Real Barbecue Ribs on a Charcoal Grill

It's here...our step-by-step barbecue ribs recipe for your sure-fire path to backyard barbecue fame by following this recipe, and our "6 Secrets to Smoking Meat"

We believe that... "Barbecue is the Mystical Communion of Fire, Smoke and Meat" 

6 Secrets to Barbecue Ribs on a Charcoal Grill

  1. Great Meat
  2. Great Spices
  3. Great Tools (grill, tongs, thermometers, etc...)
  4. Heat Control
  5. Timing
  6. Smoke

We barbecue on a charcoal grill using the indirect cooking method. This means that the ribs are placed next to, rather than directly over, the fire. The heat is kept low, and the ribs cooked slowly. Patience pays big dividends! All to attain that incredible smoke flavor, with the moist, cooked to perfection result that alludes so many!

Stuff you'll need:

Patience Low and slow is the real secret to traditional barbecue ribs. We're talking low heat (180 - 250 F/80 - 121C) for an extended cooking period. This is not the fastest method, but the "bestest"! You'll need a full bucket of this virtue when cooking ribs on a charcoal grill. Figure about 1.5 hours/pound.

Meat Try to buy fresh! If the frozen (or "previously frozen") vacuum packed "slab-o-ribs" is all that is available, it will do fine as long as they are not "enhanced" with water, salt, flavorings and goodness knows what else.

Spices Use the best spices you can get.

Charcoal grill  Grill must be large enough to have the coals placed to one side, and at least a slab of ribs on the opposite side. The kettle type, or horizontal barrel style, work great. Our favorite comes from Weber because it is easy to use, produces exceptional results, and is extremely sturdy. We love the American classic Weber 22 1/2-Inch One-Touch Silver Kettle Grill for its unbeatable versatility.

Charcoal/charcoal briquettes  There are advantages to both fuels, however just one maxim applies to both...buy the best you can find. Kingsford brand briquettes top the list for quality, and availability. But please don't buy the "instant light" of any brand! Real charcoal (for you purists) can be difficult to find, and rather expensive, however...

We have found a great resource, reasonably priced, from Milazzo Industries. Their 20LBS of Lump Charcoal is a bargain.

Hardwood chunks/chips  Use only hardwood for barbecue ribs like Hickory, Oak, Mesquite, Cherry, Apple, etc. (or a combination), to your taste.

Metal pan Filled with at least 1/2" of water, placed under the cooking rack below the ribs, and used to control the inevitable flare-ups, distribute the heat more evenly and provide some moisture.

Chimney-type charcoal starter  Not mandatory, but sure makes starting and maintaining the coals much easier. Our favorite top performer is the Weber Rapidfire Chimney Starter. Lot of chimney starters out there, but this is the champ.

Mop tool  For the barbecue ribs basting sauce (mop). Yep, a mop...just a miniature version (12-18" long) of a string-mop you might have for cleaning the kitchen! For ease of cleaning and long reach, we prefer this Sauce Mop, with a Removable Head. More on this subject in the "Prepare a Mop?" section, below.

Oven/Grill thermometer  This tool is the only way you will really know what's going on inside the grill! For exceptional accuracy, we trust the Taylor Classic Oven Thermometer, and the Taylor Connoisseur Oven Thermometer.

Instant-read thermometer  This is pork! Be safe and ensure the meat has reached the ideal temperature of 205 F (93 C). This will assure you get those tender, luscious barbecue ribs you pay a whole bunch for at the local "rib joint"! Our "hands down" choice for speed of read, accuracy and price is the CDN Proaccurate Stainless Digital Thermometer. The only instant-read thermometer that that we know to be faster, and another choice of professionals (albeit rather expensive), is the Splash-Proof Super-Fast Thermapen - Instant Read Thermometer, Perfect for Barbecue, Home and Professional Cooking

Tongs  You need a darn good pair of tongs to handle those ribs. Long and strong is the secret, so we suggest the professional type Lodge Camp Dutch Oven 16-Inch Stainless Steel Tongs, or the Oxo Good Grips 16-Inch Locking Tongs.

