Beef ribs are often overlooked for smoking and grilling. It is more common to see these cuts braised low and slow in an oven or cooked in a pressure cooker. The results are fall-off-the-bone, moist meat. But, you shouldn’t dismiss the amazing flavor and texture that smoking or grilling beef ribs can achieve.
Before venturing into the world of backyard barbecued beef ribs, it is a good idea to become familiar with the different types of ribs available. To be sure, beef ribs are not inexpensive cuts of meat. So, know what you are looking for when you enter the butcher shop or hit the meat counter at your supermarket.
Pro tip: It is best to buy beef ribs that are either on display or cut to order. Pre-packaged ribs don’t show you both sides of the slab and can be deceiving as to how much meat to fat ratio there is.
While there is only one rib cage on either side of the steer with 13 ribs each, there are three main types of beef ribs cut from the side of the steer. Those are the Chuck Short Ribs, the Back Ribs, and the Plate Short Ribs. Let’s explore each cut a little more closely.
Chuck Short Ribs are cut from the chuck steak area closer to the shoulder and include the first through the fourth or fifth rib bones. You may see them labeled as Flanken Ribs, though they are not cut from the flank steak area. These are often the most commonly available beef ribs in the market. The bones are small with a good amount of meat on them. Yet, the can have some solid fat that needs to be broken down during a slow cooking process. These are the ribs that are often marinated and then braised. You can also smoke them.
Back Ribs are exactly as the name implies. They are cut from near the backbone of the animal just behind the chuck portion. Because the prime rib roast is cut from these ribs, they sometimes don’t have a ton of meat left on the bone. This is a pricy and tasty area of the bull. Even with less meat the back ribs still take awhile to cook. The quality of the beef is excellent and tender. Some pit masters do use a wet marinade on the back ribs before cooking, but I think a dry rub marinade works fine. The marrow in the bones helps to impart moisture while smoking.
Plate Short Ribs are most often cut into a set of three ribs. These are the sixth, seventh, and eighth ribs that are more toward the belly of the steer just beneath the back ribs. Many butchers will sell these as individual ribs. You can ask for them not cut into individual portions for smoking. Smoking a slab will keep the ribs more moist. These are pretty large with a good amount of fatty meat on the bone. I recommend cooking plate short ribs low and slow to encourage the fat to melt into the flesh and keep it moist. A simple dry rub is all you will need as these are already rich in beefy flavor.
Pro tip: Plate short ribs are not always available to the general public. If you really want these tasty ribs, call your butcher ahead and order them. They can be pricy, but they are worth it.
Brine, Marinade, or Dry Rub?
So now that you know what types of ribs are available, let’s look into the different methods of preparing your ribs for the smoker.
I’ll say right off the bat that I am not a fan of brining most cuts of beef, with the exception of the brisket. Beef ribs especially don’t need to be brined in a saltwater bath. The fat and bones are what will keep the ribs juicy and tender while cooking.
Marinating ribs is one method of preparing them for the smoker. I mentioned before that chuck short ribs are often marinated. For bbq beef short ribs I think a wet marinade is fine, as these can be tough. A wet marinade would be made up of ingredients that are fatty, salty, sweet, acidic, and semi-spicy. These might include extra virgin olive oil, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, tomato ketchup, molasses, red wine, sugar, salt, pepper, and dry or fresh herbs and spices. You can marinate for anywhere from 2 to 12 hours.
For smoked beef back ribs and plate short ribs a dry beef rib rub is all that you will need. This is made up of a combination of salt, sugar, and ground dried herbs and spices. I like to trim or peel the tough membrane off the bone side of the ribs and then trim all but a 1/4 inch of the fat cap, if not already done by the butcher. I then, generously coat the ribs with the rub and allow the mixture to work its magic into the meat for approximately one hour while the meat comes to room temperature. You can apply the rub the night before, cover the ribs, and refrigerate them. This is sometimes referred to as a dry marinade. You can also brush olive oil on the meat before applying the rub to help it stick.
Let’s get to making the best dry rub for ribs. The ingredients will compliment the smoky flavor but not overpower the meat. After the ribs have rested with the rub coating you just need to smoke the ribs at about 230˚F for 3 to 5 hours until the meat is pulling away from the bone and is tender. You can wrap the ribs in foil for the last hour or so of smoking to keep them moist.
Pro tip: You can add some wet or fatty ingredients before wrapping the ribs in foil to impart even more moisture. Try some fresh garlic in melted butter with a few dashes of Worcestershire sauce or a mild soy glaze.
Best Dry Rub for Smoked Beef Ribs: A Step-by-Step Guide
- Medium mixing bowl
- Measuring cups and spoons
- Wire whisk
- Glass jar with a lid
- 1/3 cup packed brown sugar or raw turbinado sugar
- 1/3 cup sweet paprika*
- 3 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
- 3 tablespoons chili powder**
- 2 tablespoons coarse sea salt
- 1-1/2 tablespoons onion powder
- 1-1/2 tablespoons garlic powder
- 2 teaspoons dried oregano
* For a more intense smoky flavor, use 1/2 sweet paprika and 1/2 smoked paprika.
** If you want a bit of a spicy kick, add 1 teaspoon of cayenne pepper along with the chili powder.
Step 1: Place all of the ingredients in the bowl and whisk together to thoroughly combine.
Step 2: Apply approximately 2 tablespoons of the rub to both sides of the ribs, enough to coat well, and smoke the ribs.
Step 3: Store the rest of the dry rub in a sealed glass jar and place in a cool dry place for 4 to 6 months.
Note: This rub can be used as the seasoning component of a beef rib wet marinade. Just mix 1/4 cup of the rub with 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, 1/4 cup dry red wine, and 2 tablespoons mustard. Pour over ribs, cover with plastic wrap, and marinate in the refrigerator for 4 to 12 hours before smoking.
You now have the information and tools to start smoking dry rubbed beef ribs. Beef ribs are simply fall-off-the-bone delicious when cooked in a slow method with a nicely seasoned beef dry rub. Following this guide you will have some extra dry rub so that you can try different styles of beef ribs. They each have slightly different textures, fat content, and beefy flavor.
You can also use this rub on other proteins. A few that come to mind are pork ribs, turkey legs, lamb shoulder chops, bacon, and tofu. Make a big batch to always have on hand. Feel free to experiment with different dried herbs and spices and to tweak the levels of sweetness, smokiness, and heat of the rub mixture.