How To Wrap Ribs in Foil
Making ribs at home is an incredibly satisfying experience as it doesn’t take anywhere near as long as brisket or pork butts but is tasty and you can make it taste pretty much how you want. However, there are still questions that arise throughout the process of making mouthwatering smoked ribs at home. One of the most…
Making ribs at home is an incredibly satisfying experience as it doesn’t take anywhere near as long as brisket or pork butts but is tasty and you can make it taste pretty much how you want. However, there are still questions that arise throughout the process of making mouthwatering smoked ribs at home.
One of the most common areas of the process that spark questions involves wrapping ribs. Should we wrap ribs and why? Is aluminum foil the best way to wrap ribs? How do we know when it’s time for wrapping? Do we put anything in the wrap, and how long do we keep the ribs in the wrap? We’re going to cover all of that here, wrapping it up in a nice package that unfortunately won’t smell nor taste as good as those ribs coming off your smoker.
Do We Need To Wrap Ribs?
There are people who have been smoking ribs for years who have recipes and techniques for smoking delicious ribs without wrapping them. However, there are risks to this method, mainly drying the ribs out or potentially over-smoking the ribs. By wrapping the ribs, we can help maintain the proper amount of moisture, break down the connective tissue more quickly to cut down on the cooking time, and prevent any chance of making the ribs bitter through too much smoke exposure.
Is Aluminum Foil The Best Option For Wrapping Ribs?
There is plenty of debate about whether to use aluminum foil or butcher paper when wrapping brisket or pork butts. However, there seems to be much less debate when it comes to ribs. Due to the shorter cook times associated with most types of ribs, we want to trap as much heat and moisture in the wrap as possible which makes aluminum foil superior to the more permeable butcher paper.
Don’t take just my word for it, though. Aaron Franklin, the world-class pitmaster who helped create the basis for Texas-style barbecue that we know and love today, wraps his ribs in aluminum foil as well.
How Do You Know When To Wrap Ribs?
Now that we’ve covered why to wrap ribs and why we use aluminum foil, we need to know when to wrap ribs. We want to make sure we get plenty of smoke flavor without too much because once we wrap the ribs in foil, no smoke will get to the meat for as long as they are wrapped. We also know that the bark on the surface of the ribs won’t improve once the ribs are wrapped.
However, we don’t want to wait too long as we can dry the ribs out or even potentially cause sugars in the dry rub to burn. So we need to know when is the best time to wrap ribs. Typically, that time comes around three hours into the smoking process. Whether you use the 3-2-1 method which is one of the most common methods for smoking ribs, Franklin’s 3-3 method, or our very own Michael Haas’ method for not over-cooking your ribs, the three-hour mark is an almost universal mark in the barbecue world. It gives the ribs plenty of time to take on smoke and color while also developing the bark without the risk of drying out the meat.
There are others who might wrap ribs after two hours in the smoker, but we find that the ribs don’t have enough smoke flavor for our personal preferences in only two hours.
Now you might protest, saying that we often use temperature in relation to when we wrap other meats, and you’d be correct. When we smoke larger cuts of meat like brisket, pork butts, or even chuck roasts, we are monitoring the internal temperature and waiting for the stall before we wrap. We also use visual cues such as bark formation to help us determine our timing, but temperature is a big part.
However, when it comes to smoking most types of ribs, we aren’t monitoring the internal temperature constantly. A rack of baby back ribs, spare ribs, or even beef back ribs is thin enough that we aren’t going to stick a wireless meat thermometer in for constant monitoring. To be completely transparent here, I have never once temped a rack of these thinner ribs throughout the entire smoking process.
Now if you’re smoking beef short plate ribs, that’s a completely different story. These ribs can feature between one and two inches of meat on the surface of the ribs, so I constantly monitor the internal temperature throughout the entire process. That means I also use the internal temperature as a guideline for when I wrap.
What Do We Need To Wrap Ribs?
We’ve talked about using aluminum foil for wrapping ribs, but is that all you need? You can absolutely wrap your ribs by themselves, but a lot of people, myself included, like adding to the wrap for more moisture and more flavor.
This likely comes out of the competition BBQ world where pitmasters are attempting to impart as much flavor as humanly (or pork-ly) as possible because judges are only going to take one bite and need to be blown away. We don’t need to take that approach in our backyards, though. We want people to eat plenty of ribs and not feel sick to their stomachs afterward.
That doesn’t mean we can’t learn some lessons from the BBQ competition circuits, though. Adding layers of flavor is not a bad thing as long as we keep things balanced and not overwhelm people.
So what can we add to the wrap? For starters, adding a couple of pats of butter can add some extra richness to the ribs which is especially good for a lean cut like baby back ribs.
Sweetness – Honey
If you’re a fan of sweeter ribs, adding a good drizzle of honey or some extra sprinkles of brown sugar will help ensure you get a good, sweet bite. I’m also a fan of adding some extra sprinkles of whatever rub I used on the ribs themselves to further bring that flavor out.
Some people will even add barbecue sauce to the wrap for that extra moisture. Typically, I wait until I unwrap my ribs for the finishing part of the cooking process to add BBQ sauce, but Franklin does not unwrap his ribs until he serves them so he adds sauce to the wrap. Some people will also add apple juice or apple cider vinegar to the wrap in order to ensure there’s plenty of moisture.
How Long Do We Wrap Ribs?
This is also a big point of contention when it comes to wrapping ribs, and it largely depends on your preferences for the texture of your ribs. Do you prefer your ribs to be fall-off-the-bone tender? If so, you’re keeping your ribs in the wrap for at least two hours. This is the “2” in the 3-2-1 method. Franklin actually keeps his ribs wrapped for three full hours before testing the tenderness of the meat around the third bone from the end of the rack.
