When to Wrap Ribs: A Guide to Time and Technique

December 13, 2022

You should wrap baby back ribs after they have been smoking for two hours. If you are preparing spare ribs, then the ribs should be wrapped after three hours on the grill.

My family have been smoking ribs for what feels like generations. However, it took us a long time to figure out how to wrap and cook ribs so that they turned out perfect. To make sure that you don’t have to go through the hassle that we did, I’m turning over these secrets to you!

In this post, I will reveal when to wrap ribs as well as show you the perfect way to wrap and cook ribs. Let’s get started!

When to wrap ribs

How Long Do You Cook Ribs Before You Wrap It?

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

If you are cooking baby back ribs, then you need to smoke the ribs for 2 hours before wrapping ribs in foil. On the other hand, if you are preparing spare ribs or St. Louis ribs, then you need to smoke the ribs for 3 hours before wrapping ribs in foil.

So, what’s with the variation? Well, this all has to do with the size of the ribs as well as how much meat is on the bones.

Baby back ribs are smaller and on these ribs, meat is minimal. Due to this, the ribs have to be smoked or grilled for a shorter period of time before wrapping ribs in foil.

With spare ribs, meat is in far greater quantity which means that you need to cook them for longer before you wrap ribs in foil.

The Novelty of Not Using a Meat Thermometer

Usually when I smoke any kind of meat, including pork butt and pork shoulder, I always use a meat thermometer. This allows me to track the internal temperature of the meat and let me know when it is time to wrap the meat.

Unfortunately, this technique doesn’t really work with ribs. This is because there is so little meat on the bone. Even if you were to use a thermometer, you would likely get a false reading.

As a result, this is the one time where you have to keep track of the time during the cooking process.

Can You Wrap Ribs Too Early?

Yes, you can wrap ribs a little too early. The reason that you let the ribs cook or smoke for a certain period of time is so that the surface can get nice and crispy. Also, the ribs are able to absorb that delicious smoke flavor.

If you wrap ribs in foil too early, then the cooking process is closer to steaming than it is to smoking. Not only will your ribs not taste as nice but they are likely to be a little soggy as well.

Therefore, I strongly suggest that you stick to the cook time that I have mentioned above before you wrap ribs.

How Long Do You Wrap Ribs in Foil?

Now, this is a pretty important question to answer as well. Not only do you need to know when to wrap ribs, you should also know for how long.

In this case, the time is the same for all kinds of ribs. Regardless of whether you are cooking baby back or spare ribs, keep the ribs wrapped for 2 hours.

Then, unwrap the ribs and cook for another hour before taking off the heat.

Pork Spare Ribs

Is It Better to Wrap Ribs or Not?

I know that wrapping ribs in foil isn’t a universal experience. There are plenty of people who grill or smoke ribs without wrapping ribs.

So, which avenue should you take?

I, for one, am firmly on the wrapping ribs team. This is because there is so little meat on the ribs. As a result, they are at high risk of overcooking and drying up.

When you wrap ribs, you create a tight steal around them. This traps moisture inside the aluminum foil packet. This allows you to then steam the ribs a little so that you get nice and tender ribs!

When you don’t wrap the ribs, there is less guarantee that you can keep the meat tender. Personally, I wouldn’t take the chance of ruining my ribs like this. So, it is best to wrap ribs to err on the side of caution.

That being said, make sure that you unwrap the ribs at the right moment too. This ensures that your ribs don’t end up soggy.

Should You Keep the Ribs Wrapped the Entire Time?

Absolutely not! Never wrap ribs for longer than stated. As I mentioned, the aluminum foil does a fine job of keeping moisture trapped inside the wrapping.

In doing so, it allows the meat to get tender to just the right amount. If you keep the aluminum foil on for too long, though, then the moisture level is going to increase and steam or boil the ribs.

I can assure you that this isn’t going to make for very tasty ribs and they will likely take on a mushy texture. So, save yourself the hassle and follow the instructions.

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

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

Now, butcher paper is a lot more 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 the butcher paper works so well here is because it is more breathable and some of the moisture evaporates.

Due to this, you are able to conserve the bark around the brisket and prevent it from becoming soggy.

The thing is, butcher paper isn’t as necessary when wrapping ribs. This is because ribs don’t really have a bark. Also, as there is less meat on the ribs, there is a higher risk of them drying out. So, in this case, more moisture is actually a good thing and butcher paper doesn’t really accommodate it.

I would suggest using aluminum foil over butcher paper in this case. It really will make all the difference.

However, if you do like the top of your ribs to be a bit more crispy and crunchy, then butcher paper may be the way to go.

Raw Baby Back Pork Ribs in Butcher Paper

The Top Tips for Cooking Ribs

As I mentioned, wrapping ribs can be a new experience for many. So, now that you know when to wrap ribs, I am going to break down exactly how to smoke your ribs as well.

Take the Ribs Out Earlier

The first thing that you should do is to take out the ribs about an hour or so before you want to smoke them. This allows the ribs to come down close to room temperature. In turn, the ribs will cook faster and more evenly too.

Make sure to never leave ribs out for longer than an hour though.

Remove the Membrane

There is a thin membrane on top of the ribs. This is very tough and so it must be removed. Use a sharp knife to remove the top edge of the membrane. Then, grasp this with a paper towel. Gently pull the membrane away until it is fully removed.

Apply the Rub

Apply a thin layer of yellow mustard to either side of the ribs. Then sprinkle on the rub and press into the surface of the ribs carefully.

Preheat the Smoker

I like to start off on low heat and then slowly increase the heat as the cooking process continues. I find that this gives me better control and prevents the ribs from drying out.

So, to begin, I set the smoker temperature to 180 degrees F and preheat the smoker.

Smoke the Ribs

Once the smoker has heated, I place the ribs bone side down. Then, I close the lid and smoke the meat.

For baby back ribs I smoke for 2 hours and for spare ribs I smoke for 3 hours. I then 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 up.

At this point, you can add ingredients like apple juice, apple cider vinegar, brown sugar, etc. onto the top of the ribs.

Then, fold the left of the foil over. Repeat this with the right side. Then, take the top and fold it over as a crinkle. Make sure to seal the foil tightly. Then, repeat this with the bottom edge. Once again, the edge needs to be wrapped tightly.

If not, the moisture will escape and the ribs will not cook as well.

Raise the Temperature

Increase the smoker temperature to 225 F.

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

Rack of Baby Back Pork Ribs on BBQ Grill

Unwrap the Ribs

Unwrap the ribs and apply a thin layer of barbecue sauce to each side of the ribs. Place the ribs back on the smoker and cook for another hour.

To figure out if the ribs are done, grasp the rack in the middle with a pair of tongs. Hold them and give them a little bounce.

Ribs that are cooked to perfection will begin to droop to the sides. You will also notice some cracking around the middle.

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

Rest the Ribs

It is very important to let the ribs rest once they are taken off the smoker. This lets the ribs absorb any liquid it may have lost during the smoking process.

This lends to a far more tender and delicious result.

Wrapping It Up

If you wanted to know the secrets behind wrapping ribs, then you have found them out here! 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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