How to Smoke BBQ Spare Ribs

Today I want to share with you how to smoke BBQ spare ribs ‘low and slow’. Before I begin I have to confess that the technique and recipe you are about to read are a combination of things I have read and watched other people do online as well as things I have learned and come up with on my own through trial and error. By no means do I claim what follows to be my own method or recipe, but rather the culmination of lots of time observing others and experimenting myself. This is simply my attempt to share one particular way of smoking spare ribs, and it is a tribute to the smoking community from whom I have learned so much. I hope that the end result is a very simple and helpful walkthrough that yields a meal that is worth the effort it takes to produce.

All disclaimers aside, let’s dive right in.

First, here is a list of everything you are going to need:

  • 1 rack of pork spare ribs – you can buy them either with the tips still attached or trimmed off “St. Louis style,” which is how we’ll be preparing them. It’s best to buy these fresh from the meat section to avoid prepackaged products that may contain seasonings or salt.
  • rib rub and glaze ingredients (see below)
  • apple juice and plastic spray bottle
  • plastic wrap and heavy duty aluminum foil
  • oak or maple wood chunks or chips
  • smoker and accessories (fuel, tongs, etc.)

Ingredients for the rub* (this is my own personal rub recipe, which is very minimalistic. Feel free to modify it or use something else entirely. I like this rub because it adds to the flavor of the pork without overpowering it):

  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • ¼ cup sweet Hungarian paprika (regular paprika has little flavor)
  • 3 tablespoons kosher salt (very important since 3 tbsp. of regular table salt is COMPLETELY different)
  • ½ tablespoon black pepper
  • ½ tablespoon cayenne pepper (if you want just a little heat, which I highly recommend)

*this rub mixture yields enough for 2 racks of ribs

Ingredients for the ‘glaze’ (more on this below):

  • 1 bottle of Parkay squeezable margarine
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 bottle of honey
  • 1 bottle of Tiger Sauce – this can be found in the BBQ/ketchup/hot sauce section of the average grocery store

1. You will want to work with ribs that are thawed. If you buy the ribs frozen, set them out for several hours until thawed and then store them in the fridge until the night before you cook them. I recommend buying fresh from the butcher, if possible.
2. On the night before you cook them, you need to prepare them. If you bought the ribs already trimmed, then skip ahead to step 3. To trim spare ribs St. Louis Style you need to do 4 things after you have unpackaged and rinsed the thawed ribs:

  • Trim off the little meat flap (or skirt) from the bottom of the rack, as well as any extra little pieces of fat or meat that are hanging anywhere
  • Separate the tips from the rack – you can do this by finding the cartilage seam where the two sections connect
  • Square off the pointed end of the rack
  • Peel off the thin white membrane from the bottom of the rack – pry up one end with a butter knife and then grab the membrane with a paper towel, since it’s slippery

Here is a helpful video by the BBQ Pit Boys on this process:

Note: I like to cook up the rib tips that are left over after trimming spare ribs. I generally smoke them alongside of the ribs and then use them for my BBQ beans, snacking, sandwiches, or anything else I can think of.

3. Once your ribs are trimmed, it’s time to rub them down. If they are still sopping wet from being rinsed off, use some paper towels to dry them up a little. You don’t want your rub to run right off the sides. With the ribs slightly moist, pour a moderate amount of rub on both sides and work the rub into the meat with your fingers. Don’t be afraid to pour the rub on, but be very careful not to over season. The rub is meant to compliment the flavor of the pork, not dominate it. A properly rubbed rack of ribs should look something like this:

Properly (not overly) rubbed ribs.

Note: Some folks rub a layer of either olive oil or yellow mustard on the meat before applying the rub. Technically this step is optional.

Once rubbed, wrap your ribs in some plastic wrap and then some aluminum foil and set them in the fridge to marinate overnight.

4. Carefully calculate the timing in advance. You are going to need about 5-6 hours of total cooking time. It’s also good to set the ribs out beforehand to bring them closer to room temperature and prepare your smoker. Plus, they’ll need to rest briefly at the end. In total, you should plan for about 7-8 hours or so of total prep and cook time.

5. An hour or two before you intend to start cooking, unwrap the ribs from the foil and the plastic wrap and set them out on the counter to bring them closer to room temperature. Cold ribs take longer to cook.

6. Prepare your smoker. This step depends on what type of smoking unit you are using. I like to smoke my ribs with charcoal, but electric and gas units work as well. The most important things are the time and the temperature. If you have never smoked anything before, be sure to learn how to use your equipment so that you can stabilize it at the proper cooking temperature for the appropriate amount of time. Also, be sure to use a water pan of some kind, as the water helps stabilize the temperature and keep the humidity up.

At this point your ribs are trimmed, rubbed, and resting at room temperature, and your smoker is hot and ready. Now it’s time to cook.

Cooking the Ribs (and tips)
1. We’ll be employing what’s called the 3-2-1 method. That is, 3 hours in the smoker, 2 hours in the smoker (or oven) while wrapped in foil, and 1 hour in the smoker not wrapped in foil. (You can also just skip the final 1 hour and opt instead to throw them directly on the grill for about 90 seconds on each side to firm up the texture a tiny bit. This is optional).

