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To be the resident Pit Master, you need to know how to smoke ribs right

Chad Ward, legendary BBQ competitor, seven-time grand champion, and owner of Whiskey Bent BBQ, is a self-taught BBQ Pro. Throughout the year he competes across the country, runs his BBQ shop in Florida, and teaches BBQ Shop Class where he expounds  his wisdom of the BBQ fundamentals. where he expels his wisdom of the BBQ fundamentals.

To be the resident Pit Master, you need to know how to grill pork ribs evenly. Here are a few tips from Chad himself.

How to Buy Ribs

You can buy ribs at the butcher shop, grocery store, or mass market retailers like Costco. Ribs from the butcher will usually be sold individually and pre-trimmed so you know what you are getting. The butcher will usually have their ribs cut down into St. Louis style while the mass market retailers sell spare ribs that you cut down yourself.

When buying ribs, look for marbling and uniformity of the rib so it cooks evenly, and make sure there are no “shimmers”. That is where the butcher got too close to the bone and nicked it with their knife. Look for marbling. Fat provides a lot of flavor but find ribs that have the least amount of fat because you’ll end up trimming it. Look out for blood spots on the meat. This usually means the animal suffered and muscles tensed up.

Trimming Ribs

Look for pork ribs that are cut evenly, without stray flaps of meat or small ribs on the end. If you do buy ribs like this, there's an easy fix — trim them yourself.

Pick up a rack of ribs and square off the sides by removing two end bones from each side. Then remove excess meat from the top so that you have a tight, uniform rack of 9 ribs. Toss the extra ribs you’ve cut from the rack on the back and sides of grill to cook individually for a tasty snack.

Trimming Ribs

The ribs now resemble a neat rectangle. Once cooked, every rib will be tender, cooked to the same doneness, and taste delicious.

How to Season Ribs

Seasoning is the fun part of smoking ribs — by choosing or creating a rib rub, you truly are making them your own.

Whether you use a dry rub or wet rub method (both are explained below) you'll need to choose a rib rub first.

rib rub ingredients

Check out Traeger's selection of rubs and shakes. Or make your own — here's one Traeger-tested dry rub example. Rib rubs typically consist of four elements: salt, sugar, spice, and flavor boosters.

Salt enhances all of the flavors in your rub. Some pitmasters suggest adding salt well before adding the rub — even the night before — to allow it to penetrate the surface of the meat. Another tactic is to wait to add salt, then add a dusting of salt at the end, so you avoid over salting. (This will also be appreciated by any guests on a low-sodium diet.) Or, you can just make salt part of your rub.

Sugar in a rib rub will caramelize on the surface, giving it a rich, deep, attractive look. The surface will also have a candied flavor. Sweet and pork seem to go together. Brown sugar is the most commonly used because the heavy granules and color are a good match with pork, but you can use other types as well .

Spice in a rib rub will give every bite a kick, and how big a kick is up to you. Pepper is a must. A gentle spice like paprika will satisfy everyone in the crowd (and the heat seekers can just dip theirs in a hotter sauce). Chile powder, like ancho or chipotle chile, will enhance the smokiness of the ribs and add a little more heat. Most people can handle either of these two spices which are common in Mexican cooking. If you want to try some Asian flavors, consider gochugaru (Korean red pepper powder) or togarashi (Japanese seven spice). 
If you want to guarantee heat in every bite, add red pepper flakes, ground chile de arbol, or ground cayenne to the mix. These are very spicy chiles that may send sensitive eaters dashing into the house in search of milk. If it's your first time using them, start slow and amp up the heat in future batches.

Your Flavor Picks. Basically, anything else you add. Pick the flavors you like in food — just have to make sure they are in dry form. Popular additions include:

  • onion powder
  • garlic powder
  • crumbled bay leaves
  • oregano
  • mustard
  • cumin
  • cinnamon

... but it's your call. The only word of caution: Don't overdo it with any of these ingredients, or you could overpower the rest of the flavors.

The Dry Rub Method for Ribs

You'll need around a 1/2 cup of rub for a rack of ribs. Apply your rib rub directly to the slab by seasoning the meat evenly on both sides. Let it rest on the rack for at least 30 minutes, then cook them on your wood-fired grill.

Rib Rub Tips - 

  • Pour the rub high (see video above for demonstration) for even application.
  • A binder is not necessary
  • Leave rub for 30 minutes at room temperature
  • Chad’s favorite rub: Pork & Poultry Traeger Rub

The Wet Rub Method for Ribs

Personal preference is no wet rub because it involves more ingredients and it can get messy but if that's your preference, apply a substance such as mustard or olive oil to the rack of ribs. Then coat each side with rib rub.  Or, combine wet and dry ingredients to make a wet rub.

The Best Wood for Smoking Ribs

Searching for the key to perfectly grilled pork ribs? Search no more. We’ve given you the basics, now we’ll take care of the smoke. If you’re planning on loading up your grill with some gorgeous racks, smoke them like they deserve to be smoked.

We recommend 50/50 cherry & pecan wood pellets. The slight nuttiness paired with its rustic richness makes it a full-bodied smoke that we love wrapping our ribs with. Simply set the grill to 225 degrees Fahrenheit and let your ribs bask in all the smoke for about two hours.

The 3-2-1 Method to Smoking Ribs

When in doubt, use our tried and true 3-2-1 ribs method. This method brings you beautiful color and ridiculous flavor.

