If you’re in Texas and you mention “ribs”, you may be surprised to find that it’s not the sweet pork ribs you’re thinking of, but bold, hearty beef ribs. Beef is the most popular barbecue fare in Texas, and beef ribs are a delicacy all their own. With a similar bold, smoky flavor & tender goodness of brisket, beef ribs are amazing on the plate, both to the eyes and the palate.
However, they can often be overlooked by the average backyard cook simply because ‘BBQ beef’ often means a brisket and ‘ribs’ often mean pork ribs. Also, beef ribs probably aren’t as widely available in as many supermarkets, or you haven’t ever looked for them, which may be why they just aren’t as popular in many areas.
We at urge you to venture out- try beef ribs! Follow our suggestions with your kettle grill and Slow ‘N Sear, and treat your friends & family to a delicacy they’ll crave regularly.
Selecting Beef Ribs:
Beef ribs typically come in two cuts- short ribs, and back ribs.
“Short ribs” aren’t called short ribs because they’re short pieces, rather they come from the “short plate.” This is the area of the rib cage toward the belly of the steer, furthest (“distal”) from the backbone. Short ribs have lots of meat on them and are often the most popular cut of beef ribs to pitmasters. They are also very thick and because of this they are often cut into shorter sections and cooked as single ribs. There is so much meat on a short rib that the meat can actually be sliced after it’s cooked, try that with pork ribs!
“Back ribs” are aptly named, since they come from the section of the steer’s rib cage closest to the spine, on the animal’s ‘back’. Beef back ribs are less thick than the beef short ribs, the bones are flatter and thinner and so is the meat. Even though beef back ribs more closely resemble the general shape and form of a rack of pork ribs we’re familiar with, they still have just as much flavor as short ribs!
Prepping Beef Ribs:
Begin by removing as much excess fat cap as needed. With short ribs most of the meat is on top of the bone so we really only need to worry about the meaty side. We want as much meat exposed as possible since the meat will give us our bark, the fat won’t. Don’t worry though there’s enough fat inside to keep all that flavor. Beef back ribs often come in small slabs or racks, remove as much fat cap as needed to get a good exposure of meat. The membrane on the reverse (bone) side may be removed as you would pork ribs.
Dry brine: Salt the meat! We like to dry brine our beef ribs. Just as we would with any BBQ meat, dry brine beef ribs a few hours before cooking, preferably overnight or even longer. We use the standard amount of ½ teaspoon coarse Kosher salt per pound of meat or half that when using table salt (1/4 tsp per pound of meat). Remember unlike wet brining, dry brining adds all the salt at once, so it doesn’t matter how long the meat sits in the fridge after dry brining. With more time the salt simply migrates deeper into the meat, it will not get ‘saltier’ as with a wet brine. We don’t recommend wet brining beef, instead suggest sticking with a simple dry brine & dry seasoning until you’re familiar with the process. In most cases, marinades are simply not needed and may mask the beefy smoky flavor of genuine beef barbecue.
Pre-heat: As with most barbecue efforts we are going to use the ‘low & slow’ method. Please utilize our “Low & slow 225” lighting instructions to set your Slow ‘N Sear up for a long smoke. We’ll fill the water reservoir for this cook too, as we do with all low & slow smokes. We won’t need to smoke beef ribs nearly as long as a brisket, and probably not even as long as pork ribs, but we’ll set up our fuel for a long cook to make sure we get a good trouble-free cook until their finished. Beef ribs typically will take 3-5 hours of smoking, with variances possible as always. Then, unlike pork ribs, it’s a great idea to give beef ribs another 2 hours in a faux Cambro, wrapped tightly in foil, to further soften. We want them tender enough to eat without needing a knife! Pork ribs will naturally get there through the smoking/cooking process, but beef ribs need a little extra help, just like a brisket would.
Seasoning: While your kettle grill is heating up to the goal of 225°F, it’s time to season the meat. We recommend steering clear of sweet rubs like you’d typically use on pork. Any herbal and/or peppery rub should work fine. We like Meathead’s Big Bad Beef Rub on beef ribs. Add a generous dusting to the meaty sides. No need to add oil or mustard as a binder, but can if you want to.
