We Texans are known for a lot of things, not the least of which is our humility. But if there’s one thing that can get us to puff out our chests and boast a little bit, it’s Texas barbecue. Though we’re primarily known for our smoked brisket, a good Texas barbecue joint will often excel at smoking other delicious cuts. Pork ribs, especially, are a staple, but often they’re the trickiest to get right.
“If a rib is perfectly cooked,” says Bill Kerlin of Kerlin BBQ on East Cesar Chavez, “you should be able to pick up [the rack] with one hand and have it bending over the sides of your hand [without breaking in half]. You’ll see the meat just start to crack a little bit, but it won’t fall apart under its own weight. That would be perfect. You wanna be able to bite into the meat and leave an indentation of your teeth. You don’t want it to be tough, but you also don’t want it to be mushy.”
Ren Garcia, one of the pitmasters at Micklethwait Craft Meats, agrees. “That’s what we kinda strive for—just tender enough where you can bite it right off the bone, but not enough where you’re, like, gonna get a bunch of meat stuck in your teeth because you’re just gnawing at the bone.”
As far as flavors go, Ramiro “Gordo” Gonzalez Jr. of the popular Oak Hill roadside pit stop Gordo’s Tortas & BBQ, looks for balance. “You want to have some spiciness…a little bit of sweet. And then you want to have something good and savory. You wanna hit almost every note, and have a good sauce to finish it off.”
While most of us don’t have access to an 11,000-gallon smoker rig like the pros use, that doesn’t mean smoking our own pork ribs to perfection is out of reach. These barbecue gurus offer the rest of us weekend greenhorns some basics on mastering smoked pork ribs in our own backyards.
You’ll need some gear—most notably a smoker of some sort. Any old charcoal grill with a vented cover will work, but you definitely need a thermometer to keep track of the heat inside. A charcoal chimney starter is also recommended to keep some backup heat at the ready when the smoker cools off.
Start the process the night before by trimming the silver skin off the bone-side of the rack (or ask the butcher to do this when purchasing), then either cure the rack in the fridge overnight with a dry rub, or brine it in a salt and sugar solution.
“At my place, all we do is the basic salt, pepper, garlic,” says Gonzalez. “I’ll add a little bit of paprika for a little bit of color, a little extra garlic or onion powder, just a little bit of extra flavor. But it’s a dry rub, a dry rib. I have sauce, and if you want sauce, I’ll gladly give you some.”
Kerlin takes a simpler, more traditional route: “The only thing that we put on our barbecue—on any of our meats—is salt and pepper. That’s it. Just salt and pepper and smoke. But we use a lot of coarse-ground black pepper, a pretty high amount of it, because the more pepper you have, the better your bark will be. Pepper builds the bark…The bark is the product of the pepper breaking down and mixing with the fat that’s rendering.”
However you season the ribs, allow most of the day to smoke them—at least six or seven hours. “Probably the easiest and most foolproof way that works really well for home cooks is called the 3-2-1 method,” says Kerlin. “Basically you set up your pit for 225 degrees. You do your seasoning. Give [the rack] three hours of smoke. Wrap it in aluminum foil. Two hours in foil. Take it out of the foil and [cook it] another hour or so, give or take, and the bark will crisp up, because once you wrap it, it’s gonna get soft.”
Garcia has a slightly different take on this method, preferring to wrap his ribs in butcher paper instead of aluminum foil to avoid overcooking them. “The thing with foil is [it holds] too much moisture. That’s where a lot of people who use foil kinda see their ribs just fall apart.”
Gonzalez recommends applying a little sugar, butter and/or apple cider vinegar before wrapping the ribs, depending on the flavor profile you’re trying to achieve.
In the final hour, allow the heat in the smoker to come down. This is the resting period, integral to allowing all the juices to redistribute into the meat. Otherwise, those delicious juices will just leach out when you cut the ribs—giving them a dry, chewy texture instead of the succulence you’re looking for.
Despite the traditionalist admonition that pure Texas barbecue doesn’t need any sauce, all of these pitmasters agree: Applying a thin glaze of slightly sweet, vinegary sauce near the end of the process really takes their ribs to another level.
“By putting that sauce on and letting that sugar caramelize a little bit,” says Kerlin, “it adds just a very small amount of extra flavor.” The sauce should be applied sparingly and in the last 20 to 30 minutes of the resting period while your smoker is hot enough—about 175 degrees—to create a dark amber glaze on the meat.
All of our pros say that when smoking pork ribs at home, think of these tips as suggestions rather than gospel. And don’t worry if the ribs don’t come out perfectly the first time. Like anything else worth doing, realizing your own ideal of exemplary ribs takes practice.
By Adam Boles