simply add four chunks of wood to the charcoal for the perfect amount of smoke.

The Perfect Wrap
Ribs benefit greatly from a low-and-slow cooking method. For cook times longer than two hours, most meat will benefit from being wrapped in foil. For example, baby back ribs will take roughly four hours to cook while spare ribs will take closer to five but both should be wrapped after two and a half hours. This will help tenderize the meat and maintain its beautiful color (rather than it becoming too dark or blackened). To wrap the ribs, lay them meat-side down on top of a sheet of heavy duty aluminum foil, add flavor enhancers if desired (see some popular additions below), then loosely wrap the ribs so that the steam can escape from the packet.

The Perfect Flavor Enhancers
When wrapping the ribs, feel free to add a light dusting of dry rub seasoning as well as a couple of tablespoons of apple juice, grape juice, or even cola to add a richer depth of flavor and to help achieve that beautiful tenderness you are looking for in the perfect rack of ribs. Despite what you may have heard, “fall off the bone” ribs are overcooked — look for a rib with a bite that pulls cleanly from the bone and doesn’t take all of the meat with it.

The Perfect Sauce (Or, No Sauce, Depending on Your Preference)
If you want to add sauce, only add it during the last few minutes of cooking and allow it to “set” on the meat. Too much heat or adding the sauce too soon will cause it to over-caramelize and taste of burnt sugar. To sauce your ribs, simply remove them from the smoker, carefully open up the foil, and allow all of the liquid to drain out. Brush sauce on the bone side of the ribs and then use the foil to roll the ribs over. Brush the top side with sauce. Place the ribs back on to the smoker for 15 minutes so the sauce can set and the ribs can tighten up. Remove the ribs from the smoker, allow them to rest for five minutes, and then apply another thin coating of sauce before serving your perfect rack of ribs.

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