Now that I've been smoking meats for a few years and have had the chance to experiment with different types of smokers, I find myself saying something I never thought I would. The pellet smoker produced the best ribs I've ever made.
Now smoking pork ribs really isn't that hard. Search Google for smoking pork ribs and you'll find an endless amount of forums where people claim their ribs are competition worthy, and superior to the rest. Really it just comes down to seasoning, cooking slow and low and finishing sauce if desired.
True pit masters swear by using real wood, preferably dry aged real wood to smoke their meats. But most of us aren't true pit masters. We just want to make a rack or two for our family or friends.
The reason I've become a pellet grill convert is because of the most important part of successfully smoking ribs—you have to control your heat over a long period of time. I was going to go with the Traeger pellet grill because that's the brand I associate with pellet grills. However, upon further investigation I found Traegers tend to have jamming problems where the pellets won't load automatically. That could be a manufacturing thing that has since been corrected.
Then I came across the Camp Chef while searching for good quality, low cost grills. The two things I liked about it were (1) The temperature dial can be set to any temperature (not just high or low), and (2) There are two temperature sensors. One reads the temp inside the grill. The other is a probe you can put in the meat. That's about as foolproof as you can get. Not many smokers have a probe to measure the internal temperature of smoking meat. That's a big deal.
So after some experimenting with the strengths of the Camp Chef, I came up with a SICK technique for smoking ribs (and some TriTip for good measure):
1. Start with Pork Spare Ribs
Not the baby backs. Not the St. Louis style. Go with the Spare Ribs, which are St. Louis style with the breast bone cut off. Trim them up nicely so they look good around the edges, and make sure to trim off loose pieces of fat. Spare ribs are big and they are filling. I find they lend themselves nicely to the pellet smoker.
2. Turn on Camp Chef to 275°
Fill the grill with pellets of your choice. I find Hickory flavor to be a bit too strong for pork, so a combination of Mesquite and a fruit wood like cherry or apple are a good way to go.
3. Season the Ribs
Coat both sides of the ribs with a thin layer of olive oil. That'll help keep the seasoning stuck on. Use whatever seasoning you like. I like to use a Texas style seasoning called Hard 8 that I mail order from a smoke house in Dallas. It's basically salt, pepper, garlic powder and onion powder. I like to mix in a little paprika because it gives the ribs a reddish color during the smoke.
When applying the seasoning, sprinkle the seasoning from a seasoning container about 24" above the ribs. That way the seasoning will distribute evenly and create a sexy looking rack when finished. Make it rain goodness up in there.
4. Smoke Ribs for 30 Minutes at 275°
A lot of people do the 3-2-1 thing, which is fine. That's 3 hours in the smoker, 2 hours wrapped in foil with (or without sauce), and 1 more hour out of the foil. I tweak that a bit and play to the Camp Chef's ability to change the temperature to whatever I want. The higher temp kick starts the breaking down of fat.
5. Change Smoke Setting to 'High Smoke' and smoke 2 hours
The temperature will change to about 225°. You've rendered some of the fat at the higher temperature, now you can go slow and low with it for 2 hours or so. Pellet grills aren't famous for imparting a heavy smoky flavor, so 'high smoke' actually achieves what I would consider a 'normal' level of smoke flavor.
6. Spritz with apple cider vinegar
Use a clean spray bottle and use it to spray a fine mist on the ribs. Sometimes I'll season a few Tri Tips with the Hard 8 season as well. Since Tri Tips like to cook at an hour per pound at 'High Smoke' as well it works out nicely all this delicious meat will be done at the same time.
7. Sauce the ribs
Using a plastic squirt bottle make a mixture of BBQ sauce and apple cider vinegar. Sometimes I do 50/50. Sometimes I'll do 75% apple cider vinegar, and 25% BBQ sauce. The BBQ sauce can clog the squirt bottle, so going heavier on the vinegar will help the mixture spread evenly.
8. After 15 minutes wrap the ribs
Lay the foil dull side up and spritz it with apple cider vinegar. Put the ribs sauce side down in the foil and wrap them tightly. Put back in the smoker and smoke for another 2 hours, give or take.
9. Get ready to chow down
You can unwrap the ribs and smoke them longer if you wish at 225° or 'high smoke'. Take a toothpick and insert it into the meat between the bones to see how done they are. Smoking longer will dry the ribs out a bit and might not be necessary.
Sauce 'em if you like. Leave 'em dry if you like. There's no wrong way to do this. I find the apple cider vinegar and BBQ sauce mixture gives enough flavor, but sauce on the side isn't a bad idea. Take a good slicing knife and carefully cut between the bones and serve accordingly.
9. Finishing the Tri Tip
The Tri Tip is super easy to hit out of the park. The key is starting with a good quality cut. The USDA Prime from Costco (blue styro) is butter if meat could be butter. Just season on both sides and smoke one hour per pound on 'high heat' using Hickory if possible but if smoking with the ribs you're probably using Mesquite and a fruit wood pellet. That alone won't do it. The magic happens when you heat your regular non-pellet grill up as hot as you can get it and finish the Tri Tip by searing on high heat on each side for about 2-3 minutes. It activates the juices and gives a nice crust on the outside. Good Lord it's delicious!!
Smoked meats, especially the ones seasoned with a decent amount of pepper are just asking for a good Zin or Syrah. Ridge Vineyards is a great producer of both varietals. Their Lytton Springs is a field blend, which means they grow all the grapes together in one vineyard and they ferment them all together. That's different than the more common way wineries would do it, which is grow the grapes in separate vineyards, and ferment them separately in different tanks and barrels. Lytton Springs is dominated by Zinfandel from 80+ year old vines in Dry Creek Valley, and complimented by a bit of Petite Sirah and Carignan. It's DELICIOUS with this meal.