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Smoking Ribs Without Foil: How To Eliminate The Crutch

Amateur pitmasters will often wrap their ribs in foil at some point during the cook. Even some professionals still resort to this technique. Although the practice is acceptable, it’s not necessary if you know what you’re doing. In this guide, we’ll walk you through the process of smoking ribs without foil.

Smoking Ribs Without Foil

If you choose to smoke ribs without wrapping them in foil, they’ll take a bit longer to cook. Plan on smoking them for at least an hour longer than you would if you’d wrapped them. The total cooking time may vary based on the weight of the racks. As a reward for your patience, the ribs will absorb more smoke flavor.

Why Wrap Ribs In Foil?

The method is known in grilling circles as “the Texas crutch” for a reason. Wrapping meat in foil allows it to cook more quickly, giving you more control over the timing. That’s because the foil acts as a miniature oven-within-an-oven, trapping the heat inside.

As you may have guessed, this causes the meat to steam inside the foil (see Can You Get “Fall Off The Bone” Ribs Without Foil, below. That means there’s a chance that the ribs could turn out soft and mushy if you’re not careful.

If you’re going to wrap the ribs, do it after they’ve already been on the grill for several hours. That way, they’ll get all the benefit of the smoke before you encase them in their wrapper. Additionally, you should remove the foil during the last 30-60 minutes of cooking to give the bark a chance to crisp up again.

Butcher paper provides a nice halfway point between the foil wrapper and leaving the ribs naked. It’s more porous than foil, so some of the steam has a chance to escape. Any lost moisture will be absorbed by the paper instead of collecting and pooling on the foil. Ribs wrapped in butcher paper also have more flavor than foil-wrapped ribs.

Of course, you don’t have to use either of these methods. That’s what we’re here to discuss. As long as you plan ahead, you don’t have to wrap the ribs in foil until you set them aside to rest.

Can You Get “Fall Off The Bone” Ribs Without Foil?

First, we should address the important part of the question. It’s absolutely possible to achieve the right texture without resorting to a foil wrapper. That said, you shouldn’t go for a “fall off the bone” texture when smoking ribs. Here’s why.

If you cook ribs until the meat comes off the bone when you touch them, they’re overcooked. The meat will only do that when it’s either too dry or unpleasantly mushy. Dry ribs are usually the result of overcooking, but when they’re mushy, it usually means that the meat was steamed rather than smoked. You want to avoid both.

Instead of striving for a “fall off the bone” texture, aim for an internal temperature of 195 degrees. By the time the meat is finished resting, it should come off the bone nicely when you tug or bite on it, but it won’t be falling off.

How To Tell When Ribs Are Done

When it comes to testing temperature, there’s no substitute for a quality instant-read thermometer. This is the only way to make sure that the meat has cooked to your desired temperature.

When smoking ribs, there are a few tests you can enlist to help you estimate whether you’re getting close to the finish line. The easiest way is to take a look at the bones themselves. When about 1/4 inch of bone is visible at the end of each rib, they’re probably ready.

Alternatively, you can use tongs to lift one end of the rib rack, then bounce it up and down a couple of times. When the ribs are done, they should crack down the middle, indicating that they’ll come apart easily.

Another good way to test the ribs is to insert a toothpick into one of the meatier portions of the rack. The meat should yield easily under the pressure. If it offers too much resistance, the ribs need to cook longer.

Tips On Smoking Ribs Without Foil

If you want to leave the ribs “naked,” the best thing you can do is allow plenty of time for your barbecue. That’s the big secret behind smoking unwrapped ribs.

We would also suggest ramping up the temperature of the smoker to 275. This is still low enough to yield great results, but it will speed things up a bit.

Pay close attention to the internal temperature of the ribs as well. Obviously, it’s important to do this in order to avoid overcooking. But if you’re using a strong-flavored wood, there’s another reason behind it: You don’t want to overdo it on the smoky taste.

Real smoke flavor is a hallmark of authentic barbecue, but it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. Strong woods like hickory and mesquite can give the meat a bitter flavor if you aren’t careful.

Our advice would be to stop adding wood chips to charcoal or gas fires when the ribs hit the 145-degree mark. If you’re using a pellet grill, you’ll still need to burn wood, but you can avoid problems by swapping in mild-flavored woods like apple or maple.

Leaving the ribs unwrapped can also cause them to dry out, since the foil collects moisture. To combat this issue, you can leave more fat on the ribs instead of trimming them. Marinating, spritzing, and basting might also come in handy.

Above all, make sure to take the meat off the grill before it climbs too high past the 195-degree mark. It will continue to cook as it rests, so a final temperature of 200-105 is your target.

Smoking Baby Back Ribs Without Foil

To make smoked baby back ribs without the Texas crutch, set the smoker to 275 degrees.

While you’re waiting for the smoker to heat up, inspect the ribs to see if the butcher has already removed the membrane. If not, slide a knife beneath it, just over the bone. Loosen and lift until the membrane separates from the bone, then discard it. Note that the membrane might come off in several smaller pieces, and not all at once.

Season the ribs as desired. We like to make our own spice rub using a blend of brown sugar, chili powder, cumin, smoked paprika, cayenne pepper, kosher salt, and black pepper. If you slather the ribs in prepared mustard before adding the rub, the spices will have something to cling to.

Add the ribs to the smoker and allow them to cook until the internal temperature reaches 195 degrees. For a 3-pound rack of baby back ribs, this could take 4-5 hours. Check the temperature frequently after the first 2 hours to ensure that the meat isn’t cooking too fast. This is a particular concern with baby backs, as they’re leaner than spare ribs.

If you’d like, add a sauce to the ribs when they hit the 185-degree mark. The sauce should caramelize nicely throughout the last 15 to 30 minutes on the smoker, without getting hot enough to burn.

When the ribs are done, take them off the heat and set them aside to rest. At this point, it’s permissible to add a foil wrapper to help keep them warm during the resting period. It will also prevent any foreign objects from landing on the meat.

Serve the ribs with additional sauce on the side, if desired.

Smoking Spare Ribs Without Foil

Sometimes, we prefer to smoke spare ribs at 275 degrees simply because the racks are larger than racks of baby back ribs (around 3 to 4 pounds on average). This is true even if we decide to wrap them in foil. If you forgo the wrapper, however, the cook will take longer. Expect to smoke the ribs for at least 6 hours.

After setting the smoker to 275, place the rib rack on a work station with the bone side facing up. Inspect to see if the silverskin is intact. If it is, remove it using a sharp knife as outlined in Smoking Baby Back Ribs Without Foil, above.

At this point, you can also trim away any excess fat. As we mentioned, a little extra fat could actually help to moisturize the ribs, so don’t go overboard. Pat the meat dry with paper towels.

Coat the rack with a thin layer of prepared mustard and season with spice rub. Press the spice mixture gently into the meat to make sure it adheres.

When the smoker is hot enough, add the spare ribs. Smoke until the internal temperature registers 195 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Again, watch the temperature carefully once you’ve reached your estimated midway point.

Add sauce, if desired, and let the ribs cook for another 15-30 minutes. When you’ve removed the rack from the heat, set it aside and cover it with a layer of foil. Rest the ribs for at least 10 minutes before serving with additional sauce on the side.

The Bottom Line

The main reason to wrap ribs in foil is to speed up the cooking process. If you plan ahead, there’s no reason why you can’t skip this step. As a bonus, skipping the foil will make the smoking process even more hands-off than it already is.

Best of luck, and happy grilling!