3 Hours of Smoke

The "3" is for the three hours you envelop your ribs in flavorful smoke.

  • Set the grill temperature to 180 degrees Fahrenheit. Preheat with the lid closed, for 15 minutes.
  • Place the ribs meat-side up on the grill
  • Smoke the ribs for three hours, or when your thermometer tells you that the internal temperature of the ribs has reached 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

2 Hours of Low 'n' Slow

The "2" is for two hours of low 'n' slow cooking. You'll raise the temperature slightly, helping the fat and connective tissues in the ribs break down, and adding flavor and juiciness.

  • Take the ribs off the grill and place them on a rimmed baking sheet.
  • Raise the grill temperature to 225 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Tear off two long pieces of foil.
  • Place the ribs atop one sheet of foil.
  • Pull up the foil edges to prevent liquid from sneaking out.
  • Place the other sheet of foil over the ribs and crimp the edges of the two pieces of foil together tightly to prevent leakage.
  • Return the ribs to the grill and cook for another two hours.

1 Hour (or Less) of Final Touches Including Saucing

The "1" is for an hour or less where your ribs will develop that rich mahogany color you’ve only seen in your BBQ dreams. You'll get them up to the perfect temperature, and then slather with Traeger BBQ sauce at the very end of the cooking process (no more than 20 minutes). The sugar in BBQ sauce caramelizes and can burn the ribs if it’s heated for too long.

  • Carefully remove the foil from the ribs. Discard the foil.
  • Arrange the ribs directly on the grill grate, cover, and continue to cook until the internal temperature of the ribs hits 195 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Slather ribs with BBQ sauce (if desired) and cook for 10 to 20 minutes longer. An internal temperature of 203 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal.
  • Let the ribs rest for a few minutes before serving. Enjoy!

How to Cut Ribs

If you don't want to leave the rack whole and unleash your inner carnivore by tearing the meat from the ribs with your fingers and teeth, get a sharp knife and carefully slice between the bones.

Matt Pittman tip: Sometimes it's hard to see where to cut the ribs to get ribs that are nice and meaty. It helps to flip the ribs over (meat-side down) to see which direction the bones are going.

How to Cook Pork Ribs on a Pellet Grill

A pellet grill gives you the consistent temperature and reliable smoke flavor to make the best ribs on the block.

If you can automatically adjust the temperature of your pellet grill — like you can with a Traeger — you won't have to worry about opening the grill to add charcoal.

Because your pellets are constantly added to the fire, you don't need to open the grill to add more pellets. Those pellets are just working away, keeping your grill at the proper temperature and delivering natural smoke flavor to the ribs.

Just follow the instructions above for tender, delicious, perfectly-colored — and evenly cooked — pork ribs.

How to Cook Pork Ribs on a Gas Grill

To cook ribs on a gas or propane grill, you'll need to set up the grill for smoking. You'll need to leave the burners off on one side of the grill, and place the ribs there. The other burners will generate the heat. This is called cooking over indirect heat. (If the ribs are put over the flame, a.k.a. direct heat, the surface of the ribs will burn before the meat cooks.)

Some gas grills simply aren't big enough to allow for indirect heat cooking, at least not for a cut of meat as generous as ribs.

If your grill does have enough space, you can start thinking about flavor. You can use wood pellets to generate smoke flavor. These pellets can go in a smoke box, or in foil packets.

How to Cook Pork Ribs on a Charcoal Grill

Smoking with charcoal is tricky. The main difficulty is maintaining a low temperature. Most charcoal grills are designed to give you a hot fire for cooking burgers and steaks, not for hours and hours of cooking.

You also have to set up your charcoal grill for indirect heat — that means the charcoals stay on one side of the grill, and the ribs stay on the other.

Measuring and arranging the charcoal briquettes is key. If you add the same amount of charcoal you would for cooking burgers, the grill will be way too hot. Also, if you light all of the charcoal at once, it may not stay hot long enough to smoke your ribs. One recent innovation to help solve this problem is the snake method, where you arrange the briquettes in a line that slowly ignites as you smoke.

You won't be able to regulate the temperature at the touch of a button. If the fire dies out, you'll need to open the charcoal grill and add more briquettes. In a worst-case scenario, you'll need to take the ribs out and relight completely. In both cases, the meat will cool down, drastically increasing your cook time.  

How to Cook Pork Ribs in an Oven

Cooking ribs in the oven is a straightforward process, but you can't get any natural wood smoke flavor to the meat.

Also, ovens may not maintain consistent low temperatures the way your Traeger can, so it's best to cook at a slightly higher temperature, like 250-300 degrees Fahrenheit. You'll want to wrap the ribs tightly in foil, and place them on a baking sheet. Preheat the oven to the desired temperature, and cook for 3-4 hours.

The timing here is never going to be exact, it will depend on your oven and on the ribs themselves. Use a thermometer to check the temperature of the ribs after about 3 hours. 203 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal.

If you want to brown the surface of the ribs, you can set them under your broiler for a couple of minutes after they're cooked. Or you can finish them off outside on the grill.

Now You're Ready to Smoke

Delicious, tender ribs really are easy to make. Buy good quality pork, trim to fit, choose a rub, and let the 3-2-1 method (and your pellet grill) do the rest. In just a few hours, you and your family will be oohing and aahing over one of your greatest grilling triumphs.

Read More

See Chad's last tip on how to grill the perfect pork loin and let us know what you want to see next.



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