Wrapping Ribs: What Temp, How Long, and Other Queries

You’ve probably noticed that some pitmasters wrap their ribs in foil or butcher paper at some point during the smoke. Perhaps you’ve even tried it yourself. Whether you’re a newbie or a seasoned pro, it’s important to understand the science behind the technique. In this ultimate guide, we’ll take an in-depth look at the rib wrapping method.

Wrapping Ribs

When you wrap ribs in foil or butcher paper partway through the cooking process, they’ll reach the optimum temperature more quickly. It’s not a necessary step, but it shouldn’t do any harm as long as you remove the wrapper after 2 hours.

How Wrapping Ribs Works

Wrapping ribs in foil helps them cook faster by trapping heat and moisture inside the wrapper. Because it saves time and helps to tenderize the meat (see Does Wrapping Ribs in Foil Make Them Tender?, below), this technique is known as the “Texas crutch.”

It’s best to smoke the ribs unwrapped for the first few hours. This allows the smoke flavor to permeate the meat. Some chefs will smoke the ribs for 3 hours, wrap them in foil and allow them to cook for another 2, then remove the wrapper for the last hour. This is called the “3-2-1” method, and it’s especially popular with beginners.

Should You Wrap Ribs?

Time is the main factor when you’re deciding whether to wrap ribs or not. The method speeds the cooking process along, but it also causes the ribs to “steam” inside the foil, which can lead to a mushy texture. You can offset this effect by removing the foil during the last hour or so, but some experts still frown upon the wrap method.

If you have plenty of time, we would recommend leaving the ribs unwrapped for the duration of the cook. In addition to being intensely flavorful, they’ll have a more appealing texture.

That said, it’s fine to wrap the ribs when you only have 5 or 6 hours to prepare them. The 3-2-1 and 2-2-1 methods both yield excellent results when they’re followed correctly.

Should You Wrap Ribs in Foil When Grilling?

As we pointed out earlier, it’s better to leave the ribs unwrapped at first. If you wrap the ribs when they’re still raw, the meat won’t benefit from the smoky flavor of the grill, which is the best reason to use this cooking method in the first place.

If you want to use the Texas Crutch method, remove the ribs from the grill after about 3 hours. Wrap them in foil or butcher paper, adding your chosen ingredients (see What Liquid To Wrap Ribs With, below), and return them to the heat until they’re nearly finished cooking. At this point, you can remove the foil and add sauce, if desired.

You can also go by temperature and pull the ribs when the internal temperature reaches 150-160 degrees Fahrenheit. At this point, the meat enters “the stall,” a period during which the temperature halts in its tracks. The wrapper will help you power through this inevitable stage, getting dinner on the table that much faster.

Should You Wrap Ribs in Foil in Oven?

If you’re using the oven to prepare the ribs, the principle behind the wrapping method remains the same. The only difference is that you don’t have to worry about missing out on the smoke flavor, since they won’t be getting any of that to begin with.

Set the oven to 250 or 275 degrees, depending on the size of the racks and how much time you have. A 3-pound rack of baby back ribs should take about 5 hours to cook at 250, and 3 to 4 hours at 275. A 3-4 pound rack of spare ribs should be done in 6 to 8 hours at 250 and 5 hours at 275.

About halfway through the projected cooking time, take the ribs out of the oven and wrap them in foil or butcher paper. Once they’re back in the oven, let them cook until they’ve reached 180-190 degrees. Remove the foil and add a sauce or glaze, if desired, then return to the oven until the meat is cooked to 198 degrees.

At What Temperature Should You Smoke Wrapped Ribs?

Any temperature from 225 to 275 degrees is acceptable. Since ribs need to cook slowly in order to achieve the right texture, we would recommend setting the grill or smoker to 225. If the unit tends to run on the cooler side, or if it’s a chilly or windy day outside, consider ramping the temp up to 250 to account for the difference.

When To Wrap Ribs

Before you begin the smoke, you should have a ballpark estimate about what temp to wrap ribs at. The best time to do it is at 150-160 degrees, just as the meat hits the stall. Here’s why.

As the ribs cook, they’re losing a great deal of moisture. This is why cooked meat weighs so much less than it did when it was raw. The fluid inside the meat’s tissues is making its way to the surface and evaporating in the heat from the grill–similar to the way our own bodies sweat.

When the moisture evaporates, it lowers the surface temperature of the meat. At a certain point, this cooling effect will hold its own against the heat of the grill, and the temperature will remain steady for a while. It will rise again when all of the excess moisture on the surface has finally disappeared.

The wrapper acts as a sort of oven-within-an-oven, trapping the moisture inside as it’s trying to escape. This prevents the evaporative cooling effect and allows the temperature to rise more quickly.

While the stall is more common with large cuts of meat like pork butt and beef brisket, it can occur with ribs as well. Wrapping ribs is one way to ensure that the meat will be done in a timely fashion.

How Long Should You Wrap Ribs?

While the answer depends in part on what type of ribs you’re making, 2 hours is the standard response. The total cooking time will depend on the weight of the rib rack, but in general, leaving the meat wrapped for 2 hours should give you the effect you want.

No matter how long the ribs stay in the wrapper, remember to remove the foil for the last portion of the smoke. This will improve their texture and give them one final dose of smoke flavor.

Does Wrapping Ribs in Foil Make Them Tender?

Ribs require a long, slow cooking process in order to tenderize the meat. This is true whether the rack is wrapped in foil or not.

However, as we’ve learned, the wrapper helps the ribs reach the desired temperature in a shorter amount of time. When the meat reaches 195-200 degrees Fahrenheit, it should be tender enough to slide off the bone easily. Since the foil makes this happen more quickly, you can argue that wrapping ribs in foil does make them tender.

