When to Wrap Ribs: A Guide to Time and Technique

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

When you’re smoking at 250°F, you should wrap baby back ribs after 2 hours. If you are smoking spare ribs, then wrap them after 3 hours.

I’ve been smoking ribs for decades. I’m here to clue you in on the key to incredibly tender ribs: wrapping them after they’ve had a few hours to absorb wood smoke. Wrapping locks in moisture and makes ribs meltingly tender. Get your wet naps ready - today, I'm sharing my secrets with you!

I’m going to reveal when to wrap ribs, explain how to wrap them (pro tip: add some liquid to the wrap to get those ribs ultra tender), and finally, how to cook ribs. Let's get started!

When to Wrap Ribs

How Long Do You Cook Ribs Before You Wrap Them?

This answer depends on the type of pork ribs that you are smoking or grilling.

If I’m cooking baby back ribs, I smoke the ribs for 2 hours before wrapping them in foil. If I’m preparing spare ribs or St. Louis ribs, I smoke the ribs for 3 hours before wrapping them in foil.

What's up with the variation? Well, it’s all about the size of the ribs.

Baby back ribs are smaller and a little less meaty than spare ribs. That means they cook faster, and need to be smoked for less time before they are wrapped foil.

Spare ribs (and their cousin, the St. Louis Cut) are larger and a little meatier than baby backs. So, you need to cook them for an hour longer before you wrap them in foil.

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Can You Wrap Ribs Too Early?

Yes, you can wrap ribs too early. Smoke the ribs for 2 to 3 hours, depending on the cut, so that the surface can get nice and crispy. This also gives the ribs time to absorb that delicious smoke flavor!

If you wrap ribs in foil too early, then the cooking process is more like steaming than smoking. Your ribs won’t taste as good, and the steaming process will turn the meat soggy. No thanks!

Stick to the cooking time that I’ve mentioned (2 hours for baby backs, 3 hours for spares) before you wrap ribs.

smoked ribs on a foil

How Long Do You Wrap Ribs in Foil?

Whether you are cooking baby back or spare ribs, keep the ribs wrapped for 2 hours. The wrapped foil traps moisture, which steams the meat and makes the ribs incredibly tender. If you add some flavorful liquid to the wrap (do it), your ribs will be gently braised. And the flavors from that tasty liquid will season the meat.

After 2 hours, unwrap the ribs and cook for another hour before taking them off the heat.

Is It Better to Wrap Ribs or Not?

I, for one, am on team “wrap those ribs.” I know that wrapping ribs in foil isn't universally done in the BBQ world. Most guys and gals wrap their ribs, but some pitmasters skip the wrap all together. We can agree to disagree - we are all on team BBQ.

Here’s why I like to wrap: the sealed cooking environment steams the meat, which produces ribs that are more tender and juicy than ribs that don’t get wrapped. Just remember to seal that foil tightly.

When you don't wrap the ribs, the meat will be tougher. Some people prefer a toothier rib - if that’s you, or you think it might be, try a side-by-side. Cook one rack unwrapped at the same time you cook a wrapped rack. Bite into both, and see which you like better.

Should You Keep the Ribs Wrapped the Entire Time?

Absolutely not! Don’t keep the ribs wrapped for longer than 2 hours.

Aluminum foil does a fine job of keeping moisture locked in.

This allows the meat to get perfectly tender. But if you keep the aluminum foil on for too long,  then the moisture level is going to increase, and the ribs will be mushy and soggy. Soggy and mushy ribs? In the words of Randy Jackson, “That’s a no from me, dog.”

Aluminum Foil vs. Butcher Paper: What Should You Use?

I wrap ribs in aluminum foil when I smoke them.

If you have smoked meat before, then you know that you have two options for wrapping meat - aluminum foil and pink butcher paper.

Butcher paper is popular for larger cuts of meat like beef brisket. The butcher paper is used in a technique that is known as the Texas crutch. The reason that butcher paper works with brisket is that it is more breathable, and some of the moisture evaporates. It produces a crispier bark on the brisket.

The thing is, butcher paper isn't as necessary when wrapping ribs. The trapped moisture from foil makes ribs that are unbelievably tender inside. And since you’ll be smoking the ribs for another hour after they’re wrapped, the bark will firm back up.

I wrap in foil, but your results and preferences may be different than mine. If you want a crispier and crunchier exterior, then butcher paper may be the way to go. Again, try side-by-side. Cook two racks with each wrapping material, and see which result you like the best!

Ribs wrapped in pink butcher paper

How to Tell if Ribs Are Done?

Usually, when I smoke any kind of meat, like pork butt and pork shoulder, I use a meat thermometer. The thermometer allows me to track the internal temperature of the meat and let me know when it’s done cooking.

