Tender and juicy, Uncle Richard’s Brown Sugar & Honey Smoked Baby Back Ribs don’t need any BBQ sauce at all! They are amazing just the way they are when they come off the smoker and will have everybody licking their fingers and reaching for more!
With the weather finally warming up, it’s time to start cooking outside again, don’t you think? For us, that means lots of delicious smoked meat, especially Paul’s favorite: baby back ribs!
We love our Traeger smoker that Paul got for Father’s Day a few years ago and we use it often to makes these incredible brown sugar & honey smoked baby back ribs, as well as the most amazing smoked turkey ever. (Seriously, that turkey is SO GOOD that we make it year round, not just at Thanksgiving). We also do chicken, tri-tip, salmon, and brisket in the smoker because not only does everything come out super flavorful, but it’s also an incredibly easy method of cooking where you pretty much just get the grill up to temperature, then put your meat on and leave it alone for a few hours until it’s done. I think of it like an outdoor, smoky version of a slow cooker where you set it and forget it!
My Uncle Richard, along with most of my dad’s side of the family, is from Texas, and he is the one who introduced us to these incredible ribs. Uncle Richard looks so much like my dad that I could swear they were born twins, and he always tells me that he is my favorite uncle, lol. He made these ribs for us one Sunday after church a few years ago when Paul and Clara and I were staying with him and his family during a trip to meet a potential birthmom who happened to be living near them. That adoption ended up falling apart just before the baby was born, which was really difficult at the time, but just a little over a year later our Rose was born.
The hilarious story behind these ribs is that when we got home from our trip, Paul couldn’t stop talking about the ribs Uncle Richard had made. We had hung out with Richard and his wife and kids in the kitchen while dinner was being prepared and watched him prep the ribs for the final part of the smoke where a “gruel” (Richard’s word – I’m not sure if this is a technical term associated with smoking ribs or not) of brown sugar, honey, and grated butter gets sprinkled over the almost finished ribs, then they get wrapped up in heavy duty foil and placed back on the grill. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but Paul seemed flabbergasted by the process and only weeks later did I realize that Paul was 100% convinced that my uncle had grated cheese, not butter, over the ribs and that somehow they were cheesy ribs. He totally thought I was pulling his leg when I explained that it was a stick of cold butter that Uncle Richard had been grating directly over the cooked ribs, not swiss cheese. I was laughing until my belly ached over the thought of cheesy ribs and Paul’s confusion.
When I was deciding which smoker to buy, Uncle Richard sent me a couple of emails with his recommendations (including the Traeger we ended purchasing) and his tips and tricks for making his amazing ribs. Paul has made them countless times since then and adapted the recipe and technique just a bit. He even entered them in our church congregation’s men’s cookoff where they won 1st place. Prestigious, I know. But really, they are the best ribs ever!
Things to know when making Uncle Richard’s Brown Sugar & Honey Smoked Baby Back Ribs:
To trim or not to trim the membrane?
If you can’t find the membrane to trim it, don’t sweat it. It’s a thin, slightly opaque piece of, well, membrane, on the backside of a rack of ribs that some people like to remove before cooking ribs. Many places sell baby back ribs with the membrane already removed for you and chances are, that’s what you bought if you can’t figure out what the heck needs to be trimmed.
And even if the membrane is there, there is debate in the ribs world about whether to even bother removing it. Since ribs smoke over a longer period of time, most of the membrane disintegrates anyway. And the bit that is left is actually enjoyed by some people who say that it gives the bottom side of the ribs a bit of a snap when you bite into it, sort of like a the casing around a quality bratwurst. Some say that it helps keep more of the fat on the rib while it’s smoking, resulting in even more tender ribs.
Honestly? We don’t trim it. But if you do or think you might want to, I included instructions below.
Foil Wrap (aka Texas Crutch)
We use a foil wrap (sometimes called a Texas Crutch) on these ribs, which helps tenderize the ribs and gives a better texture than if you just smoked the ribs open the entire time. Since we don’t sauce these ribs, doing a foil wrap for the last hour of cooking gives the butter and brown sugar and honey time to combine and time for the meat to tenderize more thanks to the additional moisture that gets trapped in the foil wrap. This results in a super moist, tender rib that doesn’t “need” sauce.
How to tell when the meat is done
One way is when the meat starts pulling away from the bone so you can see the exposed bone tips. Another way is to pick up the entire rack of ribs toward one end with a pair of tongs to see if it bends and small cracks form along the top surface of the ribs. One more way to check whether your ribs are done is to insert a toothpick into the meat between the ribs. If it goes in and out easily, your ribs are ready to eat!
Just remember that this approach to smoking ribs is not intended to give you “fall off the bone” ribs. It’s more akin to what I understand is more of a competition approach to smoking ribs, where the meat will be super tender and juicy, but your rack of ribs won’t just fall apart when you go to remove it from the grill. If that’s what you are going for, you will want to cook them longer (or just do pulled pork instead!).
In case you are wondering about the pink ring around the inside of the meat, it is called a smoke ring and it’s what you want when smoking meat. It’s just the protein’s reaction to the smoke and it means the flavor of your smoked meat is going to be amazing!
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- 2 tablespoons black pepper
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 2 teaspoons paprika
- 1/2 teaspoon chili powder
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
- 1 liter Dr. Pepper
- 1 rack baby back ribs
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/4 cup cold butter
- 3/4 cup brown sugar
- 1/3 cup honey
- Applewood pellets or chips for your smoker
On the back side of the ribs there is a thin membrane that some people like to remove. If you want to remove it, trim the membrane by using a very sharp knife to make a small cut under the membrane at one end of the ribs. Use your fingers to peel up part of the membrane, then grip it with a paper towel, which helps to hold onto the membrane, and peel the rest of the membrane off the back of the ribs.
Place the trimmed ribs in a large Ziploc bag and pour the entire liter of Dr. Pepper over it, then seal tightly and place in the fridge overnight to marinate.
When ready to smoke, start the smoker with the lid open to get a good smoke established (about 3 to 5 minutes on our Traeger), then close the lid and set the heat setting to 225 degrees. Allow the smoker to come up to temperature.
Remove ribs from the Dr. Pepper and discard the soda. Pat the ribs dry with paper towels and lightly coat both sides with a little bit olive oil. This will help the dry rub stick to the ribs.
Apply rub to both the top and bottom sides of the ribs. Some people like to wrap their ribs up in foil at this point and let them sit with the rub on to penetrate the meat for a while before cooking, but I don't feel like this makes any difference.
Place ribs directly on grill, meat side up. Smoke until rib meat ’breaks’ when lifted in the center (2 1/2 to 3 1/2 hours).
Remove from smoker and place on extra large sheet of aluminum foil. Grate butter on top of ribs, then sprinkle with brown sugar and drizzle honey over the top. Tightly wrap ribs with the foil and return to the smoker for another 40 minutes to an hour.
Remove from smoker and let sit for 10 minutes before slicing the ribs between each bone and serving.
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