The best way to smoke ribs for a large crowd is to utilize all your resources. Most of us do not have an industrial sized rib smoker, you know - the kind you see on television or at smoking pork ribs competitions. Consequently, we are left with what we do have - a bit of ingenuity and the passion to make the absolute best tasting batch of barbecued ribs for our next family or friendly get-together.
And if you like to entertain, then please don't think that you have to limit yourself to only summertime outdoor cooking, because some of the best tasting smoked ribs are done in the off season. This is because very few people tend to eat barbecue in the winter months and therefore, it tastes just a bit extra special. As long as the outdoor cooking conditions are not too dry to be a hazard, then consider smoking ribs or brisket or both the next time you have people over for a holiday. I've even made smoked ribs for Thanksgiving dinner and let me tell you, it was not only a hit but people still remind me of that meal to this day. That was nine years ago. You are not likely to leave that kind of positive impression with the same old mundane turkey dinner. And why prepare the same monotonous meal year after year when you can add a bit of zip?
Preparing Smoked Ribs for A Large Crowd
Begin two days before your planned event as you are going to rotate the smoking of the ribs or the smoked brisket. Start by picking out 6 to 8 good trim racks of spare ribs. Wash and season them with your favorite rib rub and put them in pairs on cookie sheets (2 racks per pan). Cover loosely with foil or plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight so that the spices can cure into the meat.
Prepare your smoking wood by soaking it for an hour or two prior to cooking. Unlike many rib smokers, I prefer simple oak. It penetrates the meat very nicely but it gets very hot so you will need to be extra cautious with your dampeners. Also, it is plentiful here in Arkansas so it is easy for me. I like easy. You can actually make a fantastic batch of bbq ribs without spending a small fortune on the exotic woods chunks. If you do use oak or some other wood that has a heavy bark, just make sure that you strip any rotted or weathered bark off of it before you use it as the diseased bark can give off a bad flavor.
Start your smoker with regular charcoal in the firebox.
*If you do not have a meat smoker...
If you do not have a rib smoker, then you can use a regular barbecue grill using the following suggestions. Build a vertical divider in the middle of the grill, from the bottom up to as far as you can without impeding the lid. Bricks work nicely; you might also try only the heavy aluminum foil if all else fails - both bricks and foil also serve as an excellent barrier. What you want to do here is to cut off as much heat from the ribs as possible. Start you fire to one extreme side of the charcoal grill.
*See this post for an easy way to make a rib smoking foil wall.
As the heat will rise during the meat smoking process, you'll want to be sure to have some sort of inhibitor on both sides of the grate: below the grate to cut off the direct heat from underneath and above the grate to impede the heat just enough to get your smoking ambient temperature to around 250 degrees (on the meat side, not the fire side). This is especially true is you are using a smaller grill, or one with a pronounced domed top, such as a Weber grill. If you are using a larger sized charcoal grill, then the meat will smoke well without the barrier above the grate. Remember, you will want to keep a minimum heat level of 225 to 275 degrees for food safety reasons.
Try to keep your fire at a constant temperature. I find that it is impossible to keep it perfectly constant because it obviously flares up when you add new wood but do your best not to have it jump from 250 to 1100 and then back down again. Usually, I have to close the dampeners a bit when adding new wood, which tends to offset and inhibit the flare ups. Also, if you have soaked your wood, then take it out of the liquid and let it set still for five minutes or so before you add it the smoker. You don't want to kill your fire with a sopping, dripping wet piece of wood, or affect the overall balance of the temperature by dropping the temperature of the fire too much.
If you are smoking ribs, then start them off with the meat side up. Turn them once during the process. No meat on the underside part of the rib means that you should not worry too much about that side, despite what all the so-called experts say. You don't really have to remove the membrane that is attached to the belly of the rack because of this. People just say "remove the membrane!", "remove the membrane!" You don't need to. They just like to appear knowledgeable about cooking if you ask me. Some will argue that the membrane inhibits the smoking process but I would disagree because the smoke completely surrounds the meat and also because the membrane is porous. Also, if you like a good amount of a smoky flavor and tenderness in your ribs like I do, then the membrane helps to keep the rib rack together throughout the cooking and handling process.
When smoking large quantities of meat, it is important that you rotate the rib racks so that you will get a more even application of smoke. Smoke takes a specific pattern from the source of the heat to the exhaust points; like a stream of air or water. Ribs located in the midst of the stream will get more smoke and the meat on the outskirts will not be smoked enough. So rotated the meat as it smokes and also try to alter the air patterns. You may have to fashion an additional smoking rack but as long as you rotate the meat then they should all smoke fine.
Let the meat smoke for five hours plus an extra 30 minutes for each rack of ribs over 3. Again, add wood as necessary and try to keep the amount of smoke you see coming out of the smoker constant.
As each batch of ribs comes out of the smoker, rotate the next batch in. For each smoked rack, double wrap in a good quality aluminum foil and put on cookie sheets, two to a pan, and refrigerate. Keep smoking the others until you have the needed quantity of ribs. You may have to attend to the ribs or smoking brisket throughout the night.
You might want to try different spices or flavorings in order to provide a variety to your guests. If you do, then mark each rack somehow so that you can tell which racks are "hellfire" and which ones are "Mary had a little lamb". I use galvanized coated nails; shoot one into the end of the extra hot and none into the mild. Although sometimes my specialty flavor of ribs, the InlawScatterer, gets mysteriously mixed in with the mild batch.
For the final preparation stage, preheat your oven to 225 degrees. Keep the ribs tightly wrapped in foil (two racks per cookie sheet). Put oven rack on lowest notch. Stack ribs into oven, you can stack pans directly on top of one another. Keep the cookie sheets under every two racks or else you won't be able to rotate them easily. Slow cook in oven for 5 to 7 hours, rotating every couple of hours. Serve right out of foil over grooved chopping block (the ribs will need to be drained over your sink by cutting open one end of the foil). Prepare a heated bbq sauce and serve over ribs.
For additional information, Follow our basic rib recipe for the finishing touches, including how to tenderize them before eating. Our bbq beans recipe is simply the best out there so give it a shot too.