Is it okay to split a rack of ribs before adding them to the smoker, or is it better to wait until you take them off the heat? And if you do split them, will that affect the cooking time in any way? Let’s take a look.
Can You Cut Ribs in Half Before Smoking?
It’s fine to divide a rack of ribs in half before adding it to the smoker. In fact, this method can be a lifesaver if your smoker isn’t large enough to accommodate a full rack. Before you decide to do it, be aware that the trick won’t cut down on the cooking time.
About Pork Ribs
Before you decide whether to turn a full rack into a half rack, you should understand that there are several different types of pork ribs available. Some are larger than others, so the type you buy might affect your decision to cut the rack in half.
Baby back ribs are a popular choice for the smoker because their meat is fairly lean, although it still has plenty of flavor. These ribs are taken from the top portion of the ribcage, near the loin. As such, they may be labeled as “loin back ribs.”
In spite of the misleading name, baby back ribs don’t come from baby pigs. Rather, they earned this moniker by virtue of the fact that these ribs are smaller than the ones that are cut from the lower section of the ribcage.
These lower ribs are called spare ribs. In addition to being larger, spare ribs are richer and fattier than baby backs. When you consider the fact that the meat is cut from roughly the same area that’s used to make bacon, this should come as no surprise.
When a rack of spare ribs is trimmed of its tips and cartilage, it’s transformed into a rack of St. Louis-style ribs. This helps the meat brown more evenly. Because of their uniform shape, St. Louis ribs are a frequent sight on the competition circuit.
How Long is a Rack of Pork Ribs?
You can expect a full rack of pork ribs to measure around 18 to 24 inches from end to end. This is a rough estimate, however. The length of the rack depends on the size of the hog in question, as well as the number of ribs that survived the butchering.
As a rule of thumb, there are 10 to 13 ribs in a full rack. That’s true of all rib types. While the ribcage actually consists of more bones than this, not all of the ribs will remain intact when the carcass is divided into portions.
When there are fewer than 10 bones left, the butcher will often label the rack as a “cheater rack.” This makes it sound like you’re not getting your money’s worth, but in truth, ribs should be priced out on a per-pound basis.
Why Would You Cut a Rib Rack in Half?
Not every smoker is large enough to accommodate a full rack of ribs. If you’re just starting out, or if your living situation requires you to keep a modest-sized unit, you might find yourself facing this dilemma.
Before you season the ribs, measure the rack from end to end. Then compare the results to the width of your smoker. Will the rack fit on the cooking grate? More importantly, will you still be able to close the lid once the ribs are in place?
If the answer to either of these questions is no, then you’ll need to divide the rack before you proceed. The best way to do this is to cut the rack in half.
You may also want to cut the rack in half for serving purposes. In general, a half-rack of baby back ribs is considered a single serving. Of course, you can also wait and do this once the ribs are cooked, but doing it beforehand will save time.
Does It Take Less Time To Smoke a Half Rack of Ribs?
You might assume that dividing the rack will diminish the amount of time the meat needs to spend on the smoker. While this may be true of some large cuts, it doesn’t apply to pork ribs.
A half rack should smoke for the same amount of time as a full rack. The collagen and connective tissue in the rib meat needs time to break down. Otherwise, the meat will be tough and chewy, and likely too dry to enjoy.
Additionally, you want to give the fat time to render out and baste the meat. If the ribs don’t spend enough time on the smoker, the uncooked fat will give them a stringy texture.
Whether you divide the rib rack in half or leave it whole, plan on a 5-hour cooking time for baby back ribs and 6 to 7 hours for spare ribs or St. Louis ribs. The 2-2-1 and 3-1-1 methods are preferable for baby backs, while the larger ribs benefit from the 3-2-1 technique.
How To Cut Ribs in Half Before Smoking
Your first step is to check to see if the rib membrane has been removed. Sometimes, the butcher will take this step before wrapping the ribs for sale, but the membrane may be left intact.
Turn the rib rack over so that the bone side is facing you. Do you see a thin layer of whitish fat that resembles a sheet of plastic? If so, the membrane is still attached and you’ll want to remove it before you proceed.
Leaving the membrane in place won’t affect the cooking time, but it will make the ribs more difficult to eat. The membrane shrinks and toughens as it cooks, giving the meat an unpleasant chewy texture.
To remove the membrane, grasp one end of it in one hand, using paper towels if necessary to strengthen your grip. Gently tug along the length of the rack, moving the fingers of your other hand underneath the membrane until you’ve managed to slide it off.
Once you’ve taken off the membrane, pat the rib rack dry with paper towels. Leave the ribs bone-side up and inspect the rack to determine where the halfway mark is. Remember that there might be an odd number of ribs in the rack, so use your judgement.
Use a sharp butcher’s knife to make a clean slice between the bones. It’s easiest if you insert the tip of the knife at the top of the rack, then press down as you draw the knife toward you.
Season and cook the ribs as you normally would.
Dividing Ribs After Smoking
Once the ribs are cooked, separating them is easy. Ribs that have reached the target temperature of 200-205 degrees will come apart under gentle pressure. You shouldn’t even need a knife to divide them, but you can use one if you want to keep things neat.
You can split cooked ribs into portions as large or as small as you’d like. It’s even permissible to separate them into single-rib servings, especially for spare ribs.
As a guideline, remember that 5 to 6 ribs is considered an adequate per-person serving for baby backs, while spare ribs should be divided into serving sizes of 3 to 4 per person.
The Bottom Line
Whether space is an issue or you just prefer to serve your ribs in half-slabs, there’s nothing wrong with cutting the rack in half before smoking. While the practice won’t make the ribs cook faster, it won’t have a negative effect on the process either.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!