There are certain dishes every grill master should know how to cook without thinking—a perfect steak, a beer-can chicken, a fish dish you can actually lift off the grill grate in one piece. But the most essential thing of all is knowing how to cook ribs. Ribs are the urbarbecue—iconic and elemental—and if there’s only one dish you master, it should be ribs.
So what makes a perfect rib? It should be handsome and dark, like polished mahogany, with a rough surface, like centennial tree bark. The ribs themselves should be tender enough to pull apart with your fingers, but not so soft the meat falls off the bone. (It should have some chew to it—that’s why you have teeth.) The meat should be fragrant with spice and smoke but not overpowered by either. Yes, you want to feel the heat of pepper and mustard and enjoy the soothing sweetness of brown sugar and molasses, but at the end of the day, the rib should taste like pork.
Well, if this is your idea of the perfect rib (and it should be), here’s your master recipe. It will teach you the principles of first-class ribsmanship—skinning the ribs, rubbing the meat, using a mop sauce, glazing with a barbecue sauce, and harnessing the mouth-watering powers of wood smoke. But ultimately, it’s so simple you can prepare it from start to finish in about an hour and a half, only ten minutes of which is actual work.
The foolproof method for cooking ribs, indirect grilling is easy to do, utterly reliable, and practiced by millions of American grill masters. You can grill using the indirect method on a gas or a charcoal grill, and if you add wood chips or chunks to the fire, the process becomes smoke roasting (see below).
To set up a charcoal grill for indirect grilling, light charcoal in a chimney starter. Dump or rake the lit coals into two mounds on opposite sides of the grill. Place an aluminum foil drip pan in the center under the grate. You’ll grill the ribs on the grate that’s over the drip pan, away from the heat, making sure to cover the grill. Any time you grill for longer than one hour, you’ll need to replenish the coals. You can do this by lighting fresh charcoal in a chimney starter.
To set up a gas grill for indirect grilling, if your grill has two burners, set one burner to the temperature you want. Place the ribs over the other, unlit burner and cover the grill. You’ll need to rotate the ribs several times, so they cook evenly. On a three-burner gas grill, set the outside or front and rear burners to the desired temperature. Cook the ribs over the center, unlit burner, with the grill covered. To use the indirect grill method on a four- or six-burner gas grill, set the outside burners on the temperature you need. Cook the ribs over the center, unlit burners, covering the grill.
How To Smoke On A Gas Grill—Some Extreme Methods
Gas grills have many advantages—the convenience of push-button ignition, for example, or turn-of-the-knob heat control. There’s the ability to maintain a consistent temperature and the general “neatness” of propane. Gas grills are great for both direct and indirect grilling and for spit roasting. But, the one area in which just about every gas grill falls short is smoking.
This is true of even the most sophisticated stainless steel gas super grills, the ones with builtin smoker boxes that have dedicated burners. True, these may generate a lot of smoke, but that rarely translates into ribs (or anything else) that taste smoky. The problem has to do with the way a gas grill is vented. It needs lots of air, and this necessitates wide vents in the back. No matter how much smoke the smoker box produces, most of it ends up pouring out of those vents.
If you’re really serious about smoking on your gas grill, there are three possible solutions. The first is to buy an accessory called Sam’s Smoker Pro. The device looks like a large, heavy, flat metal candy box, and it fits under the grate directly over the burners. Following the manufacturer’s instructions, you fill the box with wood chips that have been soaked in water and drained, then you place the box in a preheated grill. The rising smoke subtly flavors the ribs. Because this device has a wide surface area, it’s more efficient for smoking than the average smoker box.
The second possibility for smoking with gas is to put a castiron skillet or metal pie pan filled with eight to ten lit charcoals on the grate next to the ribs. Place a hardwood log, three or four wood chunks, or a cup and a half of soaked and drained wood chips on top of the hot coals. This will pump out lots of smoke. After turning off the grill’s burners, you can plug up the vents in the back of the grill with crumpled aluminum foil to keep some of the smoke in, letting the ambient heat do the cooking. You may need to remove the foil from the vents and fire up the grill again to finish cooking (don’t forget to open the grill when you light it).
The third option for smoking on a gas grill has been suggested by no less a grill master than radio host Howard Stern: Fill the grill’s smoker box with soaked wood chips and run the smoker burner on high to produce lots of wood smoke, then turn off all the gas burners and plug the vents in the back of the grill with crumpled aluminum foil. Let the ribs smoke for fifteen or twenty minutes, then open the grill lid, remove the aluminum foil from the vents, light the burners again, and finish cooking the ribs. You may want to repeat the smoking process. But remember, never run a propane grill with the vents plugged up.