Again, it is possible to achieve the same effect without wrapping the ribs at all. It’s the cooking process that makes the meat tender, not the foil itself.

How To Wrap Ribs in Butcher Paper

If you’d like to try the Texas crutch but are apprehensive about steaming the meat in its own evaporated fluids, butcher paper is an excellent alternative. The paper is more breathable than foil, so it doesn’t prevent the smoke from reaching the meat. It will also absorb some of the evaporated liquid so the ribs aren’t bathing in it.

Wrapping ribs in butcher paper isn’t all that different from wrapping them in foil. Use a length of paper that’s about twice the size of the rib rack. When you’re ready to wrap the ribs, place them in the center of the paper, bone side up. Fold one of the long ends over the ribs, then repeat with the other end so that they’re overlapping.

Tuck the top portion of the paper around the bottom of the rack, then bring up the bottom edge, tucking in the corners so the ribs are fully encased in the wrapper. Make sure the paper conforms to the shape of the rack as closely as possible. Continue cooking the ribs according to your chosen recipe.

Wrapping Ribs in Foil With Brown Sugar

Adding brown sugar to the rib wrapper can boost the flavor and give the meat a nicely caramelized exterior. You can sprinkle a little of the sugar on the foil before wrapping the ribs, or put in on top of the rib rack once you’ve positioned it inside the foil. Placing the ribs bone side up will create a “boat” that will hold in the sugar as it melts.

What Liquid To Wrap Ribs With

In addition to brown sugar, you can experiment with different liquids to achieve the flavor profile you want. Apple juice, cider vinegar, beer, and chicken stock are all popular examples. If you’re using a basting mop, feel free to add a bit of that instead.

Is It Better To Wrap Ribs in Foil or Butcher Paper?

If you’re going to use the Texas crutch, butcher paper is preferable to foil for several reasons.

First of all, butcher paper is more permeable than foil, as we mentioned earlier. More steam will escape, and more smoke flavor will get in. As you may have guessed, the process may take longer than it would if you’d used foil, but the results will be superior.

If you crave a nice crispy bark on your ribs, butcher paper is the way to go. Because the paper allows more moisture to pass through, the bark won’t soften as much as it will inside a foil wrapper.

Remember to only use food-grade butcher paper, otherwise known as “pink paper,” to wrap the ribs. Don’t make the mistake of buying wax paper instead–the wax will melt under the heat of the smoker, rendering your meat inedible.

How Long To Wrap Ribs After Smoking

Whether you enlist the Texas crutch or not, you can wrap the ribs in foil when they’re finished cooking. This will help to ensure that the meat rises to the ideal serving temperature during the resting period.

As a general rule, allow the ribs to rest for at least 15 minutes before serving. It’s fine to rest them a bit longer, but try not to let them sit for longer than an hour, or they’ll start to cool off. We’ll talk more about this in our Rib Wrap Recipe, below.

Can You Smoke Ribs Without Wrapping Them?

Yes. In fact, we prefer to smoke ribs without resorting to the Texas crutch. If you have plenty of time to devote to the cooking process, leaving ribs unwrapped is the way to go.

“Naked” ribs have a more intense flavor than ribs that have been wrapped in foil. The texture is superior, and there’s no risk of ruining the bark that you’ve worked so hard to achieve. Best of all, the sense of satisfaction that you’ll get is well worth the loss of any time you might have saved by taking the shortcut.

Rib Wrap Recipe

If you do decide to use the Texas crutch technique to smoke your ribs, here’s the best way to go about it. This recipe enlists the popular 3-2-1 method using St. Louis-style spare ribs. Should you decide to use baby back ribs instead, decrease the cooking time to 5 hours, wrapping the ribs after the first 2.

Ingredients

  • 2 racks St. Louis-style spare ribs
  • About 1/2 cup prepared yellow mustard

Seasoning Rub

  • 3 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons light brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
  • 2 teaspoons freshly cracked black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder

Directions

1. Preheat the grill or smoker to 225 degrees.

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

3. Remove the membranes from the rib racks and pat the ribs dry with paper towels.

4. Slather the ribs all over with mustard, then coat with the seasoning rub mixture. The layer of mustard will help the spices cling to the meat.

5. Put the ribs on the grill with the bone side facing down. Close the lid and allow the meat to cook for 3 hours.

6. Take the ribs off the heat and set them aside. If using foil, set out two double layers, making sure each sheet is about twice as large as the rib racks. For butcher paper, use a single layer for each rib rack.

7. If desired, add a smear of honey or a drizzling of your chosen liquid to the foil or butcher paper before adding the ribs. Set the racks on the wrapper with the bone side facing up. You can add more liquid, melted butter, or brown sugar to the rib racks if you’d like.

8. Wrap the ribs in the foil or paper, taking care to create a tight seal so the liquid won’t leak out. Return the meat to the grill, close the lid, and let it cook for 2 hours longer.

9. Take the ribs off the heat and remove the wrapper. Set them back on the grill and let them cook for another hour, or until they’ve reached the desired temperature of 195 degrees. If you’re using barbecue sauce, brush the racks on both sides during the last 20-30 minutes of cooking.

10. Remove the ribs from the heat and let them rest for at least 15 minutes before serving.

In Conclusion

While we don’t think you need to wrap ribs in order to have a successful barbecue, it does provide a handy shortcut. If you decide to try it, try not to leave the meat in the wrapper for more than 2 hours. Any longer, and you’ll run the risk of the meat turning to mush.

Best of luck, and happy grilling!

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