Rib Taste Test Comparison. The Sous Vide VS The Smoker.

Interested in Sous Vide ribs? I cooked one rack of ribs in a Sous Vide and then threw them on the smoker.  I cooked another rack of ribs on the smoker and then threw them in the Sous Vide.  Find out which should come first … the  Sous Vide or the Smoker. 

Overhead shot of 2 racks of smoked ribs with beautiful golden colour and bark.

When it comes to perfecting good old fashioned classic recipes I’m like a dog with a bone.  Last week that bone was taken from the rib of a pig. I’ve actually been chewing on this particular bone since 2009.

In 2009 I was hosting a lifestyle television show and one of my guests was professional BBQer, Diva Q.  She came on set with 2 smokers (one of which was pink and shaped like a pig) and proceeded to make the kind of ribs I didn’t even know existed.

Growing up in Ontario, Canada I’ve have very limited exposure to biscuits, real BBQ, gumbo and breakfast cereals that are 100% marshmallows.

After the show I must have sent that poor BBQing woman 20 emails asking her how I could make ribs like this at home on my regular BBQ grill.  I learned everything I could about cooking ribs low and slow. How to prep them, why temperature is so important and it was from HER that I got my Maple Bourbon BBQ Sauce recipe.  (She got it from award winning Pitmaster Mike Callaghan – whom I bought my smoker from years later)

The point I’m making here is when I commit to figuring something out, I commit in a radical way. I commit the way a bad tattoo commits to skin.

After my first few lessons with Diva Q I realized to make really good ribs I needed a smoker. So I got one.  Then I pestered the guy I bought it from (award winning pitmaster Mike Callaghan) for every tip he could possibly give me.

Honestly. If you know anything about anything, I am your worst nightmare.

When I got my Sous Vide machine I embarrassedly emailed Pitmaster Mike and told him I was going to try to Sous Vide some ribs to see if the machine could help me get better ribs off of the smoker.  I have a hard time getting ribs that are perfectly tender without being dry.  I was prepared for all sorts of swear words in his response.

Surprisingly he said that Sous Vide make great ribs!  And then he proceeded to tell me how to make them.  Which was the exact opposite of anything the Internet tells you about making Sous Vide ribs.

I tried them both ways and here’s how it went.

Sous Vide Ribs

Method 1
Sous Vide → Smoker

(which is how most Sous Video manuals and Internet recipes tell you how to do it)

  • Cover ribs with your favourite rub.
  • Vacuseal and set in Sous Vide at 165°F for 12 hours.
  • Bake in oven at 300 until bark forms (about 20 minutes) then sauce ribs and return to oven for another 10 minutes. You want the glaze to become sticky.  (same rules apply if you’re using a BBQ after the Sous Vide as opposed to an oven)

Vacusealed ribs on butcher block counter.

Method 2
Smoker → Sous Vide

(which is how a BBQ Pitmaster will tell you to do it)

  • Cover ribs with your favourite rub then smoke at 225°F for 2-3 hours depending on thickness of rib.
  • Sauce the ribs, Vacuseal, then place them in the Sous Vide at 195 for 2 hours.
  • Place on grill or in oven to firm up the ribs and glaze the sauce.

To know immediately which method will produce more flavourful ribs you only need to know one thing.  Smoke cannot penetrate cooked meat.  

That means once ribs are cooked in a Sous Vide, they’ll never have that smoky taste.  There will be a bit of smoke on the exterior, but the rib itself won’t taste like a traditional complex, BBQ, smoked rib.  And it never will.

Also know that 195°F is the magical temperature that the fat on your ribs melts.  Actually, 203°F is apparently the new magic number in the world of smoking but somewheretherabouts is where you’ll find the fat melting away.  That’s why for the “Smoked” version of the ribs, they were put in the Sous Vide at 195.  You could put them in at a lower temperature but it would have to be for a much longer period of time for the fat to melt.

 

Cooked racks of ribs on cutting board. Ribs to the left are slightly lighter. Ribs to the right smokier looking and darker.

To the left you have the ribs that were done in a Sous Vide first and the Smoker second.

To the right you have the ribs that were done in a Smoker first and the Sous Vide second.

The colour on the ribs that were smoked first is much better both on the bark and the interior of the rib meat.

Cut cooked ribs. Rib meat on the left rack is white. Rib meat on the right rack is pink.

The interior of the Sous Vide first rib is white.  The interior of the Smoked first rib is pink. Not because it isn’t cooked, but because smoke permeated it.

A pink “smoke ring” isn’t important in ribs. The only thing that’s important is they have that smoky taste.  The Smoked first ribs had it, the Sous Vide first didn’t.

Having said that, they both tasted good and they were BOTH overcooked.  I’m good at this.

Close up shot of cooked ribs. Whiter ones belonging to those of the Sous Vide, pinker ones belonging to those from the Smoker.

