Should You Wrap Ribs? Foil Vs. Butcher Paper?

Ribs meat down in foil

I’ll be honest, when I first started smoking ribs, I had no idea that wrapping them was a thing. I thought to myself, why would you wrap ribs when smoking them. Don’t you want the ribs to rake on the smoke?

There are a lot of questions when it comes to wrapping ribs. Is it wrapping ribs really necessary? If you do wrap, should you wrap in foil or butcher paper? How long do you leave it wrapped for?

We will go over the most common questions when it comes to wrapping your ribs. My goal is to have you leave this article knowing what wrapping ribs does for you, when you should and should not wrap ribs, and how to wrap ribs.

Should You Wrap Ribs When Smoking?

Ribs on smoker

You should wrap your ribs if you want to keep your ribs moist, speed up the cooking time, and more importantly, if you are looking for fall of the bone tenderness; however, if you are looking for a more traditional style rib with a little more hold, a more firm bark, and better smoke flavor, you should skip the wrap.

In summary, wrapping ribs can be explained by this table below. For a more in depth look, read on!

QualityNo WrapButcher PaperFoil
TendernessLeast tenderSomewhere in the middleMost tender
Moisture RetentionLeast moistSomewhere in the middleMost moist
Smoke FlavorBest smoke flavorLess smoke flavorLess smoke flavor
Rub FlavorLeast rub flavorMost rub flavorMost rub flavor
Cook TimeLongest cook timeshorter cook timeshortest cook time

Why Would You Wrap Your Ribs?

Increase Tenderness:

When you wrap ribs, you are trapping the moisture and heat inside the ribs creating the perfect environment for tender ribs. That’s not to say that not wrapping ribs won’t give you the tenderness you are looking for. It’s more a question of how tender do you want your ribs to be?

Do you want your ribs to be so tender that they fall right off the bone or are you looking for a more traditional style competition rib that has some hold to it?

Smoked cherry ribs

While many people, myself included, want their ribs so tender that they fall right off the bone, many argue that that is not how ribs are to be cooked. Traditional competition style ribs, while still incredibly tender, need to have some hold to them.

If you are looking for fall off the bone tenderness, then I would recommend wrapping your ribs. If you are looking for a more traditional style rib, then consider skipping the wrap!

Retain Moisture:

One of the main reasons for wrapping your ribs is to help retain moisture.

Meat is comprised of 75% water that once cooked, is pushed out of the meat. By wrapping your ribs, you are capturing this moisture. It also allows you to capture the fat renderings coming off your ribs during the cook that would otherwise run off your ribs and down below.

smoked ribs cut up

By retaining this moisture, you are creating a more humid cooking environment which prevents meat from drying out and creates a juicer finished product. Also, by trapping those juices, you are allowing your ribs to baste in that moisture which can help add more flavor.

However, you have to be careful that you don’t wrap for too long as it can ruin your bark and lead to mushy ribs. All that moisture is great for keeping your ribs moist, but that moisture also breaks down the bark.

For this reason, many people prefer not to wrap. If you do wrap, I would not recommend leaving your ribs wrapped for more than 2 hours.

Speed Up Cooking Time:

Another major reason people prefer to wrap their ribs is to help speed up the cooking times. When your ribs are wrapped tightly, you are not only trapping in the juices, but also the heat. The wrap acts as a insulator thus allowing the ribs to smoke faster.

Wrapping ribs is great for those looking to speed up the cooking process a little. I will note though, that once you wrap ribs, they will not take on any more smoke flavor. This is why we wait to wrap ribs until our bark is set.

Ribs on WSM

Once you have a nice deep dark color on your ribs, and the bark is firm to the touch, you are ready to wrap. This is typically done after 2-3 hours on the smoker. The longer you leave it unwrapped, the more smoke flavor you can get.

Change The Flavor Profile:
Touched on above, when you wrap your ribs, you are preventing them from taking on more smoke. While you will still get a smoke flavor, wrapping allows the flavor of the rub to be more prominent and the smoke flavor to be less prominent. This is ideal for those who don’t like such a strong smoke flavor.

Additionally, many people like to add things like brown sugar and honey when wrapping their ribs, This allows you introduce other flavors to your ribs. I personally like to add honey and brown sugar to sweeten up my ribs!

brown sugar and butter foil boat

Can You Smoke Ribs Without Wrapping Them?

You can absolutely smoke ribs without wrapping them. In fact, a lot of people prefer no wrap ribs. No wrap ribs are your more traditional competition style ribs. They still turn out tender, but they a little more hold to them so they don’t fall off the bone.

No wrap ribs also have a more prominent smoke flavor to them which some people prefer. It really comes down to personal preference. Experiment and see what you like best.