Now this is an instance of the type of rib playing a factor in length of time. Baby back ribs will take less time to cook than a rack of spare ribs, St Louis-style or not. If you like to bite into your ribs and have to tug to get the meat to come off the bone, Michael would recommend that your baby back ribs stay in the foil for around an hour, spare ribs somewhere around an hour and a half. Then you’ll unwrap and finish them on the smoker. This is where you can add some of your favorite BBQ sauce which will set up and take on some smoke flavor without burning.
If you’re not completely sure about the differences between the types of pork ribs, don’t worry. You can check out our full breakdown of pork ribs for some more information. You’ll even get some information on country-style ribs (which aren’t really ribs at all, sorry for the confusion!)
If you’re smoking those aforementioned beef short plate ribs, you’re going to keep them wrapped until they reach an internal temperature somewhere around 203°F and the meat is probe tender. If you want more information on beef ribs, check out our article on the types of beef ribs.
How To Wrap Ribs In Foil, AKA The Texas Crutch
One of the biggest concerns with wrapping ribs in foil is the potential for the foil to tear. If that happens, all that steam, heat, and moisture can leak out and jeopardize the quality of your ribs. If you look below Michael’s take on Aaron Franklin’s spare ribs recipe, he provides photographic evidence of what happens if the foil tears. Suffice it to say, it’s not pretty.
So there are two major points to keep in mind when wrapping your ribs. One: you need to wrap the ribs as tightly as possible. This helps trap all the natural juices and liquid and heat, helping break down all the connective tissue inside the ribs. Two: you need to prevent tears in the foil.
One way to do this is by using heavy-duty aluminum foil, and real heavy-duty foil at that. You don’t want to go to the dollar store and buy their “heavy-duty” foil. It’s not really heavy-duty. You want to get the good stuff. It’s also helpful because it’s usually wider so you can protect the ribs more.
The other way to do this is simply by wrapping the ribs in a double layer. This is my usual method, and my experience is that I haven’t dealt with a loss of heat or moisture during the cooking process. Regardless of which way you go, do everything you can to make sure your foil stays tight and intact.
Instructions For How To Wrap Your Ribs
1. Lay out a sheet of aluminum foil that is approximately two and a half times the length of your rack of ribs. If you’re using two sheets like myself, do this twice.
2. Prep the foil with the ingredients you want to be in your wrap. For myself, this is where I lay down a few small pats of butter, drizzle with honey, and then shake some extra rub in the very middle of the foil. If you are smoking beef ribs, omit the honey or brown sugar. Notice that the shiny side of the foil is up and the dull side is down. The dull side will allow heat to flow through while the shiny side will reflect the heat into the ribs.
3. Lay the ribs meat side down onto the ingredients.
4. Take one end of the foil and bring it over the ribs, sealing that end of the rack tightly. Ensure that the foil conforms to the exact edge of the ribs.
5. Take the opposite end and repeat the process so the two ends of the foil overlap over the middle of the rack of ribs.
6. Take the top and bottom edges of the foil and fold them tightly over to seal the entire rack of ribs. Ensure that the foil is tight to every edge of the ribs.
7. Repeat the above process with the second layer of foil if you are using two layers.
8. Return the wrapped ribs to the smoker keeping the meat side down. This helps further tenderize the meat.
Wrapping It Up
Yes, I could not resist the wrapping pun for leading off my final thoughts. When you are smoking your ribs, regardless of whether it’s pork or beef ribs, make sure you are wrapping your ribs tightly with aluminum foil and ensuring that you keep the foil from tearing. If you are able to do that, you can deliver tender, moist ribs whether you prefer some chew or fall-off-the-bone tender. Just don’t tell Michael that’s your preference.
Question: Can I Smoke Ribs On My Charcoal Or Gas Grill?
Answer: Just because you don’t have a traditional offset smoker or a new pellet grill doesn’t mean you can’t smoke ribs at home. I learned how to smoke ribs on my Char-Griller Premium Kettle. You need to learn how to set up your grill for indirect heat. On a gas grill, that will be lighting one burner and placing your meat on the other side of the grill. On a charcoal grill, that will look like piling your charcoal in one spot and arranging your meat away from the heat.
On your gas grill, I recommend using a foil packet or smoker box of your preferred wood chips. If you’re new to using wood chips, check out our guide complete with photos. If you’re using a charcoal grill, you can use wood chips in the same manner or you can use wood chunks to deliver even more wood flavor. If you’re unsure of when you should be using wood chips or wood chunks, check out our breakdown of the similarities and differences.
Question: Why Don’t We Wrap Ribs Bone Side Down?
Answer: If we keep the ribs bone side down in the wrap, we aren’t keeping the rib meat immersed in the liquid inside the foil. The meat sitting in the juices and the extra ingredients we put in the wrap help tenderize the meat. If we keep the bone side down, we lose that added benefit.
Question: After We Wrap The Ribs, Can We Bake Them In The Oven To Finish?
Answer: Using an oven for barbecue might seem wrong, but it’s a nice trick for finishing meat. Once your ribs (or any meat) is wrapped in aluminum foil, it’s not going to take on any extra smoke flavor. If you intend on keeping your ribs wrapped for the rest of the cooking process, you absolutely can throw them in the oven so you don’t have to worry about tending to your grill or smoker. I would put a baking sheet on the next rack down just in case anything happens to the foil to protect the bottom of your oven.
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