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Wrap Beef Ribs Or Not: The Pros and Cons of Wrapping

When they’re cooked correctly, beef ribs pack a wallop in the flavor department. The downside is that they take a long time to prepare. Can you speed things along by wrapping them in foil during the smoke? Or would that ruin the texture? Let’s find out.

Wrap Beef Ribs Or Not

When you wrap beef ribs, you’ll hasten the cooking process and allow the meat to retain its juicy texture. However, doing so may also soften the bark to the point of mushiness. If the beef is Prime grade, it’s better to leave the ribs unwrapped. Choice or Select cuts, meanwhile, might benefit from the extra moisture.

Pros and Cons of Wrapping Beef Ribs

Pros

You would wrap beef ribs for the same reasons you would wrap any large cut of meat: time and moisture.

Wrapping meat in foil speeds the cooking process along by trapping the heat and moisture inside the wrapper. The meat essentially steams within the foil, which causes the temperature to rise rapidly. It also tenderizes the meat—sometimes too much.

When you choose butcher paper instead of foil, some of the moisture is allowed to escape. The breathable layer also lets in a small amount of smoke, so your beef ribs will have a more intense flavor.

It can be useful to have some measure of control over the length of the cooking time. Unwrapped beef ribs might take 8 to 9 hours to cook, depending on the smoker temperature.

However, there are no guarantees in this regard, even when you opt to use the wrapping method. The meat is done when it reaches the correct temperature, and not before.

Cons

Since beef ribs have a relatively small surface area when compared to larger cuts like brisket, you want to get as much bark on the meat as possible. Wrapping the ribs will soften the bark, even if you unwrap them again for the last hour or so of the smoke.

The meat will also have a slightly drier texture when it’s left unwrapped. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. In fact, we prefer it when the beef has a bit of chew to it, as opposed to being so tender that it falls off the bone.

On some level, the decision of whether or not to wrap comes down to personal preference. If you want your meat to be super moist and tender, go ahead and wrap. Otherwise, be prepared to hunker down for a long wait.

Do You Smoke Beef Ribs Fat Side Up or Down?

We would recommend positioning the ribs so that the fat side faces the heat source. This gives the meat a layer of protection from the direct heat and allows the fat to crisp up.

Try to choose beef ribs that have only a small amount of external fat. There should be plenty of intramuscular fat throughout the ribs, which will render out slowly as the meat cooks.

If there’s still a lot of fat on the meat when you bring it home, trim most of it away. You can save the trimmings to make tallow, which can contribute a great deal of flavor and moisture to other recipes.

Does It Matter What Type of Ribs You’re Smoking?

When you’re deciding whether or not to wrap beef ribs, the type of rib doesn’t matter as much as the grade of beef. Before we get into the details, let’s discuss the various rib types, just to avoid any confusion.

Beef ribs can be divided into two main categories: back ribs and short ribs. The latter, which are more popular, can be further divided into a couple of subcategories, which we’ll get into later.

Back Ribs

Cut from the top portion of the animal, behind the shoulder, back ribs are the leaner option of the two.

Since these are the ribs left behind after the butcher removes the prime rib from this section, there often isn’t much meat left on top. Most of the meat will be between the bones, which measure between 6 to 8 inches long.

You can often tell beef ribs from short ribs just by looking at the shape. While short ribs are fairly flat and narrow, back ribs are thick, with a slight curve to them.

Short Ribs

When you look at a rack of short ribs, you might not even notice the bones at first. They usually resemble a broad, flat cut of beef, with the row of bones hidden under an impressive layer of meat.

These are cut from the lower section of the rib cage, toward the front of the steer. Depending on which type you choose, they may measure up to a foot long.

There are two different types of beef short ribs, as they can be cut from either the plate or the chuck section. We’ve broken down their differences below.

Plate Ribs vs. Chuck Ribs

The plate short rib section is cut from the section between the flank and the brisket. In fact, they so resemble brisket in texture that some pitmasters will refer to them as “brisket on a stick.”

These are the longer type of short rib, measuring up to 12 inches from end to end. Be forewarned that they might be difficult to find at the supermarket—you’ll probably have to ask your local butcher to make a special order.

By contrast, chuck short ribs are cut from the section beneath the chuck roast. Although they have a significant layer of meat on top of the bones, the ribs themselves only measure 3 to 6 inches long.

Prime vs. Choice vs. Select

You may already know that the USDA grades beef based on the amount of marbling that’s in the meat. Marbling is intramuscular fat that renders as the beef cooks, imbuing the meat with flavor and richness.

Prime is the highest grade of beef available. If you wind up with a rack of Prime beef ribs, we would recommend leaving the meat unwrapped for the duration of the cooking time. The marbling will give the meat plenty of moisture, so there’s no need for the shortcut.

On the other hand, if you purchase Choice or Select ribs, the meat won’t have as much fat running through it. In these cases, wrapping the ribs will prevent them from becoming too dry.

How To Tell When Beef Ribs Are Done

We like to remove beef ribs from the smoker when the internal temperature hits 200 to 205 degrees Fahrenheit. As they rest, they should climb to around 210 degrees, which should give them the ideal texture.

When the ribs are done, they should have a jiggly texture, quivering slightly when you touch them. Additionally, the temperature probe should slide in and out as easily as if you’d inserted it into a vat of butter.

When Should You Wrap Beef Ribs?

While it’s not always necessary to wrap beef ribs, the best time to do it is when the internal temperature of the meat reaches 160 to 170 degrees Fahrenheit. At this point, the meat should be a rich dark brown color, with a decent bark on the outside.

Every cut of meat is different, so there’s no telling exactly how long this will take. We would suggest checking the ribs after about 3 hours to see if it’s time to add the wrapper, but it could take twice as long.

Smoked Beef Short Ribs

In this recipe, we wrap the short ribs in butcher paper at the 160-170 degree mark. Note that it calls for short ribs, not back ribs. Also, make sure not to buy ribs labeled as flanken cut, Korean-style, or crosscut, as these would throw off the cooking time.

Ingredients

  • 1 section of beef short plate ribs (should have 3 to 4 bones)

For The Seasoning Rub:

  • 1/2 cup kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons smoked paprika
  • 2 tablespoons sweet paprika
  • 2 tablespoons garlic powder
  • 2 teaspoons onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste

Directions

1. Remove the membrane from the beef ribs, if desired, and trim away any excess fat. Pat the meat dry with paper towels.

2. In a small bowl, mix together the ingredients for the seasoning rub.

3. Apply the rub to the beef ribs, making sure to coat the entire surface of the meat.

4. Set the prepared ribs in the refrigerator while you wait for the smoker to heat up. You can take this step up to 12 hours in advance if you prefer.

5. Set the smoker to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. If your smoker tends to run cool, adjust the temperature to 275 degrees.

6. When the smoker is hot enough, set the beef ribs on the cooking grate with the fat side facing the heat source. Close the lid and let the meat cook for about 3 hours, or until it hits at least 160 degrees.

7. Take the ribs off the smoker and wrap them in a double layer of butcher paper.

8. Return the meat to the smoker and cook until the internal temperature reaches 200 to 205 degrees. This should take another 2 to 3 hours.

9. When the meat is done, remove it from the heat and set aside. Take off the wrapper and let the ribs rest for 30 minutes.

10. Slice between each bone to separate the ribs. Serve as desired.

The Bottom Line

Whether you wrap beef ribs or not depends on the grade of the beef, how much time you have to prepare them, and the texture you prefer.

If you plan to smoke beef ribs on a regular basis, go ahead and try both methods. That way, you’ll have a better idea of which way you want to go in the future.

Best of luck, and happy grilling!