Rib Rack  This tool is the answer to cooking ribs with limited grill space! You need one that is strong enough to hold the ribs upright, and regardless of price, few do. We found one that fits the bill with Steven Raichlen's Ultimate Rib Rack. A little pricey, but it works!

Let's talk meat ...

Spare Ribs, Country Style or Baby Back Ribs? It's your choice! It's all good but...we prefer traditional spare ribs barbecue ribs on a charcoal grill, especially St. Louis Style. This recipe is our way to barbecue this American classic. What's the difference...?

Well, Country Style and Back Ribs (Baby Back or Canadian Back) are both pork loin back cuts. See the word loin? Yep, it's loin and not rib meat! We love that rib meat, so for us it will be...

Spare Ribs, St. Louis Style, with the brisket bones and backbone removed. If the intact (whole) spare rib slabs are all that is available, have the meat cutter remove the brisket bones and backbone for "best bet" ribs.

We think that the best spare ribs are less than 3 lbs.(1.4kg) (with at least an 11 rib count) but if you get some that weigh more, no worries, you'll just have to increase the cooking time. We cook and love it all!

Now, let's prepare the meat...

NOTE: Ribs should be always kept in the refrigerator (approx. 40 F/4.4 C) before preparation.

  • Take the meat out of the refrigerator. We like to allow ribs to come to room temperature for less "on grill" time. You can do all of the meat, rub and mop prep the day before to make it a lot easier when "the gang" shows up.
  • Rinse in cold water.
  • Remove any excess fat and extraneous meat pieces, or stuff you don't want to eat. Never touch the fat between the bones. This provides the flavor and moisture needed for great barbecue ribs. Just remove the excess fat surrounding the good stuff.
  • Remove the membrane (on inner side). We feel this is a must when barbecuing ribs on a charcoal grill, as it allows the smoke and rub to penetrate the meat more thoroughly. For this chore we have used all kinds of blunt, "pokey" things like a "Phillips"-type screwdriver, or something similar. Poke it in somewhere at the center and lift the membrane until you can get a grip on it this slippery devil (we use a paper towel). Pull it all off.
  • Rinse again, pat dry with a paper towel.

Great barbecue ribs start with a rub!

The ribs are first "rubbed" with a simple, dry, spice-accented rub recipe. All for that unforgettable tender, perfectly seasoned, eating experience!

Now, for some great barbecue ribs, let's start with this truly classic rub that will impart all of the flavors your drooling chops are hankerin' for.Do not let the simplicity of this basic rub fool you. It works great, and you can adjust the recipe (as the "pros" do) to make it "yours". Check out our Barbecue Rub Secrets page for more on this.

Basic Rub Recipe

Mix together thoroughly the following:

  • 1/4 cup dark brown sugar (packed). We prefer "turbinado sugar" for ease of use, but either one works fine.
  • 1/4 cup coarse Kosher or sea salt.
  • 1/4 cup sweet paprika (vs. the hot kind)
  • 3 tblsp ground pepper (fresh peppercorns recently ground!)
  • 1 tblsp garlic powder (not garlic salt)
  • 1 tblsp dried onion flakes (fresh will not work in this recipe)
  • 1 tsp cayenne pepper (no, it will not be "hot")

This recipe is enough for 3 to 4 racks of ribs and can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 4 months.

Prepare a "Mop"?

Do barbecue ribs need a mop?A long time favorite with many experienced rib cookers (and we've learned to love it) is to frequently apply a mop (baste sauce), during the cooking cycle, to flavor and keep the meat moist. Mops are usually a watery mixture of vinegar, water and spices applied with a basting "mop".

Notice the spices in the basting sauce are similar to the rub? You want to compliment the flavors of your rub and it is OK to use just the basic spices of the rub (with vinegar and water). Experiment and have fun!

Here is a simple favorite:

Basic Barbecue Rib Mop

  • 1/2 cup vinegar (apple cider type, for our taste)
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 4 tblsp prepared yellow mustard
  • 3 tblsp olive or peanut oil
  • 1 tblsp garlic powder
  • 1 tablsp chili powder
  • 1 tsp cayenne

Mix well in a bowl, to be applied with a mop tool or...you can use just the water, vinegar and oil, in a spray bottle. Many folks use just apple juice! If using the mop tool, stir each time before mopping. Never save mop sauce left in the bowl (it is tainted with the meat's raw juices). Otherwise the sauce will last a long time in the refrigerator.