I knew which ones I liked better but there wasn’t a remarkable difference. It was as if you bit into each of them and declared one the overwhelming winner and then spit the other one out.  But I couldn’t completely trust myself, so after cooking and cutting both racks, I took my containers around the neighbourhood and made my neighbours taste test them.

First up Jenny.

 

Woman with long curly hair eating ribs.

Jenny’s was the sole vote for the ribs that were done in the Sous Vide first.

 

Man in check shirt eating ribs.

Mike, who also owns a smoker, voted for the Smoked first ribs because he prefers ribs that are drier.  So of the overcooked ribs, Mike liked the most overcooked ones the best.

Woman in sunglasses smiling at camera, eating ribs.

Laurel, who owns a small batch ICE CREAM BUSINESS (more with her later in the summer) preferred the look of the Smoked first rib but the texture of the Sous Vide first rib.  I can’t remember which one she finally voted for because we started talking about the Met Gala and wine.

Other neighbourhood opinions all went with the Smoked first rib.

Neighbour Mike brought up a good point.  If you wanted to wake up and make ribs one summer day you could do it with the Smoked first version because they only took a total of 4-5 hours.  The Sous Vide version on the other hand takes 12.5 hours.


My verdict:

  1. If you have a smoker, nothing is going to beat smoked ribs so just smoke them.

2. If you have a smoker but have a tendency to dry them out, use the Smoke then Sous Vide method. (Yes my ribs were overcooked but I can fix that by reducing the Sous Vide time or temperature next time. It’s much easier to control than a smoker).  PLUS with this method you can freeze the ribs after you’ve initially smoked them, so when you want to have ribs you just need to Sous Vide them and then throw them on the grill.  It’s what the professionals do.  Shhhhhh!  A perfect method if you’re having a party.

3. If you do NOT have a smoker then your absolute next best option is to Sous Vide them, then finish them on the grill.  The texture was good, they pulled away easily from the bone and there were no doingey bits of fat.


Coming up next week the full recipe including tips, techniques, and rub recipes for Your Perfect Summer Ribs.

And I know what you’re wondering right now.  The answer is no.  Neighbour Laurel has never had a neighbourhood ice cream taste testing.  And yes the only reason I had this rib testing was to plant that very seed in her brain.

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35 Comments

  1. TucsonPatty says:

    Okay, I admit it – I don’t know what “bark” is on a rib. I am a vegetarian, so that is my excuse. I will be sending this post and your next one with recipes to my brother who thinks he has the best rib recipes. We’ll see if he likes yours better, or if he will even deign to try them. He does have a smoker, and he has talked about Sous Vide, so maybe he has already done his own taste testing!

    • Allison says:

      The bark is where the outside of the ribs (or brisket) gets nice and crispy. It’s my favorite part of the brisket.

      With love from Texas.

  2. Canadamsel says:

    Is there at way to get great ribs when you don’t have a smoker OR a sous vide… aside from a trip to the American south?

    • TucsonPatty says:

      Take a trip to Kansas City! They have the greatest BBQ, I’m told, anyway. Maybe the second greatest?? (to Karen’s BBQ.) : )

      • canadamsel says:

        I heard Tennessee had the best ribs. In any case, a trip south won’t be in the cards until after January 20, 2021.

    • MindyK says:

      If you have a grill, you can use it as a smoker. You soak wood chunks in water and add them to the coals or flames to create smoke. Cook’s Illustrated has excellent instructions for both gas and charcoal grills (they tell you how many charcoal pieces to put in)–and, as a bonus, if you like tangy, vinegar-based sauce, their Texas-Style Barbecue Sauce is amazing. I triple the recipe and keep it in the freezer. You can use their free 14-day trial to grab the rib/sauce recipes: https://www.americastestkitchen.com/videos/846-texas-style-barbecued-beef-ribs

    • Kelly A Mudry says:

      Yes, weber egg charcoal bbq. You can put an aluminum tray of wood that has been soaked in water for an hour or so (so the wood doesn’t burn) and then slow cook the ribs.

    • Karen says:

      If you have a propane BBQ it’s possible. It’s a bit trickier because it’s more difficult to get a very low temperature with one, but it’s definitely possible. I’m doing an entire post on how to cook ribs next week including what to do if you only have a BBQ. 🙂 ~ karen!

    • Nicole S says:

      I vaguely recall Alton Brown had instructions for using a charcoal chimney (which is dirt cheap to buy) as an improvised smoker.

    • whitequeen96 says:

      Buy them already made! Target has Tony Roma’s ribs for about $13 for a full rack. They also have Jack Daniel’s ribs for $8 a half rack. They are both fabulous and were a snap to make. Pour the ribs and sauce into the included pan and heat in the oven for about 20 minutes. Then throw the pan away – you can’t get any easier than that! And absolutely no danger of overcooking or drying them out. I can’t believe how well this worked out – I now give them as gifts/bribes to a couple of different handymen. And I get taken care of first and with special care, so they obviously like them too!