Cooking Beef Ribs:
The cooking styles are very similar, only slightly different with regards to timing. Short ribs being thicker will require a bit more time to reach that special tenderness we crave. Beef back ribs being thinner will often cook a little quicker. If you’ve ever cooked a brisket or a chuck roast for pulled beef, you know these tough cuts of meat need to be given some TLC in the form of “low & slow” smoking to slowly break down the tough fats & collagens and melt them into a delicious delicacy. If you were to cook beef ribs, whether “backs” or “shorties”, hot and fast like a steak you’d have some miserably tough meat in your hands.
When the Slow ‘N Sear gets your kettle up to 225°F at the grate level (as measured by a good quality digital thermometer probe, not your grill’s lid thermometer) it’s time to place the ribs on the grate! Just make sure to leave about 3” of space all around the thermometer probe. Unlike with pork ribs, with beef ribs you have enough meat thickness to place a probe into the center of the meat if you wish. If so, make sure you are as far away from bone as possible, in the center-most spot of the meat. If not, simply use a good quality instant-read.
We’ll try to maintain 225°F throughout our cook, however any variance up or down slightly doesn’t really matter. Try not to let the maximum temperature exceed 250°F.
Begin checking the meat temp at or around the 3 hour mark. We’ll ultimately be heading for our typical range of 200°-205°F. Fatty beef, such as ribs, chuck roast or brisket point (not brisket flat) can handle an even higher internal temp too. In fact, we’ll often recommend you take your smoked beef up to 205-208°F for an hour before considering the cooking phase complete. When your probe enters and leaves the meat easily with no tug you know it’s done.
Wood? We usually will tell you that the choice of wood matters very little. This isn’t because we think they all taste the same (we don’t, each wood smoke has its own inherent qualities and flavors) but because there are so many types of great smoking wood available to most pitmasters, and usually everyone has their favorites. Many folks will often swear by one or two types of wood for beef, and scoff at others. Whatever your favorite is, use it!
If you have no idea what to use and are open to suggestions, then we can help. For beef we like: oak, pecan, cherry, hickory. Or any combination of these. The wood type is really the least important factor here. As long as you’re using acceptable smoking woods (never pine, cedar, or lumber scraps), and follow the salting, seasoning, and cooking steps adequately, it will turn out fine.
Faux Cambro or “power-Cambro”? When the ribs reach this target level, described above, we can do one of two things: wrap them tightly in a double layer of foil, and transfer them to the faux Cambro for a couple hours, or we can wrap them in a double layer of foil and keep them on your kettle grill with a lower grate temp to “power-Cambro” and take advantage of the remaining coals in the Slow ‘N Sear. To “power-Cambro”, begin closing your vents down to lower the grate temp to about ~180°F. This will allow the meat temperature to slowly wane yet maintain a high enough temp to keep softening it without further cooking it. We’re mimicking a faux Cambro hold here, yet this holds the meat temp a little higher and uses up the charcoal we’ve been working with, and eliminates the need to assemble a cooler and towels. Proceed with the meat either in the “power-Cambro” or the faux Cambro for about 2 hours. 3 or 4 hours won’t hurt anything. Skipping this step will likely yield slightly tougher and drier meat.
Dig in! Now we’re ready to dig in! Removing the ribs from the foil will fill your nose with the intoxicating bouquet of smoked beef, and for a few moments you’ll likely wonder how anything could be any better! Your meat should tear off the bone with only your teeth, but should also be easily sliced if that’s how you prefer to eat it. Back rib racks can be easily sliced into individual bones as you would pork ribs. Short ribs are well suited to being eaten with your hand or with a fork either one.
Enjoy! Also if you’re looking for a whole meal we think sautéed mushrooms & onions go great with beef ribs, as do any style of potatoes, and garlic bread. Oven-roasted Brussels sprouts, sautéed broccoli, or fried okra are some of our favorite sides as well. And don’t forget a bold red wine, we like quality cabernet sauvignons or a bold & peppery red zinfandel with our BBQ beef.