2. For the first 3 hours, cook the ribs in the 225-245 degree range. I like to add a chunk of oak and 2-3 handfuls of maple chips at the start of each hour. At the end of hours 1 and 2, spray the ribs down with some apple juice. Be thorough, but not excessive. At the end of hour 3 it’s time to foil them. This is where the magic really begins!

Five racks of ribs ready for some foil.

3. For the next 2 hours you will be cooking the ribs in foil. On a flat surface, lay out a large sheet of heavy duty foil (be sure to use heavy duty because cheap foil tears easily, and this method will create a LOT of juice). On the foil put a generous layer of Parkay spread, about 4-5 rows of honey, about 1/4-1/2 cup of brown sugar, and about 1-2 tablespoons of Tiger Sauce. Mix these ingredients around with your fingers to form a nice paste, roughly in the shape of your ribs.

Make your paste roughly in the shape of the ribs.

Next, give the top of the ribs a quick squirt of apple juice and then lay them topside down onto the paste you just created, then repeat this process for the bottom of the ribs (which should now be facing upward).

This mixture will become a deliciously sweet glaze by the end.

Once complete, fold the foil up around each side of the ribs in such a way that the ingredients cannot pour out any seams and seal it up tight. They are now ready to go back onto the smoker or into an oven. I choose to use the oven because once the ribs are wrapped no smoke can really penetrate the foil. Plus, using the oven reduces the amount of charcoal I need in my smoker. Whatever you decide to do, the ribs need to cook for another 2 hours at 235 degrees or so while wrapped in foil. This process creates an incredible, sugary glaze on the surface of the meat and moistens/tenderizes the inside of the meat. This step is a must!

4. It’s now time to finish off the ribs. Begin by carefully removing the foil (there will be juices galore) and either place the ribs back on the smoker for another hour or throw them on the grill for a few minutes. If you want you could always put some BBQ sauce on before this final step, or you can save the sauce for the table. It’s up to you. (I like to put the sauce on at the table.) Really what you’re going for in this final stage is texture, as the ribs are already fully cooked. You know spare ribs are done when you lift the ribs with tongs and the surface of the meat tears a little at the stress points and the meat should be shrinking inward away from the ends of the bones a little. Also, properly cooked rib meat will tear cleanly from the bones when you bite into it. While it’s a matter of preference, I prefer for the meat to NOT “fall off the bones.” I believe that the meat should have some substance to it, and should pull off cleanly, not fall off.

These ribs are ready to cut and enjoy.

5. After the ribs are done cooking, it’s best to let them ‘rest’ for a few minutes. This allows for the juices to get evenly distributed throughout the meat during the initial cooling period. I’d let them rest for 10-15 minutes uncovered or you can cover them and let them rest for up to 30-45 minutes. If you are done way early, then wrap them in foil, then wrap them in a thick towel or blanket, and place them in a cooler. They will stay warm for an hour or more like this. How long you rest them is up to you and when you plan on serving them.

I enjoy my ribs with some Sweet Baby Ray’s and homemade sides.

That’s it! If you faithfully followed this tutorial you should have successfully slow-cooked amazing, smoky, St. Louis Style ribs. If this tutorial was helpful, please click the Facebook ‘Like’ button and share a comment below.

9 thoughts on “How to Smoke BBQ Spare Ribs

  1. Question: I plan to cook these for an office event. I was planning to smoke them the night before doing the 3 and 2 portion of your 3-2-1 process. What are your thoughts of my doing the 1 portion the following morning and keeping them warm in a slow cooker until it’s time to serve them? Please advise. Any recommendation would be great appreciated. Also, what are you thoughts of using softened butter instead of the Parkay spread? Please advise.
    Thank you in advance for any suggestions you may have.

    • Sue, from what I can tell you plan to either a. reheat the meat the following morning, or b. keep them warm all night. I personally am not a fan of either. I understand the complications of trying to cook meat for timed events such as yours, but the quality of cooked food diminishes over time. I have noticed from my own experience that smoked meats seldom taste real good reheated, so option a. is not a great option. I have never held ribs at a warm temperature for hours on end (like in a warming drawer), so I do not have any experiential knowledge of the matter, but I cannot imagine they would taste very fresh once reheated.

      As for softened butter instead of Parkay: I have never tried it, so I don’t know for sure. Perhaps you could give it a shot and report back here on how it went! I would avoid salted butter, as there is already plenty of salt in my rib rub. Also, butter can be quite rich and I have no idea how much you should actually use, so a bit of trial and error might be in order.

      Whatever you decide to do, thanks for stopping by and the best of luck to you!

  2. Looks likes some tasty ribs!

    The 225 – 245 degree range in farenheit or celcius?

    Im from the netherlands and they dont have all the inggredients like you describe, But im going to order the tiger sause and parkey spread and give it a try!

  3. I can order the tiger sauce. But I Cant find the parkay spread. They dont have it here in the supermarket. And they wont ship it from the usa to Holland.

    I realy like to know if i can use some thing else or how i can get it

  4. Damn.. the tiger sauce is available for shipment to the netherlands..

    But a 6 dollar botte will cost me 65 dollar to ship it!! Thats bonkers..

    • Wow. It’s good stuff, but it is definitely not worth $65. Honestly, the vast majority of the ribs I do are much simpler. I simply rub the meat with the dry spices and throw them in the Webber kettle with some charcoal and cherry wood for 5 hrs. Can’t ever go wrong doing that!

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