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A long-time contributor to SeriouslySmoked. Jim has had a lifelong relationship with the art of grilling, passed on from his father and grandfather to him.
Annabelle is an experienced food writer and editor. She focuses on common sense, easy to replicate recipes formulated to help keep things fresh and exciting while fitting into her day to day life as a wife and mother.
Smoking ribs on a charcoal smoker results in smokier and tenderer meat than when grilling ribs on a charcoal grill. Grills use direct heat for cooking hot and fast, whereas charcoal smokers utilize indirect heat for cooking the ribs over an extended period. The added smoky flavors have more time to infuse your meat with a unique taste.
However, there is always the danger of overcooking your ribs or not adding enough fuel to achieve the best outcome. It’s essential to smoke using low heat. Temperature control is crucial.
You can get the best results when smoking ribs on a charcoal smoker by following a few simple tips.
1. Season Your Ribs
The first step is to prepare your meat before smoking. Your butcher may have already trimmed the membrane from your ribs, but if not, it’s essential to slice off the coverage you’ll find on the underside of the ribs. This process allows heat to distribute evenly through the meat during smoking and makes them less chewy when eating.
Add some flavoring by applying a dry spice rub to the rack of ribs. You can also marinate the ribs in a BBQ sauce. Whichever method you choose, it helps to leave the ribs to absorb the rub or marinade for at least 4 hours or overnight.
This absorption time allows more flavors to infuse your ribs and helps break down proteins within the meat that could make your food tougher.
2. Light Your Grill
The easiest way to light your coals is in a charcoal chimney. You place newspaper in the base of the cylinder and add your briquettes into the top section. When you light the paper, the briquettes begin to smolder. After around 10 minutes, the coals should have a thick layer of white ash on their surface, and this is the time to add them to your charcoal smoker firebox.
While you’re waiting for your coals to ignite in the charcoal chimney, you can use the time to fill your smoker’s water fan with cold water. Filling to the three-quarters mark should also add plenty of moisture to the air to keep your meats tender. Using chilled water also helps to keep the cooking chamber’s temperature low. If you want to add even more flavors to your ribs, you can add beer or cider to the water pan.
3. Place Your Ribs in the Smoker
Your smoker may have more than one grate. Place a larger rack of ribs on the lower grate, so they receive more indirect heat. If you have some smaller ribs that won’t take as long to smoke, you can position them on the top grate.
To prevent smoke loss, immediately place the lid on top of the smoker. Ensure you position the air vents over the ribs. When you open the air vents, it sucks smoke through the internal cooking chamber, so you want the flavors to make contact with the meat before they escape into the open air.
4. Maintain a Steady Temperature
When practicing how to smoke ribs on a charcoal smoker, many outdoor cooking enthusiasts find the most challenging aspect is temperature regulation. Maintaining a steady heat level is essential to avoid overcooking or undercooking your ribs. If you raise the temperature too high, you’ll also find your charcoal briquettes burn faster, and you’ll need to add more during smoking.
When smoking ribs on a charcoal smoker, the ideal temperature is between between 225°F-250°F. You should always keep the top vent open unless the heat level is too low. Because the top vent allows smoke and air to escape, this helps to keep the temperature low.
Closing it allows heat to build-up in the smoking chamber until you reach your target temperature. The bottom vent allows air to enter the firebox and fan the flames. If you find the fire is beginning to extinguish, you can open the bottom vent a bit more to allow the fire to light again. Should the heat level become too high, closing the lower vent restricts the oxygen flow into the firebox and helps reduce the temperature.
5. Smoke Your Ribs Slowly
Smoking a rack of ribs at 225°F takes approximately 3 hours, and the cooking time is around 2 hours when the temperature is 250°F. You should try to keep the lid on the smoker as much as possible during smoking. Taking it off allows heat and smoke to escape, making it more difficult to judge the cooking progress.
The only times you should need to make any adjustments during smoking is if you are adding more liquid to the water pan or adding more charcoal briquettes or wood chunks. Food-grade wood can bring additional flavors to your ribs, and there is a wide choice of aromas. Hickory, oak, and apple are popular options for ribs.
If you plan on adding wood chunks to your firebox, you need to soak them in cold water for a minimum of 30 minutes beforehand. This process reduces the wood’s risk of going up in flames too quickly when they are in the firebox.
6. Get Ready to Serve Your Ribs
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the internal temperature of ribs needs to reach 145°F before they are safe to eat. Use a meat thermometer to test the heat level before removing your ribs from the grill. The USDA also recommends allowing ribs to rest for a few minutes after coming off the grill, so the juices redistribute, and the meat is moister, and they are easier to carve.
Carve your ribs, and to enhance the smoky flavor, serve them with coleslaw and hush puppies.