Moist, tender, satisfying, and nearly impossible to mess up, baby back ribs can be the center of a delicious feast or an extremely hearty game day appetizer.
Baby back ribs are pork ribs from between the spine and loin sections of a pig. The loin contains the most tender pork, and baby back ribs include some of that meat. Baby back ribs are usually roasted or smoked.
Baby back ribs are a smaller length, have more tender meat, take less time to cook, and have more meat on the front of the rib compared to spare ribs.
Baby back ribs and spare ribs are different parts of the ribs of a pig. Baby back ribs are the section of the rib closest to the spine. Spare ribs contain the section of the rib closest to the belly. Because the loin section is a smaller section of the ribs than the belly section, baby back ribs are shorter in length than spare ribs.
Baby back rib meat is more tender than spare rib meat because baby backs are closer to the spine. The muscles close to the spine aren't used as much as other muscles when the pig moves. Loin meat, which is also close to the spine, is tender for the same reason.
Because baby back rib meat is more tender, and the ribs themselves are smaller, baby back ribs can be cooked faster than spare ribs. While spare ribs can dry out when cooked at higher temperatures, baby back ribs are more likely to stay tender.
At a typical oven temperature like 375 degrees Fahrenheit, baby back ribs can be cooked in one hour. Spare ribs typically need to cook at a lower temperature so they don't dry out, and can take two hours or more.
Of course, we recommend going low and slow — smoking your ribs to get that delicious wood-fired flavor.
Usually, baby back ribs are cut so that a small amount of tenderloin meat sits on the front of the rib. Spare ribs are cut away from the fat of pork belly. If any of the front was left uncut, it would just be fat. So while baby back ribs have a small (and very tasty) nugget of meat atop the ribs in addition to the meat between the ribs, the meat on spare ribs is nearly all between the ribs.
When you buy baby back ribs at the store, look for cuts that have more meat on the front of the ribs.
That meat is loin meat — it's very delicious and tender. For that reason, butchers sometimes choose to leave only a small portion of meat at the front of the rib, so that there is more meat on the loin. Get the meatiest cut you can.
Prepping baby back ribs couldn't be simpler. Let's go through the basic steps.
Ribs have a thin membrane on the back that's unpleasantly chewy if left on. Remove it by holding a paper towel in one hand, and the center of the ribs in the other. Pull the membrane with the hand holding the paper towel. Once it starts to pull away, let the ribs lay flat on the counter, and continue pulling off the membrane.
You should always apply rib rub before you cook. Sprinkle some sort of seasoning on both sides of the ribs. Your seasoning should cover the surface of the ribs but not be caked on. Approximately 2 tablespoons of seasoning per rack of ribs is a good amount.
It's perfectly fine to go simple with just salt and pepper, but most cooks like to add a little more excitement with a store-bought dry rub. Our Traeger Pork & Poultry Rub is an excellent choice.
Or you can make your own baby back rib rub from scratch. Ribs can take on a variety of flavors, so experiment with the flavors you like best.
A sprinkling of spice rub is the quick and easy way to season baby back ribs, but not the only way.
You can brine ribs ahead of time for extra flavor and tenderness, as in this recipe for Smoked Pomegranate Baby Back Ribs.
You can also spread a thin layer of paste on the ribs before adding the seasoning, to help the seasoning stick on as in this 3-2-1 BBQ Baby Back Ribs recipe.
Typically, an additional round of seasoning happens at the end of cooking — we'll get to that later.
Once you've seasoned the ribs to your liking, it's time to smoke them. To get the full smoke flavor without overcooking the ribs, smoke for between 3 and 6 hours.
We recommend two different smoking options.
The 3-2-1 method is for those of you who like ribs fall-off-the-bone tender. It's close to a full-day process, so make sure your beer fridge is fully stocked before you proceed.
Here's the basics of the method.
Smoke the ribs meat side up at 180 degrees Fahrenheit for 3 hours.
Wrap the ribs in aluminum foil and smoke meat side down at 225 degrees for 2 hours.
Remove the foil from the ribs and brush with barbecue sauce. Smoke meat side up at 225 degrees for 1 hour.
Here's a look at the full 3-2-1 Method.
Baby back ribs are tender enough to stay moist in high heat. This method takes advantage of that, cutting the cooking time in half. This may appeal to those of you who prefer ribs with a little more bite to them, rather than completely falling off the bone.
Here are the basics of the method.
Smoke the ribs meat side up at 300 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes.
Spray the ribs with apple juice (or water), then smoke at the same temperature for another 30 minutes.
Repeat until the ribs are cooked to the desired doneness at an internal temperature of 203 degrees Fahrenheit.
Baby back ribs are a very forgiving cut of meat — they're hard to overcook. The best way to avoid overcooking is to take your time. Keep the ribs at a low temperature.
There are differing opinions about how much to cook ribs. Some people prefer ribs that are fall-off-the-bone tender. Others prefer their ribs cooked slightly less, so the meat has a little bite as your teeth tug it away from the bone.
For fall-off-the-bone style ribs, cook until the ribs are easily separated by pulling them apart with a fork.
For ribs with more bite, cook until the rib meat is fork-tender — a fork will easily pierce the ribs without encountering resistance.
A thermometer isn't the best way to measure the doneness of ribs. Unlike a steak or pork chop, which are trimmed to have the same thickness at each point, ribs have different thicknesses at different points, and the meat can be different temperatures depending on whether it is close to the bone or further away.
If you do use a thermometer, a thermometer with a thin probe will work best.
Hickory is the best choice for smoking ribs, and is a common pairing for pork overall. It is a strong-flavored wood, but it won't overpower pork like mesquite might. If you are looking for a more subtle smoke flavor, consider a fruit wood like cherry or apple.
Here are some different ideas for seasoning and cooking baby back ribs.
Cook time: 6 hours
2-rack baby back pork ribs
1/3 cup yellow mustard
1/2 cup apple juice, divided
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
Traeger Pork & Poultry Rub
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1/3 cup honey, warmed
1 cup Traeger 'Que BBQ Sauce
Cook time: 3 hours
3-rack baby back ribs
Cracked black pepper
Cook time: 5 hours
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1/4 cup sea salt
1/4 cup pimenton (Spanish smoked paprika)
2 tablespoons black pepper
2 teaspoons granulated onion
2 teaspoons granulated garlic
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
4 -rack (8 to 10 pounds) baby back ribs
2 cups Traeger 'Que BBQ Sauce
Traeger 'Que BBQ Sauce
Cook time: 4 hours
1 head garlic, halved
2 bay leaves
2 tablespoons allspice berries
2 tablespoons black peppercorns
2 sticks cinnamon
1/2 cup salt
2 racks baby back ribs
1/3 cup pomegranate molasses
1 small onion
1/2 cup pomegranate juice
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
From BBQ basics to recipes every home chef should know, we have step-by-step breakdowns of our most fundamental wood-fired recipes featuring our top pros, including Matt Pittman, Amanda Haas, Chad Ward, and Dennis Prescott.