It’s a simple quandary, but a common one: Is it better to put the ribs on the smoker with the bone side facing up or down?
Newbies might be tempted to think that it doesn’t make any difference. The truth is, the answer can affect the results of your barbecue. If your goal is to make perfectly cooked ribs with a juicy, succulent texture, it’s important to position them correctly.
Let’s take a closer look at the “ribs bone up or down?” debate.
Ribs Bone Up or Down
It’s generally better to smoke ribs with the bone side facing down. The heat source is usually located below the cooking grate, and ribs fare better when they’re cooked over indirect heat. Cooking them with the meat side up also imparts a strong smoke flavor to the bones themselves.
Why It Matters
Pork ribs can be tough and fatty when they’re not cooked correctly. It’s important to use indirect heat in order to tenderize the meat. When you’re cooking over an open flame, this step becomes even more critical.
When the ribs are too close to the fire, they may be charred on the outside before they’ve had a chance to achieve the proper texture. Conversely, if they’re positioned too far away from the heat source, they’ll take even longer to cook. This could throw off the timing of your barbecue.
A Word About Rib Types
Before you begin, you should understand that not all pork ribs are the same. There are several different types, each with their own set of distinguishing characteristics.
Spare ribs are cut from the underside of the hog—the belly, in other words. If you’ve ever eaten pork belly, you’ll know that the meat in this portion of the animal is extremely rich and fatty. In fact, bacon is cut from the same section. That should give you some idea of how spare ribs might taste.
St. Louis Ribs
These are the same cut as spare ribs, but they’ve been trimmed to remove the excess cartilage and breastbone. This gives them a uniform rectangular shape, so they cook more evenly. They also brown up beautifully and look extra impressive when they’re kissed with grill marks.
Baby Back Ribs
As you might have guessed from the name, baby back ribs are smaller than spare ribs. They also have a curved profile that gives them immediate eye appeal. They’re cut from the loin area, around the spine, which makes the meat leaner than what you’d get from spare ribs.
Speaking of which, while the spare ribs are definitely larger and more robust, a rack of baby backs might actually yield more edible meat than a rack of St. Louis ribs. There are plenty of tasty morsels lodged between those diminutive bones, which is one of the reasons why baby back ribs are so popular in grilling circles.
Note that baby back ribs will cook more quickly than spare ribs. If you’re substituting one for the other in a rib recipe, make sure to take this difference into account. What’s more, baby backs usually come with a higher price tag.
Smoking Ribs Bone Side Up or Down
It’s natural to assume that ribs should be cooked with the meatier side facing the heat source. That’s the part of the rack that will benefit most from the heat, so you’ll want to give it all the help you can get, right?
In fact, the opposite is true. The tough, fatty nature of rib meat means that the rack should be positioned with the bone side facing down. That way, the ribs will cook over indirect heat, which tenderizes the meat without sacrificing moisture.
There’s another valid reason for smoking the ribs with the meaty side facing up: It allows the smoke to permeate the bone as well as the meat. That way, when you bite into the ribs, they’ll be temptingly smoky all the way through.
Finally, smoking the ribs bone side up will cause the juices to pool in the middle of the rack. This is especially true when it comes to baby backs, which have a distinctly concave appearance. While this may reduce the risk of flare-ups, the juices will prevent the smoke from fully permeating the meat—something you’ll definitely want to avoid.
If you’re hoping to get pronounced grill marks on the meat, you can always flip the rack over during the last 30 minutes or so. At this point, the ribs will probably be coated in the sauce of your choice, so it won’t matter if some of the juices collect in the center. Be careful, though—the sauce might burn if it’s exposed to the heat for too long.
Should You Smoke Ribs Bone Side Down When They’re Wrapped In Foil?
When you position the ribs bone side down, your goal is to achieve maximum smoke flavor. But what if you’ve wrapped the ribs in foil at some point during the cooking process? Should you keep them bone side down, or flip them over?
Experts are divided on this subject. Some prefer to keep the rack bone side down whether the meat is wrapped or unwrapped, claiming it doesn’t make a difference. Others prefer to have the meat side facing down when the rack is in the foil, because the ribs will retain more moisture that way.
In our opinion, it doesn’t matter much whether the ribs are bone side up or down when they’re wrapped in foil. The wrapper will hold in the juices either way. Just take care when removing the foil, and set aside any drippings that you’d like to save.
Also, be aware that wrapping the ribs will cause the meat to steam inside the foil. This can give them a mushy texture if they’re left in there too long. To avoid this, we would recommend using the 3-2-1 method. That way, the ribs will be infused with smoke flavor before you put them in the foil wrapper.
We should also point out that it’s not necessary to wrap the ribs at all. If you want to leave them naked for the entire smoke, go for it. Just be aware that they might take a bit longer to cook when you do it this way.
Tips On Smoking Perfect Ribs
- Prepare a seasoning rub or spice paste, and use this to generously coat the ribs for 2 to 12 hours before you’re ready to cook them.
- Cook the ribs over indirect heat, preferably at about 225 degrees Fahrenheit. If you want to speed up the cooking time, you can crank up the heat to 250 or 275, but try not to go too far above these temps or the ribs will cook too fast.
- If you’re using a gas grill to cook the ribs, light just one side, or the center section for larger units. This will give you a “cool zone” that you can use to hold the ribs if you find they’re cooking too quickly. For charcoal grills, use a rake to shift the coals to one side before adding the ribs.
- Don’t wait until the ribs are falling off the bone before taking them off the heat. When the ribs are allowed to cook for this long, the meat will be too dry when it’s time to serve it.
The Bottom Line
Should you smoke your ribs bone up or down? For most barbecue enthusiasts, the answer is clear: bone side down all the way. The meat will cook more evenly, and the smoky flavor will be more pronounced than if you’d set them with the meat side facing down.