Why You Shouldn’t Wrap Ribs?

Better Bark:

We touched on this above, but when you wrap ribs, you are trapping all the moisture inside the wrap. This creates a very humid environment that essentially steams the ribs. And while this is great for keeping your ribs moist, this also breaks down the bark formation.

By not wrapping your ribs you are allowing that bark to stay in place and further develop throughout the smoke.

Ribs on charcoal smoker

More Hold:

Again, wrapping ribs is going to give you that fall off the bone tenderness. Pitmasters and many enthusiasts would argue that is not how ribs should be smoked. While you still want them tender, they should have a little hold to them.

If you are looking for a more traditional competition style rib that offer more firmness, then skip the wrap.

More Smoke Flavor:

When smoking ribs, most of the flavor is held in the bark. When you wrap your ribs, not only are you breaking down that bark, but you are also cutting off your ribs from continuing to take on more smoke and develop more bark.

This isn’t a bad thing, just a preference thing. Those looking for the most smoke flavor and best bark should skip the wrap.

How To Wrap Ribs?

I could tell you but who better to learn from than the famous Aaron Franklin. Here is a great example on how to wrap ribs.

Do You Wrap Ribs Face Down Or Face Up?

If warping your ribs, you should wrap them meat side down. This allows the meat to baste in the juices, rub, and whatever else you put inside the wrap helping to add more flavor to the meat. Though meat side up will still work.

When Do You Wrap Ribs?

When your bark is a dark mahogany color and is firm to the touch, you are ready to wrap your ribs. This typically happens at the 3-hour mark, though leaving your ribs unwrapped on the smoker longer never hurts and will only add to the bark formation.

I always tell people to wrap when your bark is where you want it. Once you wrap, you aren’t going to get more smoke or bark formation. Because the bark is where all the flavor of your meat is, wrapping to early will limit the amount of flavor you get from the smoke.

Toothpick test for ribs

Should You Wrap Ribs In Foil Or Butcher Paper?

While most people have heard of wrapping smoked meat in foil, some people might be new to the idea of wrapping in butcher paper. Butcher paper (Amazon link) is a durable and breathable paper commonly used in the meat smoking industry to wrap meat such as brisket. But should you use it for smoking ribs?

I can tell you there are wrong ways to smoke ribs but wrapping in foil or butcher paper will both work. When it comes to comparing foil vs butcher paper, its going to come down to your personal preference and the difference is nearly indistinguishable.

The slight differences can be seen in the table at the beginning of this article. Out of curiosity, I ran a poll to see what people where doing. As you can see from the poll below, most people do wrap their ribs when smoking with a combined 86% of people doing so.

Between those 86% of people who wrap their ribs, 61% of them wrap their ribs in foil. It seems that wrapping ribs in foil is the much more popular choice within the meat smoking community.

Rib wrap poll

What Do You Put On Ribs When Wrapping Them?

When wrapping ribs in foil or butcher paper, it is common to add things to the wrap. This not only adds more moisture to the tibs, but also add more flavor. One of the most common and time-tested methods, is adding butter and brown sugar to your rib wrap; however, there are all kinds of combinations you could add. Here is a list of things commonly added to rib wraps.

  • Orange Juice
  • Water
  • Apple cider vinegar
  • Syrup
  • Honey
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • Wine

There are many different combinations and things that you could put inside your rib wrap. Don’t be afraid to experiment and try new things to figure out what you like best. After all that is what cooking is all about.

How Long Do You Keep Ribs Wrapped?

bend test for ribs

When wrapping ribs, you don’t want to leave them wrapped for more than 2 hours. Leaving your ribs wrapped for too long can cause them to come out mushy. When wrapping ribs, you should follow the 3-2-1 method (2-2-1 for baby backs).

That is 3 hours on the smoker, wrapped for another 2 hours, and unwrapped the last hour. This is a very common way of smoking ribs at 225° F. If you are smoking at a higher temperature, then the times will need to be adjusted as your ribs will smoke much faster.

Additionally, wrapping in foil will cook ribs slightly faster than wrapping ribs in butcher paper. Use this as a bench line but always remember to go by feel and not time when determining if ribs are done.

Michael W.

Half of my family lives in Texas and we would visit them often. As a food lover, naturally I fell in love with smoked meat. Smoked brisket and peach cobbler is a staple around where my family grew up and quickly became a favorite of mine. Unfortunately we didn't have good BBQ where I grew up. After enough years, I finally decided to get a smoker so I didn't have to wait for good BBQ until I went to Texas. Getting into a new hobby can be overwhelming. When I first started smoking meat, there was so much conflicting information and so many different styles and techniques that I didn't know where to start. I started this website to help people BBQ better and learn the ropes by sharing my knowledge and experiences.

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