Many barbeque joints and pitmasters ditch the thermometer when making ribs and rely on visual clues instead. The ribs are done cooking when they crack in the center when picked up with tongs. A toothpick should slide right into the meat with no resistance. 

In addition to the toothpick test, I still use a thermometer and shoot for a finish temperature between 190°F and 205°F. 

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The Top Tips for Cooking Ribs

I’m going to break down exactly how to smoke your ribs so you get it right the first time.

Remove the Membrane

There is a thin translucent membrane on the bone side of the ribs. It’s rubbery and chewy and slows down smoke absorption. Say bye-bye to the membrane - I always remove it.

To do so, I slide a sharp knife between a bone on the end of the rack of ribs and the corner of the membrane. Once the membrane starts to peel away, I grab it with a paper towel. Then I gently pull the membrane away until it is fully removed. It should peel away in one large sheet. It can be a slippery and frustrating chore. Stick with it. It’s a step worth taking, and you’ll get better with practice.

Dry Brine the Ribs

If you’ve got time, apply ½ teaspoon of Kosher salt per pound of meat 1 to 2 hours before smoking. This will level up those ribs and make them divinely tender and juicy. Refrigerate the ribs until the smoker is ready.

Preheat the Smoker

Set up your smoker for indirect grilling at 250°F. If you’re smoking over charcoal, throw some wood chips or chunks on the fire for some wood flavor. If you’re using a pellet grill or an offset smoker, your fuel will provide the smoke for you.

Apply the Rub

Apply a thin layer of yellow mustard to either side of the ribs. Spread it out with a basting brush. This step is optional - some people think the mustard will make the ribs taste weird - but it’s a step I try not to skip. You don’t taste the mustard after the ribs cook, and it helps the rub stick to the meat. 

Next, sprinkle your favorite rub on the meat and press it into the surface of the ribs carefully. Use ¼ cup of rub for spares or St Louis and ⅓ cup for baby backs. If you dry-brined the ribs, use a rub that doesn’t have any salt.

Smoke the Ribs

Once the smoker is ready to go, place the ribs on there, bone side down. Close the lid and smoke the meat.

For baby back ribs, smoke for 2 hours, and for spare ribs, smoke for 3 hours. Take the ribs off the heat.

Wrap the Ribs

Tear off two sheets of aluminum foil or butcher paper. Each sheet should be about twice the size of the rack of ribs.

Place the sheets on top of each other. Then, place the ribs in the middle of the aluminum foil sheets, bone side down.

At this point, you can add liquid ingredients like apple juice, apple cider vinegar, butter (it’ll melt and steam the ribs - it’s my favorite thing to toss into foil), or your favorite liquid to the foil. Take care not to disturb the bark when you add the liquid.

Then, fold the left side of the foil over. Repeat this with the right side. Then, take the top and fold it over. Repeat this with the bottom edge. The meat needs to be wrapped tightly - make sure the foil is tightly sealed.

If it’s not sealed tightly, the moisture and steam will escape. Your ribs won’t get as tender and moist.

white ceramic plate with bbq ribs

Smoke for 2 More Hours

Place the wrapped ribs back on the smoker and close the lid. Smoke for 2 hours.

Unwrap the Ribs

Remove the ribs from the smoker and unwrap them. Apply a thin layer of barbecue sauce to each side of the ribs if you’re saucing them. Place the ribs back on the smoker and cook for another 30 minutes to an hour. I usually sauce my ribs - I’m a sucker for sticky-sweet ribs.

Some BBQ enthusiasts bump the temperature to 300°F or hotter for the last part of the cook to really get that sauce sizzling. I don’t, but the choice is yours. Monitor the ribs for doneness - they’ll cook quicker.

To figure out if the ribs are done, grasp the rack in the middle with a pair of tongs. Ribs that are cooked to perfection will droop at the sides. You will also notice some cracking around the middle.

If this doesn't happen, then place the ribs back on the grill. Test the ribs every 10 minutes or so after this until they are done.

You can also temp the ribs - you’re looking for 190°F to 205°F. Or use the toothpick test. The toothpick should glide into the meat with no resistance.

Rest the Ribs

You’ve tested your grilling skills. Time to test your patience. Let the ribs rest for around 10 minutes before chowing down.

Wrapping It Up

Say it with me: wrap baby backs in foil after 2 hours, spares after 3 hours, let them cook for 2 hours, then unwrap and cook for 1 more hour. This makes ribs that are juicy. They’re tender. And you better believe they’re tasty. 

There you have it, all the tips and tricks for wrapping ribs that will have you cooking up meaty, smoky glory! Now that you know exactly how to get the job done, you can turn out the perfect ribs each and every time.

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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