      • canadamsel says:

        Would you believe I live in a place where there’s no Target? Canada! Target tried here – and failed. Go figure.

        • whitequeen96 says:

          OMG! Target failed? You must live in the remote back woods or something! 😉
          You have my sympathies!

      • canadamsel says:

        Actually, the failure was Target’s fault. The opened 124 stores all at once, didn’t have enough product to put on the shelves, and what they had was boring. They underestimated what Canadian consumers wanted… an expensive mistake. Target’s own CEO admitted “We delivered an experience that didn’t meet our guests’ expectations, or our own.”

        • whitequeen96 says:

          Oh my, well that WAS dumb. I thought you meant this happened in a single small, 1-horse town. But if they didn’t give Canadians the same good products, service and deals we get here in the U.S., they blew it. I’m just sorry you don’t have the convenience (and do the special happy dance) of a Target near you!

  3. Marilyn Meagher says:

    Both ribs look great ,but where can I buy the ice cream??.. it’s my favourite food in the whole wide world..🍦🍦🍦🍨🍨🍨🍦🍦🍨🍨💕😆

  4. Katie C. says:

    The real question is… Are you sure Neighbor Laurel’s name isn’t Yanny?

  5. Thera says:

    4th? oh my must be a busy day out there, sadly no smoker or sous vide here either, so I will make do will a slow cook and then a quick grillin on the BBQ

  6. Jenny says:

    My husband has made ribs on our propane Weber with moderate success (I thought they were good, but he’s very intent on making the “perfect” ribs), but he just bought a Big Green Egg so he can “properly” smoke some ribs. I foresee a lot of grilling in our future this summer as he figures out his technique. Which is fine with me!

    • ellen says:

      He’ll have a blast. YouTube has a lot of Big Green Egg info, plus there are actual forums for enthusiasts.

  7. jamie says:

    Karen – so happy!!! I have both smoker and sous vide – so very happy you are going to obsess over the perfect recipes so I can just cook the resulting delicious meals!!!

  8. Alberta Karen says:

    Looking forward to your rub recipes. I made the maple bourbon BBQ sauce already. Great for pork or chicken. I hope to start smoking on our egg as soon as the fire ban is lifted!

  9. Kristin Ferguson says:

    I figured out my favorite way to do ribs (or any smoked meat) was smoker first, then crock pot! I don’t have a sous vide. I accidentally have two smokers. One is electric, the other requires a coal fire. I learned how to smoke from my dad, who partially grew up in Texas. I found just smoking the ribs tended to dry them out and required a lot of attention. So the happy medium for me was smoking them for a couple of hours with hickory chunks, then popping them in the crock pot on low for a few hours. But I’m sure the sous vide is more precise. Do you brine the ribs first, or just give them a dry rub?
    (Doingey? How do you pronounce this?)

  10. Karen says:

    I got tired of my husband drying out or charring my ribs on the grill or smoker while I had 14 side dishes to make and a table to set, and he only had one thing to do and should therefore do it well. I rub steak seasoning on both sides, wrap in aluminum foil, bake 3 hours at 250 degrees F in the oven, then remove the foil, then bake 30 minutes on 375. PERFECT RIBS EVERY TIME and I’m always in control of the meat.

  11. Heather says:

    Now you need to try InstantPot Ribs – they are my favourite so far.

  12. Jody says:

    Screw ribs….I want ice cream…from Laurel.

  13. Penny says:

    honestly you can’t beat steamed for a few hours then throw them on the grill and crisp them up…..my mouth is watering for Ribs. That said I do not own a smoker or a sous vide so perhaps this is me with sour grapes

  14. Elizabeth says:

    Aw, I liked seeing your neighbors! They all look nice! 🙂

  15. Kim Alexander says:

    Have you watched “Sous Vide Everything” on YouTube? Their “Best Ever, Perfection” Baby Back Ribs smoked first like you recommend. I now have an addiction to sous vide videos on YouTube.

    My husband bought us a Sous Vide after reading your blog- thank you! We cooked Trader Joe’s marinated steaks because they were cheap. They were wonderful!!!!!! The Whole Foods steaks we normally cook on our Big Green Egg may have met their match!

  16. ellen says:

    The general opinion in Oklahoma is grill or smoker until the desired level of smokiness is achieved, then wrap in foil and finish in the oven. BBQ sauce is never added until it’s on your plate. If it’s properly cooked and seasoned you won’t need any sauce. We use the Weber Egg, but have also used an actual smoker, a Weber kettle grill, and even a hibachi in a pinch. We have to make our own as BBQ worth the name is just now starting to be available on Cape Cod!

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