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Smoking Ribs Bone Up or Down?

It’s not uncommon to consider the question of whether you should smoke brisket fat side up or down in the barbecue world. But have you ever stopped to consider whether you should be cooking ribs bone side up or down? Maybe you’ve been smoking ribs for a while and just never stopped to consider …

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By Jeremy Pike

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Smoking Ribs Bone Up or Down?
Mike does both starting with up.

It’s not uncommon to consider the question of whether you should smoke brisket fat side up or down in the barbecue world. But have you ever stopped to consider whether you should be cooking ribs bone side up or down? Maybe you’ve been smoking ribs for a while and just never stopped to consider it. Or maybe you’re brand new and looking forward to putting your first rack of ribs on the smoker. 

Either way, we know ribs have a meat side and a bone side, so should the bone side be up or down? Does it even matter if we smoke ribs meat side up or down? Let’s take a look at it.

Should I Be Smoking Ribs Bone Side Up Or Down?

Perfectly Smoked Pork Ribs (Baby Backs)
Like the look of these ribs? Check out our recipes and make them yourself. These ribs are currently bone side down.

Whether you’re smoking baby back ribs, spare ribs, short plate ribs, beef ribs, or any other variation on pork or beef ribs, there’s one inescapable truth. There’s a meat side and a bone side to every rib rack. That means if you’re not using a specific smoker accessory designed to hold ribs on edge (or hang them if you’ve got a barrel smoker,) you’ve got to make the choice between bone side up or down. 

Rib Rack Example
Example of a Rib Rack.

So does it matter if you cook ribs meat side up or down? It actually does, yes. You want to protect the meat from the heat source as much as possible because we want to let the connective tissue and any intramuscular fat to render down so we have a tender and moist end product. 

So that means when we fire up our grill or smoker, we put ribs bone side down. The bones  serve as protection from the heat source. Now, that may not be the biggest deal if you’ve got a really good smoker that doesn’t have much in the way of hot spots. However, you want the meat to cook low, slow, and evenly, and the bones will help with that.

That’s not the only reason we smoke ribs bone side down to start, though. Let’s be honest with ourselves. Not only do we want our food to taste great, we want it to look great, too. So when we are grilling, we want grill marks. We don’t want those same marks on a rack of smoked ribs, though. So we smoke ribs meat side up so the bones protect from the grill grates, too. We want our ribs to develop bark and color while absorbing all those smoke flavors. We also want to keep our dry rub intact and not smudged all over the place, so the meat goes up. That goes for whether you’re using an offset smoker, a pellet grill, or even smoking on a charcoal grill over indirect heat.

Does It Matter What Type Of Ribs I’m Smoking?

Not all ribs are the same. So does it matter if I’m smoking baby back ribs or spare ribs, or short plate ribs or beef back ribs? Does the type of rib you’re smoking make a big difference when it comes to cooking ribs meat side up or down? 

Despite all the differences between pork ribs and beef ribs, and even the differences between ribs from the same animal, you should still start your smoking session with the ribs bone side down. Just because short plate ribs may take hours longer than baby back ribs doesn’t change the fact about the bones protecting the meat from heat nor does it change that we want the bark and the color of the meat to be as good-looking as possible. 

Should I Have My Ribs Bone Up Or Down When Wrapping?

Now here’s where things get a little less straightforward. The thought of wrapping in general has its supporters and detractors, but chances are, most recipes for smoking baby back or spare ribs involve wrapping the ribs for at least a portion of the cook. So do you follow the same idea of bone side down when wrapping as when you first put the ribs on the smoker?

Well, it depends on who you ask. For instance, Michael Haas in his treatise on why using the 3-2-1 method to smoke ribs overcooks them puts his wrapped ribs bone side up in his rib recipe. The thought behind bone side up in the wrap is so the meat sits in whatever liquid you add to the wrap, in this case butter and honey, plus the juices from the ribs cooking will actually help further tenderise the meat, in effect braising them in all that trapped moisture. 

What Is The 3-2-1 Method For Smoking Ribs?

It’s one of the simplest methods for smoking pork ribs. You smoke the ribs for three hours,  wrap them in aluminum foil and cook them for two hours, then unwrap and glaze them with your favorite BBQ sauce before letting them cook for one more hour. This extended  cooking time results in tender, fall-off-the-bone ribs that are frankly overcooked. As Michael says, the goal should be “the meat actually stays on the bone until you bite it off with your teeth.”

