Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Jeff Mcintyre.
Learning basic cooking skills was not a priority for me while growing up. The transition from a fully fed teenager to a totally independent and clueless in the kitchen college freshman was painful. I quickly lost my appetite for fast food and frozen dinners. Luckily, something about outdoor cooking had always intrigued me. I began reading about grilling techniques and quickly got hooked. Grilling introduced me to the art of preparing great meals. Today I consider cooking one of my greatest passions.
There is good reason why pork ribs are such a dominant fixture on the competition grilling circuit. Cooking delicious ribs shows a great command of the barbecuing process. This may sound intimidating, but the best thing about cooking ribs is that it comprises a series of simple steps you can master and reap the delicious benefits.
How to Purchase Pork Ribs
Pork Ribs are widely available at your local supermarket, meat market, or wholesale grocer like Costco. If you are a Costco member, I highly recommend purchasing ribs there. They offer high-quality meats at an affordable price.
Although there are seemingly endless types of pork ribs with a variety of labels, in reality there are only three types to consider.
Baby Back Ribs
These ribs are commonly referred to as loin ribs, back ribs, or Canadian back ribs. Taken from the top of the rib cage between the spine and the spareribs, baby back ribs are shorter and meatier than spareribs and take less time to cook.
Referred to as spareribs or side ribs, these ribs are taken from the belly side of the rib cage, below the baby back ribs area and above the sternum. Spareribs yield less meat than baby back ribs and contain more fat.
St. Louis Style Ribs
These are spareribs with the sternum bone, cartilage, and rib tips removed. After being cut, St. Louis style ribs have a rectangular shape.
How to Prepare the Ribs
Rinse and Cut
It may seem obvious, but this needs to be pointed out. The first step is to rinse the ribs under running cold water; making sure to get rid of any loose meat, fat, or bone particles. After rinsing, blot the slab dry with paper towels.
Cut off any dangling pieces of meat or fat. If these pieces are kept on the slab, they will burn and leave burn marks on your ribs.
On the bone side of the slab, you will notice a tough membrane covering the bones. Remove this membrane by getting between it and the meat at the wider end of the slab and ripping it off all the way to the narrow end.
Although the effectiveness of marinating pork ribs is debatable, I like to marinate them for a few hours before cooking as follows:
- Place the ribs in a large, non-reactive roasting pan or a large bowl
- Pour 3 to 4 cups of apple cider vinegar over them; enough to cover the ribs completely
- Cut and squeeze the juice of 1 lemon directly into the bowl
- Cover bowl with plastic wrap and place it in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 hours
Apply a Dry Rub
Applying a dry rub to your ribs is essential. The combination of salt, sugar, herbs, and spices will enhance the meat’s flavor, add some heat, and help promote a tasty surface crust. Use the following rub, make your own, or go with your favorite store-bought variation.
This recipe makes about 1 cup. Combine all of the ingredients in a bowl and mix with your hands. Store the remaining rub in an airtight jar away from heat or light; it will keep for at least 6 months.
- 1/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
- 1/4 cup paprika (hot paprika for an extra kick)
- 3 tablespoons black pepper
- 4 tablespoons salt (preferably coarse salt)
- 2 teaspoons garlic powder
- 2 teaspoons celery seeds (optional)
- 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Remove marinated ribs from the fridge and blot dry with paper towels. Apply a thin layer of vegetable oil to the ribs. The flavors in most dry rubs are oil soluble so this step will help the rub penetrate the surface of the meat. Apply a generous amount of the rub to both sides. Finally, wrap the ribs in foil or plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
In this article, I describe the process of grilling spareribs with smoke on a gas grill. The meaningful differences when using a charcoal grill are in the way you set up your grill and how you apply the woodchips for the smoking process.
The only difference when grilling the different kinds of ribs is the cooking time; baby back ribs tend to cook a bit quicker due to their lesser fat content.
Grilling on indirect heat.
Ribs grill best with wood smoke and by cooking them slowly at low heat. We achieve this consistent low heat by grilling our meat indirectly. This simply means we turn up the heat on one side of the grill and we lay our meat down on the opposite side.
Indirect grilling on a gas grill.
