Pork ribs do take a while—plan to light the grill four hours before you want to eat—but most of that time will be hands-off, so it’s easy cooking. Ready? Let’s get started!
1 Buy ’em First you pick your cut. Loin back (aka baby back) ribs are the petite, tender ribs popular in restaurants. They tend to cost more. Spareribs are larger and more marbled. Compared to baby back ribs, they’re often cheaper, meatier and more fully flavored, which we like, but that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. St. Louis ribs are just spareribs trimmed to a tidy rectangle. (Your butcher can do it.) Bottom line: Both back and spare taste great; allow about 1 pound per person.
2 Prep ’em If the bone side of your slab looks smooth and shiny, it still has the membrane. You can eat it, but it can be tough and some ’cue experts say it blocks smoke from flavoring the meat. We like to remove it. Insert a table knife under the membrane on one end to gently loosen it, then work your fingers under and peel it off in a sheet. To get a good grip, grasp it with a paper towel.
3 Rub ’em While the grill heats (or the day before), season the meat. Plain old salt and pepper work fine, especially if you plan to douse the ribs in sauce later, but a spice rub adds extra flavor. Use a purchased blend or our recipe for All-Purpose Rib Rub. Gently pat the rub on the meat, a few tablespoons per slab. The seasoning should stick, but don’t massage it in. (Silly as it sounds, you shouldn’t really rub a rub.) If you aren’t grilling immediately, cover and chill the seasoned ribs for up to 24 hours. The longer they sit, the deeper the flavor.
4 Grill ’em Ribs need slow cooking over indirect heat. For a charcoal grill, arrange medium-hot coals around a drip pan. Test for medium heat above the pan. (You can hold your hand 5 inches above where the food will cook for 6 to 7 seconds before having to pull away.) Place ribs, bone sides down, on a grill rack over the drip pan. Cover and grill for 2 hours. (For a gas grill, preheat the grill. Reduce heat to medium. Adjust for indirect cooking by placing ribs in a roasting pan over unlit burner. Grill as above.) You don’t need to monitor the ribs; in fact, you can wander away to kick back with a drink. But if you have a charcoal grill, come back periodically to check the heat and replenish charcoal. If you like to use wood chips for smoky flavor when grilling, go for it, but you don’t need them. Same goes for a rib rack, a tool that props slabs vertically to fit more in the grill. It’s fun, but not necessary.
5 Wrap ’em This step is your secret weapon: It seals in moisture and boosts flavor. After 2 hours of grill time, tear off a piece of heavy foil large enough to enclose each rib slab; fold up edges a bit to create a rim. Drizzle the foil with a little honey and 1⁄4 cup of a liquid, such as beer or apple or pineapple juice. Place ribs on foil and wrap; let stand at room temperature for 20 to 30 minutes. Place the wrapped ribs back on the grill for 45 minutes more.
6 Sauce ’em After grilling in foil 45 minutes, remove the ribs from the grill and unwrap. If you like, brush all over with purchased or homemade barbecue sauce. (See our recipe for Chipotle BBQ Sauce.) Return the unwrapped ribs to the covered grill for 10 minutes. Brush again and grill 5 minutes more.
7 Eat ’em! To test doneness, twist two of the rib bones away from each other. The meat should easily pull away from the bones. Remove from grill and let the ribs stand at room temperature 15 minutes, loosely covered with foil. (Now’s a good time to boil corn and dish up slaw.) Cut the slab into two- to four-rib pieces so people can take the size they like, then dig in and pass the napkins.
Rainy-day oven method
If the weather doesn’t cooperate, your oven can pinch-hit for a grill. Cut the seasoned ribs into more manageable pieces or leave as slabs. Place the seasoned ribs, bone sides down, in a large, shallow roasting pan. (If the pan has deep sides, the meat won’t cook efficiently. Trust us. We learned this the hard way.) Roast, uncovered, for 1 hour in a 325° oven. Baste ribs with sauce. Roast, uncovered, for 45 to 60 minutes more or until tender (meat will easily pull away from the bone), brushing once with additional sauce.
For answers to common grilling questions, such as whether to use a charcoal or gas grill and how to light your grill, click here.