BBQ ribs on the grill may very well be considered the ‘staple’ of bbq grilling. Personally, when I think of BBQ, I think of ribs. With this in mind, I am going to give you the techniques needed to grill ribs like the BBQ pros.
Before I get into it, I have to explain the difference between “grilling” and “BBQ”. These terms are often used synonymously, but they are really two different things. In short, grilling is what you do when you cook dinner on a grill – put your food on the grill over flame until it’s done. Grilling time for foods is generally considered short (compared to BBQ) and takes less than 45 minutes.
BBQ on the other hand, is the “low and slow” version of outdoor cooking. Most of the great ribs you might have in a BBQ restaurant are done this way. Low and slow cooking takes anywhere from 2 – 6 hours to cook the food. Food is cooked at low heat, between 200 and 250 degrees in most cases. This is often done in a smoker or charcoal/wood grill.
I am going to show you how to BBQ ribs “low and slow” using your everyday grill.
Get Zen: Things to Know Before We Begin
1. Don’t overspice: Don’t overspice your ribs. Before cooking, apply a dry rub to your rack of ribs but don’t go overboard. I’ve seen expensive ribs get ruined by over-zealous cooks applying way too much rub. Also, don’t apply any sauce or marinade prior to cooking.
2. Use the equipment you have: You don’t need to run out an buy a smoker or new grill to be able to cook BBQ ribs like the pros. Assuming your grill has enough space to support the amount of ribs you plan on cooking, use it. One thing regarding space is that you WILL need ‘extra’ space to support indirect cooking (see more on this later in the article).
3. Keep an eye on the heat: You will be cooking the ribs under relatively low heat. We will need to keep the grill at a temperature between 200 and 250 degrees. Spikes and valleys in your heat will affect the meat by drying it out. Consistently low temperatures will produce soft, tender, delicious ribs.
4. Don’t rush: Be prepared to wait about 3 to 4 hours for baby back ribs, or 5 – 6 hours for spare ribs. Don’t apply sauce too early either. Putting sauce on the ribs before they’re ready will give you a burnt crust. This is especially true with sweet sauces as the sugars will tend to burn quickly. Best time to sauce the ribs is within 25 minutes of removing them from the grill, or better yet, just as you pull them off and wrap them.
5. Give it a rest: It is vital to let your meat rest when you’re done cooking. This resting period applies to any meat. In a nutshell, letting meat rest helps to recoup and retain the juices and flavor. When you remove your meat from the grill, wrap it up in aluminum foil and let it sit. During this time, the meat will continue too cook. Most importantly, as the meat cools, the juices that are just under the surface of the meat (looking for an escape route) will be “re-absorbed”. The time needed for resting meat is debatable, but some professional rules of thumb say 8 minutes per pound, or long enough for the internal temperature of the meat to reach 120 degrees. I generally use a time frame of about 10 – 12 minutes per pound.
So now that you’re in a zen place, let’s begin.
Prepare Your Pork Ribs for the BBQ
Preparation of your ribs is relatively simple. All we need to do in this step is to remove the membrane, trim the meat, apply some spice rub, and place the ribs on a rack (when cooking multiple rack of ribs in tight space).
We DO NOT want to boil the ribs prior to cooking. I know this is a common cooking method, and I’ve done it myself. However, the pre-boiling is only necessary when grilling ribs (i.e. you want the food done fast), and cooking time is about 15-20 minutes on the grill. However, we are cooking low and slow style – and boiling your ribs would ruin them in this case.
Step 1 : Remove the membrane
There is a shiny white, cellulose membrane located on the bone side of the ribs (opposite the meaty side). We want to remove this prior to cooking. The membrane will not break down during cooking, and will make it difficult to separate the ribs from one another, and will be very chewy when eaten. Removing this membrane will allow the dry rub to penetrate deeper into the meat as well.
Occasionally you may purchase ribs that are already “skinned” which means they’re already removed the membrane for you. If you purchase your ribs from a butcher shop, you can request this be removed for you. If the membrane is on you’ll see a smooth and shiny layer on the back of the ribs.
Removing the membrane is actually pretty simple. Flip the ribs over so you are looking at the cupped-side or back-side of the rack of ribs. You’ll notice that the ribs are wider on one end and narrower on the other. Start from the other wider end, or even in the middle and work a knife under the membrane. Take your time and pry it up without cutting it. Once you lift it up enough to pull it then grab it with a paper towel and pull it completely off. It should come off in one piece. If it breaks while pulling it off, that’s no big deal. Just continue the steps above until the membrane is fully removed.
Video: How to remove a membrane from your ribs
Step 2: Trim the Ribs
This step is absolutely optional. I rarely trim my ribs, and only do so if there is a flap of fat, or a layer of fat on my ribs that would end up being a problem when eating them. Otherwise, having some fat on your ribs is a good thing. Fat creates juices and flavor.