If you wish, to maximize the flavor, apply the rub a few hours (up to a day) before cooking time. Just wrap the ribs in plastic-wrap, or a covered glass/plastic container, and put them into the refrigerator.

O.K., you have a "known-good" rub recipe, now...

  • Slather the meat with a thin coat of any common yellow table mustard. Not mandatory, but a cool method many top contenders us when applying a dry rub. This will not impart a mustard flavor, as that cooks out, but holds the spices close to the ribs, keeps the meat moist, does not block the smoke and leaves a nice thin seasoned coating.
  • Sprinkle the rub on the ribs, and if you chose not to use the mustard, rub it on the meat. Guys, do not over season (women rarely do). We are the "Cookin' Cousins" (men) and have learned the lesson when cooking barbecue ribs; a light application is sufficient!

Get the Grill Ready

NOTE: Please, do not use charcoal lighter fluid. There are several good "fire-starters" on the market that will not taint the meat, or impart potentially dangerous chemicals to the food.

  • Fire-up the charcoal...we like the chimney-type charcoal starter because it's the quickest, and easiest, way to start the coals. To barbecue ribs on a charcoal grill you'll need to replenish the coals occasionally, to maintain the ideal temperature of around 200 - 225 F (93 - 107 C), and the chimney makes this chore painless.
  • Start with about 15 briquettes. Let them get a to white/gray color and they will be ready for the grill. You will need to fire-up some more coals (about 8, or so), several times during the cooking cycle, to maintain the temperature. Closely monitor the temperature
  • and anticipate this with about a 15-minute lead.
  • To barbecue ribs on a charcoal grill, you control the temperature with the bottom/side vents on your grill. Adjust the top vent to half open, and leave it alone.
  • Put a big ol' handful of hardwood chips or chunks (pre-soaked in water for about an hour) on the coals. Now, close the grill and let the smoke get started. This will be the last time, during the cooking cycle, you will have anything to do with the smoke. Too much smoke makes the meat bitter tasting and smoking is actually done in the first couple of hours.
  • Place a pan about 2/3 full of hot water (no sense wasting fuel to heat the water), under the meat side of the grill, to provide moisture and catch the drippings.

Cook 'Em

  • Place spare/back ribs on the grill, opposite side of the fire, bone side down, to begin cooking. Avoid the ribs touching. When cooking ribs on a charcoal grill never let the meat overlap the fire. You cannot undo crispy or burnt barbecue ribs! Close the lid and...
  • Resist peeking! You're loosing precious heat. Open the lid only far enough to do the job. Check the ribs for the first time in about 15-20 minutes to make sure the temperature is holding at around 200 F (93 C), and then check about every half hour to mop and turn 'em over to prevent "the singe". Mop should be applied lightly, and sparingly.
  • You have time! If you have judiciously maintained the cooking temperature, peeked, mopped and turned the ribs quickly, you can leave your station several times before the ribs are done. When the meat starts to pull away from the end of the bones, grab that instant-read meat thermometer and...
  • Check the meat between the bones, looking for 205 degrees F. to be the magic number. When you barbecue ribs on a charcoal grill will need about 5 to 8 hours to fully cook. Country Ribs and Back Ribs can take longer. Use the tongs and wiggle a rib to test. Meat should be tender, and be loose from the bone, when done.
  • barbecue ribs on a charcoal grill have a wonderful, natural flavor, so we emphasize the need to season lightly. If you wish (or if you must) you can now bring out your favorite BBQ sauce and baste during the last half hour of cooking. We do not cook ribs on a charcoal grill with barbecue sauce as this interferes with the smoke absorption, and there goes your fame!
  • Wrap in aluminum foil, place in a brown paper bag and set aside if you cannot serve them immediately. This gives you some time to get the meal together and really helps make the meat tender!

Serve Em!...

...warm, cut individually and for the Cookin' Cousins" taste, eat 'em just as they are, but... Many folks like a "finishing sauce". This is nothing more than a barbecue sauce, of your choice, served as a side dish (or two), for the folks who would like to put something more on their ribs. Lets eat!

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