If you’ve put a rack or two of ribs in the freezer and you want to fire up the smoker tonight, do you have to thaw the ribs first? Or can you smoke frozen ribs and skip the thawing process entirely? Let’s find out.
Can You Smoke Frozen Ribs?
You don’t have to defrost ribs before you smoke them. The meat should thaw out in the smoker. That said, it may take 50 percent longer for the ribs to reach their target temperature, which translates into a prohibitively long cooking time. You might be better off thawing the rack in a water bath instead.
Why Would You Want To Smoke Frozen Ribs?
There are a few reasons why you might be considering this technique. Maybe you forgot to thaw the ribs in advance, or you just decided on smoked ribs at the last minute. Or perhaps you visited your favorite butcher shop, and the only ribs they had were frozen.
Whatever your reasons, you have a right to know whether it’s safe to smoke ribs without thawing them first. In fact, this is an important question for any budding pitmaster to ask.
Can You Smoke Frozen Ribs Without Thawing Them First?
You can smoke frozen ribs—though the practice can be dangerous with other large cuts like pork shoulder. However, the process will take much longer than it would if you’d taken the time to defrost.
Smoking meat is a long process in and of itself. If the meat is frozen to begin with, you’re starting at a disadvantage.
A rack of ribs will take about 50 percent longer to cook from a frozen state. That means if your baby back ribs usually cook in 5 hours, they’ll need 7.5 hours when you add them to the smoker without thawing them first.
How To Apply Seasoning Rub to Frozen Ribs
Frozen meat, on the other hand, tends to be dry as well as cold. In this case, the mustard binder is a critical step. The best way to get the mustard and spices to adhere, however, is to thaw the surface of the meat slightly before you begin.
There are two ways to do this. Our preferred method is to run the ribs under cold running water while you’re waiting for the smoker to heat up. The exterior of the rib rack should thaw just enough to allow the rub to stick to the meat.
Alternatively, you can add the meat to the smoker and let it cook for one hour, then remove it to apply the seasoning mixture. When the ribs are fully coated, return them to the heat to finish the smoke.
Can Smoke Penetrate Frozen Ribs?
This is an interesting question. The smoke will have a hard time penetrating the meat when it’s still completely frozen. However, as the meat begins to thaw, it will begin to absorb plenty of smoke flavor.
In fact, the colder the meat is, the more smoke it will take on. If you’ve ever added a brisket or pork shoulder to the smoker directly from the fridge, you may have noticed that the smoke ring was better than if the meat had been at room temperature.
Bear in mind that for the initial stages of the smoke, the ribs will be defrosting instead of cooking. You’ll probably have to add more fuel than usual to compensate for this, as well as for the longer cooking time.
A Word About Food Safety
The USDA claims that it’s safe to cook meat from a frozen state, but slow-cooked meats may present a problem. That’s because you need to ensure that the meat passes through the “danger zone” in a timely fashion.
The “danger zone” refers to the temperature range between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. At these temperatures, bacteria can multiply at an alarming rate. This is why it’s important to refrigerate leftovers as soon as possible.
When meat sits in the danger zone for longer than 2 hours, there’s a good chance that it’s harboring the kind of bacteria that causes food-borne illnesses. Since frozen meat thaws out in the smoker before it starts to cook, this becomes a real concern.
While it’s important to keep these guidelines in mind, you shouldn’t have to worry too much about it when smoking frozen ribs. Here’s why.
A rack of ribs is an intact piece of pork, meaning that hasn’t been altered or punctured in any way. Although dangerous bacteria can take up residence on the surface of intact meat, it doesn’t have any way to penetrate to the interior.
In short, this means that you only need to worry about bacteria growing on the outer surface. Since the exterior of the rib rack should pass through the danger zone in plenty of time, the bacteria won’t have a chance to set up camp.
How To Thaw Ribs
Depending on which method you use, it might actually be quicker to thaw the ribs beforehand. Although there’s no real harm in smoking frozen ribs, the results will be more impressive if you defrost them.
Remember that you should never thaw frozen meat by leaving it on the counter. If you do, there’s a good chance that it will spend too much time in the danger zone. You might think that it will speed things along, but in truth, you’ll be risking your health.
We also advise against using the microwave to thaw large cuts, including rib racks. The microwave won’t thaw the meat evenly, and some portions may cook through while the rest of the rack is still frozen solid.
The Refrigerator Method
This is our preferred method, as it allows you more leeway in terms of starting time. You can even refreeze the ribs if you won’t have time to cook them after all.
Take the ribs out of the freezer a full day before you intend to smoke them. Set the rack in a large container and store it on the lowest shelf of the fridge. The ribs should be ready to cook within 24 hours, but you can store them this way for 2 to 3 days.
Of course, if you’re thinking about cooking the ribs frozen, it may be too late for this technique. That’s why we’ve included an alternate option below.
The Water Bath Method
This method is quicker, but you’ll have to cook the ribs as soon as they’re thawed. Fortunately, there’s a good chance that you were going to do that anyway.
Seal the ribs in a leak-proof plastic bag. The bag needs to be large enough to hold the entire rib rack without tearing.
Place the sealed ribs in a container filled with cold water. It’s imperative to use cold water—if the liquid is too warm, you’re inviting bacteria to grow.
The ribs should thaw at a rate of about 30 minutes per pound when soaked in a cold water bath. That means a rack of baby back ribs could be ready to cook in as little as 1 hour. Spare ribs, which are slightly larger, might need 2 to 3 hours in the water bath.
The Bottom Line
Although it should be safe to smoke a rack of frozen ribs, you may be better off thawing the meat in a water bath instead. Depending on the size of the rack, it will probably take less time this way, and the meat will cook through more evenly.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!