Step 3: Apply a spice rub
Choose your favorite spice rub and let’s add some flavor! A rub is a combination of spices, herbs, and seasonings that flavor your meat. You can opt to create your own spice rub from a recipe, or purchase pre-made spice rub from your local grocery store.
Rubs can be whatever you want them to be. If you love sweet, savory, spicy, hot, or something in between, there is a rub for you. Or you can make it.. Finding the rub that is right for you can take some practice and taste testing, but it’s worth the time. Unless you have a specific rub recipe that you enjoy, I recommend purchasing a store-bought rub and then expanding from there. For the adventurous, you can always apply different rubs to individual racks of ribs if you’re cooking more than one. Then, you can have fun sampling the various rubs.
To apply your rub, sprinkle some rub on the surface of the meat, and RUB IT IN. Use your fingers and gently massage the rub into the meat. Flip it over, and do the other side.
You can apply the rub the night before cooking, or do it 60 minutes prior to cooking. Generally, I’ll do the rub a few hours before cooking and then put the ribs in the refrigerator. If I’m cooking early in the morning, I’ll do it the night before. However, I’ve also applied rub just before I put the rubs on the grill, and they still come out packed with flavor.
Regarding rubs, try to avoid using too much salt. A salty rub will affect the taste and dry out your ribs during the cooking process.
Step 4: Place the ribs on a rack
This is really only necessary if you’re cramped for space. If you have the room and have room for the indirect grilling (see next section), then you can place the ribs directly on the grill surface.
Place all ribs facing the same direction.
Let the ribs stand at room temperature for 30 to 60 minutes prior to cooking.
Cook Your Ribs Like a BBQ Pro
Step 1: Prepare your grill for indirect cooking
Below is a video illustrating how to set up your grill for indirect cooking. The video uses a charcoal grill for an example, but you can do the same with a gas grill. When using a gas grill for indirect cooking, simply turn the burners off on the side where your ribs will be placed.
Video: Setting up a grill for indirect cooking
Step 2 : Prepare the fire and wood chips
When your fire is at about 350 degree, place your soaked wood chips directly on the coals of your charcoal grill or smoker. If using a gas grill, you will want to use a smoker box for this.
Step 3 : Prepare your mop sauce
The mop is designed to be applied about every hour during the cooking process. The mop will help keep the ribs from drying out, while at the same time helping to tenderize the meat. Below is a basic mop sauce recipe that you can use.
- 1 cup apple juice
- 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
- 2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
Mix ingredients together and put it in a spray bottle so that you can spray your ribs using a fine mist. You will spray your ribs each hour.
Step 4 : Place the ribs on the grill and cook
The steps below are designed for pork spare ribs. If cooking baby back ribs, the cooking time will be reduced to about 2 – 3 hours.
Method of cooking: Indirect low heat (225 to 250 degrees)
Cooking time: 5 to 6 hours
If placing your ribs directly on the grill surface, place the ribs bone side down on the grill over the water pan. You will cook the ribs with the bone side down (meaty side up) throughout the entire process. Since you are not cooking over direct flame, the indirect heat will cook both sides relatively evenly. The advantage of placing the meaty side up is that the juices will mostly stay within the meat, and not drip down into the grill.
If placing your ribs in a rack, place them over the water pan and away from direct heat. Ensure that all of your ribs are facing the same direction within the rack.
Make sure the ribs are not over any direct flame, and are located over your water pan! For more information about the water pan (if you missed this part), watch the video above about proper grill setup for indirect heat.
During the cooking process:
- Use your spray bottle of mop sauce and spray the ribs on both sides every hour.
- Maintain temperature of 225 to 250 degrees by utilizing the side and top vents of your grill (and/or burners if using a gas grill)
- Do not flip the ribs. Keep them bone side down.
- General cooking time is 5 to 6 hours for spare ribs, and 2 to 3 hours for baby back ribs.
- Cook until the meat has shrunk back from the ends of the bones by about 1/2 inch in multiple places, and tears easily from the bone.
- Cook 30 to 60 minutes longer.
If using a BBQ sauce:
- If using a BBQ sauce, once the meat has shrunk by 1/2 inch, you can apply your sauce on both sides of the ribs. Keep an eye on them, as some sauces (especially those with a lot of sugar) may burn easily.
- Cook 30 to 60 minutes longer.
Remove from the grill and serve
Now it’s time to enjoy the fruits of your labor. Remove your ribs from the grill and get ready to serve!
- Step 1 : If using a sauce (other than the mop sauce), sauce up the ribs one more time.
- Step 2 : Immediately wrap your ribs in foil and let them rest. A rest time of 10 – 15 minutes will be all you need in most cases.
- Step 3 : Once resting is done, cut your ribs into individual ribs and serve
Congratulations on cooking BBQ ribs like a pro!
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