Now when I’ve smoked ribs, whether they’re pork or beef, I’ve always kept them bone side up. I still add pats of butter and more rub, especially to pork ribs, and that’s been sufficient. However, I tend to smoke spare ribs which have more marbling than baby back ribs. If you’re a big fan of baby back ribs, cooking them bone side down in the wrap will help keep them moist. 

When you’re wrapping your ribs, you can choose to use aluminum foil or waxless food-grade butcher paper. Regardless of which you use, you can absolutely put your ribs bone side up to get the full effect of the liquid in the wrap.

Also, when we are smoking pork ribs, we want the barbecue sauce to look nice and glazed, not ruined by the grill grates. So when we unwrap the ribs, we turn the meat side of the ribs up for the last part of the cooking process. The picture below demonstrates this.

Smoked Ribs

Final Thoughts

When you’re smoking ribs, whether it’s pork ribs or beef ribs, you should always start your ribs bone side down. The bones help protect the meat from the heat as well as allow for the best bark formation. 

If you choose to wrap your ribs, you can choose at that point to cook your ribs bone side up. This is especially recommended if you’re smoking baby back ribs so the lean meat can keep as moist as possible.

How do you smoke your ribs, bone side up or down? Let us know in the comments!

FAQs:

Question: What Is The Best Way To Smoke Ribs?

Answer: We are a big fan of smoking ribs at 225°-250°F. This allows your ribs to get plenty of smoke while allowing the connective tissue and intramuscular fat to render down so you get smoky, tender ribs. Remember, you want tender but not fall-off-the-bone ribs! Check out the link above for how Michael smokes his ribs to achieve that result.

Question: Should I Treat Pork Country-Style Spare Ribs Differently?

Answer: While we’ve been talking about smoking ribs bone side up or down, there’s one type of pork ribs that can completely throw everything into chaos: the country-style spare rib. This comes in bone-in and boneless forms, and it’s in fact not a true rib because it comes from by the pork butt. If you’ve got the bone-in variety, you’ll in fact smoke them bone side down to start. Rather than wrap each individual rib, you can put them inside an aluminum roasting pan covered in foil. Then you’ll put them bone side up. If you’re smoking boneless country-style ribs, then you can choose to rotate them but it’s not consequential. 

Question: Will Smoking My Ribs Bone Side Down Mean I Don’t Have To Remove The Membrane?

Answer: Yes, you will want to remove the membrane from the bone side of the ribs if you’re smoking pork ribs or beef back ribs. The membrane, or silver skin, is a thick layer that is not pleasant to eat. During the cooking process, it tightens up and has a tough texture which ruines your bite of tender ribs. While you’re prepping your ribs, you’ll want to remove it prior to adding a binder like yellow mustard and your preferred dry rub.

You can do this by sliding a butter knife under the membrane to loosen it up before grabbing the loose part with a paper towel and firmly but slowly pulling the membrane off. It takes some getting used to, so be patient and have plenty of paper towels at hand.

Question: Can I Make A Homemade BBQ Dry Rub For Ribs?

Answer: You absolutely can, and it’s not too hard. You don’t have any crazy instructions to follow or even a weird ingredient list. You should be able to make one from the normal spices that you have in your kitchen. While it’s called a Kansas City-style brisket rub, our recipe can be used for ribs as well. It calls for smoked paprika, but you can substitute normal paprika. It uses familiar ingredients like salt, black pepper, garlic powder, brown sugar, onion powder, and cayenne powder to give you a sweet yet balanced rub that will help form a delicious bark on your ribs.

5 thoughts on “Smoking Ribs Bone Up or Down?”

  1. Back in the day I was friends with Christopher B Stubblefield and if I went to his dive in Lubbock I’d help him make his barbeque sauce. Now I make it for myself and you can buy the canned less greasy version at the market. His sauce changed when he moved to Austin and started selling rights to use his name and stuff. It’s still pretty good.

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  2. Problem is, with grocery store bought ribs, (HEB in West Texas) it’s virtually impossible to remove the membrane, and is it REALLY worth paying 3x the price from the 1 real butcher shop here just so they can remove the membrane?

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  3. Lately our supermarket spare ribs Are thick with what I call pork chop meat which is not tender no matter whay is up or down or how long! Sometimes the meat is falling off the bone but the pork chop is tough. These are labeled back ribs Not baby back and not country style. Ive had great success with foil wrapped for 2.5 -3 hours using recipe from internet gentleman. Try to get chop less ribs!

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