Ribs Bone Up or Down: Setting the Record Straight

September 22, 2023
Written by Kristy J. Norton
Edited by John Smits 

When smoking ribs, place the bone side towards the heat source of your oven, grill, or smoker. This prevents them from drying out and will produce ultra-tender, finger-licking ribs.

Ribs are my Achilles’ heel. I’ve been known to take down an entire slab in one sitting. I’ve cooked more ribs than I can count, and I’ve played around with how I place the bones in pursuit of rib perfection. I’m here to teach you everything I learned!

In this post, I’ll show you how to position the ribs and give you some tips on how to make show-stopping ribs! Grab your wet naps - let’s go!

Ribs Bone Up or Down

Do You Cook Ribs Bone Up or Bone Down?

Place the ribs with the bone side facing the heat source. The bone side has little meat, and it will take the brunt of the fire’s heat. This leaves the top, meaty part cooked beautifully.

Rib meat is quite tough. You have to cook it low and slow over a long period of time to break down those connective tissues. Low and slow (225°F to 250°F) temperatures will make the meat melt off the bone.

Do You Grill Ribs Meat Side Up?

It depends on where the heat in the grill is coming from. Please note the only type of rib that I would recommend grilling (instead of smoking) are baby backs. Country-style ribs can also be grilled, but they’re not actually ribs - they’re pork chops.

Spares, St.Louis cut ribs, rib tips, and short ribs (from a cow) are all best smoked, braised, or cooked at lower temperatures. (I’ll get to that!)

The heat from Kamado, bullet smokers, gas grills, pellet grills, and charcoal grills comes from the bottom. Place the ribs bone side down. 

The heat from an offset smoker comes from the side. Place the ribs on a rib rack with the bones facing the firebox.

If you are using an oven to cook your ribs, then most of the heat comes from the bottom of the oven. So, you would place the ribs meat side up. If your oven is a convection oven, it has a fan that moves the air, so the heat comes from every direction. This is also how a pellet grill functions. I’d still keep the ribs bone side down in a convection oven.

Do You Smoke Ribs Bone Side Up or Down?

The same rule goes for smoking ribs: place the rib bones toward the heat source. Let me note: ribs are a pretty forgiving meat to smoke, thanks to their rich marbling. They will likely still be succulent if you accidentally face the meat toward the heat source. 

ribs and salad

Does This Rule Apply to All Types of Ribs?

Yes, this rule applies to all types of ribs. Let me fill you in - there are four different cuts of ribs from a pig. 

First up, you have the most popular cut on a pig, baby back ribs. They aren’t from baby pigs - they’re just smaller than spare ribs. 

Then, you have spare ribs. These are larger than baby backs. (They’re cheaper too!)

Next, you have the St. Louis ribs. These are spare ribs that have been trimmed into a rectangle for a neater appearance.

Rib tips are made from the trimmings of St Louis ribs. 

What Does Bone Side Up Mean for Ribs?

Take a close look at one side of the racks and then flip it over. See those white things? Those are the bones. That’s the bone side. 

You shouldn’t see any bone on the meatier side. If you see a bone poking through on the meat side, it’s known as a “shiner.” Don’t buy that rack with a shiner. The meat was cut too closely to the bone - you’ll get less meat, and the rib may fall off when cooked.

Do You Flip the Ribs While Smoking?

No. You don’t need to flip ribs when you smoke them. 

Do You Place the Bone Side Up or Down When Wrapping Ribs?

Once the ribs are wrapped, it doesn’t really matter. I still position the bones towards the heat source, but the aluminum foil gives the ribs protection from the heat.

Most pitmasters, including me, wrap their ribs in aluminum foil after 2 to 3 hours of cooking, and the internal temp is around 160°F. More on wrapping in a bit!

Again, the bone direction at this point isn’t too important. Don’t stress it!

Related Reading

How to Make the Most Delicious Ribs?

Here is a guide to making the most tender ribs on planet Earth!