A metal or wire device with vertical slots designed to hold racks of ribs upright, a rib rack enables you to fit four full-size racks of ribs in the space that would be filled by only two racks of ribs lying flat. When buying a rib rack, look for sturdy construction, rustproof metal, and a rack that’s long enough to accommodate eleven-bone racks of baby backs, along with compartments wide enough to hold the thickest pork spareribs or beef long ribs. Of course, I’m partial to the Best of Barbecue rib rack.
Cooking Methodbarbecuing, grilling
Total Timeunder 4 hours
OccasionCasual Dinner Party, Family Get-together, game day
Recipe Coursemain course
Dietary Considerationmain course
Taste and Texturemeaty, savory, sharp, smoky, spiced, sweet, tangy
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 cup apple cider
- 3 tablespoons bourbon, or 3 more tablespoons apple cider
- 3 tablespoons soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons coarse salt (kosher or sea)
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons sweet paprika
- 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
- 2 teaspoons dry mustard (preferably Colman’s)
- 2 teaspoons garlic powder
- ½ teaspoon celery seed
- 2 racks baby back pork ribs (4 to 5 pounds total)
- Lemon Brown Sugar Barbecue Sauce (recipe follows) or another favorite barbecue sauce
- 1½ cups wood chips or chunks (preferably hickory or apple), soaked for 1 hour in water to cover, then drained
- barbecue mop
- 2 cups ketchup
- ½ cup brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
- 6 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, or more to taste
- 2 tablespoons molasses
- 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
- 1½ teaspoons liquid smoke
- 2 teaspoons dry mustard (preferably Colman’s)
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
For the Barbecue Sauce:
Combine the ketchup, brown sugar, lemon zest and juice, molasses, Worcestershire sauce, liquid smoke, mustard, onion powder, and pepper in a nonreactive saucepan and whisk to mix.
Gradually bring the sauce to a simmer over medium heat and let simmer until thick and flavorful, 8 to 10 minutes. Taste for seasoning, adding more lemon juice if necessary. Transfer the sauce to a bowl or clean jars and let cool to room temperature. Refrigerate the sauce, covered, until serving time; let it return to room temperature before using. The sauce can be refrigerated for several weeks.
For the Ribs:
Make the mop sauce: Melt the butter in a nonreactive saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the cider, bourbon, and soy sauce. Keep warm until ready to use.
Make the rub: Place the salt, brown sugar, paprika, pepper, mustard, garlic powder, and celery seed in a small bowl and mix with your fingers, breaking up any lumps in the brown sugar or garlic powder.
Prepare the ribs: Place a rack of ribs meat side down on a baking sheet. Remove the thin, papery membrane from the back of the rack by inserting a slender implement, such as a butter knife or the tip of a meat thermometer, under it. The best place to start is on one of the middle bones. Using a dishcloth, paper towel, or pliers to gain a secure grip, peel off the membrane. Repeat with the remaining rack.
Set aside 1 tablespoon of rub for serving. Sprinkle the remaining rub over both sides of the ribs, rubbing it onto the meat. Cover the ribs with plastic wrap and refrigerate them while you set up the grill.
Set up the grill for indirect grilling (see Notes) and preheat to medium (325° to 350°F). Place a large drip pan in the center of the grill under the grate. (For instructions on smoking on a gas grill, see Notes.)
When ready to cook, brush and oil the grill grate. Place the ribs bone side down in the center of the grate over the drip pan and away from the heat. (If your grill has limited space, stand the racks of ribs upright in a rib rack; see Notes.) If cooking on a charcoal grill, toss half of the wood chips on each mound of coals. Cover the grill and cook the ribs for 45 minutes.
Mop the ribs on both sides with the mop sauce. Re-cover the grill and continue cooking the ribs until well browned, cooked through, and tender enough to pull apart with your fingers, 45 minutes to 1 hour longer, 1¼ to 1½ hours in all. When the ribs are cooked, the meat will have shrunk back from the ends of the bones by about ¼ inch. Mop the ribs again every 15 minutes and, if using a charcoal grill, replenish the coals as needed.
Just before serving, brush the ribs on both sides with some of the Lemon Brown Sugar Barbecue Sauce and move them directly over the fire. Grill the ribs until the barbecue sauce is browned and bubbling, 1 to 3 minutes per side.
Transfer the ribs to a large platter or cutting board. Let the ribs rest for a few minutes, then cut the racks in half or into individual ribs. Sprinkle a little of the reserved rub over the ribs and serve at once with the remaining barbecue sauce on the side.
How to cook First-Timer’s Ribs in a smoker: Set up and light the smoker according to the manufacturer’s instructions and preheat it to low (225° to 250°F). Place the ribs in the smoker bone side down and smoke until cooked through, 4 to 5 hours. Start mopping the ribs with the mop sauce after 1 hour, then mop the ribs again once every hour. Brush the ribs with the Lemon Brown Sugar Barbecue Sauce a half hour before they are done smoking. You’ll need to replenish the wood chips or chunks after the first and second hour of smoking and to replenish the coals every hour.
2006 Steven Raichlen