Setting up your gas grill is pretty simple. If you have two burners, turn one of them on and leave the other one off. If you have three burners, turn off the two burners on the edges, or if you are having issues maintaining your goal temperature of 225 degrees, turn one of the edge burners on and leave the other two off.
Smoking with woodchips on a gas grill.
Smoke flavor makes your ribs even tastier! Simply follow the steps below and you will marvel at how rewarding it is to grill with smoke.
Purchase woodchips at home improvement stores or where you can buy a grill. My preferred woods to smoke with are hickory and mesquite. Both woods yield strong flavors quickly. Placing wood chips directly on the flame will cause them to catch fire and burn out quickly; producing a messy pile of ashes and very little smoke. House the woodchips in something that won’t burn; and will not produce toxic chemicals when under high heat. You have two options:
- Purchase a woodchip smoker box — a onetime purchase that will set you back less than $20. These boxes are sturdy, durable, and work very well.
- Use foil. Use the simple technique shown in this video to house your woodchips.
I have used both methods and find making your own “smoking pouch” with foil works just fine. I suggest starting with making your own smoker pouches and stick with this method if it suits your needs.
Most grilling experts recommend soaking woodchips (typically in water, but you can also use wine, beer, whiskey, and even fruit juice) for at least an hour prior to usage. Then drain and place them in your smoking pouch or smoker box.
Time to Turn Up the Heat!
Now that everything is ready, it is time to turn the burners on and play with fire! Place your smoker box or foil smoking pouch directly on top of one of the burners you will be using (refer to the indirect grilling instructions above). Turn the burner you placed your smoke box or smoking pouch on to maximum heat. Wait until you see some smoke coming out of the grill (waiting is key as opening the lid to check will only delay the process by letting the heat escape). Once you see smoke emitting from the grill, turn the burner to medium-low and place the slab of ribs on the grate over the burner not in use. Remember we are cooking slowly on indirect heat. Maintain a temperature of 225 to 235 degrees throughout the cooking duration. Eventually the woodchips will burn out; however, continue cooking the ribs without smoke until they are done. Your ribs will have picked up lots of flavor from the 45 minutes or so of smoke.
You will need a spray bottle. Spray bottles are available for purchase in the gardening section of most grocery stores. Fill the spray bottle with a small amount of apple cider vinegar. Every 30 minutes or so, lift the lid of the grill and spray a bit of the apple cider vinegar directly on the ribs to coat them and prevent them from drying out. The ribs should be fully cooked within 4 to 5 hours. About 20 minutes before the ribs are done, spread a coat of your homemade or favorite store-bought BBQ sauce onto the ribs. Even better, try my favorite homemade BBQ sauce recipe:
- 2 cups of ketchup
- 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
- 1/4 cup of Worcestershire sauce
- 1/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons molasses
- 2 tablespoons mustard
- 1 tablespoon Tabasco sauce (or your favorite hot sauce)
- 1 tablespoon of your favorite barbecue rub (optional)
- 2 teaspoons liquid smoke (optional)
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 3 cloves fresh garlic, peeled
- 2 chopped chipotle peppers in adobo sauce (optional)
Combine all ingredients (except the garlic cloves) in a nonreactive saucepan and slowly bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low/medium and add the garlic cloves. Let sauce simmer at least 15 minutes then remove the garlic cloves. Transfer the sauce to clean jars and store in the refrigerator. The sauce will keep for a couple of months.
Check for Doneness
The biggest obstacle with checking ribs for doneness is that you cannot use a meat thermometer. The thermometer will not read accurately because you cannot probe the meat deep enough without hitting the bone. Bones emit heat and will give an inaccurate reading. Despite this limitation, there are a number of ways to check your ribs for doneness:
- Stick a toothpick between two bones. If it goes in and out of the meat without resistance, they are done.
- Cut the bone on the end off and taste it for doneness.
- Cut into the meat with a knife and check to make sure there is no pink juice near the middle of the meat.
Try these ribs and tell me how good they are! Once you have given these ribs a try, I would love to hear how delicious they turned out. Better yet, send me a shout and I can attend! I will bring the cold beverages!
What are your secrets and tips for making awesome ribs? Share with us in the comments!
Jeff Mcintyre is a freelance writer that writes about his adventures as a writer, book lover, poker player, sports fan, prop bet addict, techie and food lover.