Remove the Membrane

The membrane is a white, papery layer on the bone side of the ribs. If you leave it on, it’ll make your ribs taste chewy. It also impedes smoke absorption. Best to remove it.

I use a sharp paring knife to do it. Pick a bone on one end of the rack, and slide the knife between the bone and the membrane. Once the membrane starts to peel away, grab it with a piece of paper towel and pull it to remove. It should come off in one or two large sheets. Here’s a video if you’re struggling.

Dry Brine the Ribs

I use ½ teaspoon of Kosher salt or ¼ teaspoon of table salt per pound. Stick the ribs (uncovered) in the fridge for 2-24 hours before smoking.

Set Up Your Grill for Indirect Cooking

If using a gas grill, only light one burner. Pile the coals to one side if using a kettle grill. Use a smoke deflector if you’re using a Kamado. Throw some wood chunks on there for smoke.

Cook at Low Temperatures

Smoke the ribs at 225°F or 250°F for best results.

Related Reading

Use Yellow Mustard

Before you apply the rub, apply a thin layer of yellow mustard to either side of the ribs. Then, sprinkle on the rub.

The mustard helps the ingredients stick.

Arrange the Rib Rack

It’s time to put your newfound information to good use. Place the rib racks bone side facing towards the heat source, on the indirect side of the grill.

Close the lid and smoke.

Smoke the Ribs Uncovered

For the first section of the smoking process, the ribs are cooked uncovered. Cook at 225°F for 2 hours for baby back ribs and 3 hours for spares, rib tips, and St. Louis ribs.

You’re infusing those ribs with the elegant flavor of smoke as they cook.

Wrap the Ribs

After 2 or 3 hours, it's time to take the ribs out of the smoker. 

Tear off a large sheet of aluminum foil - about twice the length of the rack. Place the ribs in the middle of the foil.

At this point, you can drizzle some honey, butter, or even some chili sauce over the ribs. Beer, wine, and apple cider are other popular options. The added moisture will tenderize the ribs.

Wrap the foil tightly, creating crimped seams. It needs to be tight so that none of the moisture escapes out.

Place the ribs back in the smoker.

Smoke Wrapped

Smoke the wrapped ribs for 2 hours. This cooking time applies to all types of ribs.

Take the ribs out of the smoker.

Smoke Unwrapped

Unwrap the ribs and apply a thin layer of BBQ sauce on both sides if you’re saucing. Less is more when it comes to sauce - you want that rich pork flavor to shine through, along with the hardwood smoke flavor. You can always serve the ribs with additional sauce.

Place back in the smoker and cook for another hour. Once again, this applies to all types of ribs.

Keep the ribs on the indirect side, away from the heat source.

ribs on a bbq grill

Check Doneness

Baby backs are usually done after 5 hours, while spares, St. Louis cut, and rib tips take 6 hours. There are a couple of other indicators of doneness for ribs:

When pricked in the center with tongs, the ribs should bend and crack on the top. A toothpick or temperature probe should glide in with almost no resistance, like a hot knife going through warm butter. 

A lot of BBQers say you can’t temp ribs because they’re so bony, but I think that’s hogwash. I temp mine and usually pull them around 203°F. Just keep the probe away from the bone for an accurate reading.

If the ribs aren't done yet, place them back in the smoker until they are.

Wrapping It Up

Place the side with the bones towards the heat source. Remember, ribs are forgiving - if you’ve already started your cook with the meat side facing the heat, relax! Your ribs will still be finger-licking good. But they’ll be better next time.

Now that you know this trick to perfectly smoked meat, you will be able to impress family members and guests alike!

By Kristy J. Norton
I'm Kristy – a chef and connoisseur of all things BBQ! You can find me either in my kitchen (or someone else's) or at a big outdoor barbecue surrounded by friends and family. In both my professional and personal life I’ve picked up more than a few tips and tricks for turning out delicious food. I consider it a privilege to share it with others!
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