Learning how to make ribs at home is a trial-and-error endeavor. It’s not quite as easy as slathering a rack of ribs with sauce and flopping them on the grill. The good news is that once you dial in a method and recipe there are few dishes as crowd-pleasing. Nothing else has the ability to bring your guests together like a meal of well-seasoned and fatty meat still on the bone and just off the flame. There’s something almost primordial about the whole experience that fits perfectly at a backyard barbecue.
The beauty of a great rack of ribs is found in the versatility. You can go a lot of directions during each step of the process –from picking out the best meats, how you pre-season, your sauces, and then how you slow-cook and eventually sear the rack. You can go big or more nuanced with flavors. The options are virtually endless.
To help you make these big, meaty decisions, we thought we’d assemble a list of the tried-and-true tricks and practices we like to employ when grilling up a rack or two of ribs. Are these hard-and-fast rules? Not so much. Think of these tips more as guidelines that will help you find your own path and dial in your favorite recipes.
Sourcing Your Meat
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It’d be really easy for us to recommend you buy locally sourced, grass-fed bison. Bison ribs are as American as it gets and we’re talking about a 4th of July barbecue here. But we have to be realistic. Sourcing bison ribs is not as easy as it should be, sadly.
Unless you have access to bison, our recommendation is to stick with pork. Organic and free-range is the way to go here. The lean and fat will be a higher-quality by design. Plus, you’ll be supporting your local farming community by sourcing what’s likely to be more local and non-industrial meat. Sounds pretty American to us.
We recommend going with a rack of spare ribs. They’re very forgiving when cooking. The fat content is medium. You also get a little more even meat-to-bone ratio here, as spare ribs are the bottom cut of the rib cage. Comparatively, baby back ribs come from the top of the rib cage and have a bit more meat and fat on them. In the end, you do you.
Lastly, know how much you’ll need. A full rack of spare ribs has 12 bones. Figure on one serving being a portion with two bones attached to meat (that’s a serving, not per person because people are definitely coming back for seconds here). You can do the math from there.
Season And Rest
Two crucial steps that are often overlooked by newbie home grillers are not bringing your meat up to room temp and not pre-seasoning well in advance. You really want to deal with room temperature meat at all times when you start any cooking process. The reason here is the same reason you want your meat to room temp when you actually start to cook: evenness.
Basically, the seasoning will not evenly distribute across the meat if the temperature is in flux. Likewise, the meat will not cook evenly if part of the meat is one temp and another part of the meat is much colder. That all being said, you don’t need to leave your meat outside of a fridge for hours on end before you get started.
For a solid rack of spare ribs, take them out of the fridge a good 30 minutes before you start working with them. If they’re still cold to touch, give them another 30 minutes.
While those ribs are coming up to room temperature, prepare a simple rub. Our advice is to not go too crazy here. You want a solid base to bring out the pork’s flavor, not mask it. Plus, if you’re planning to go big with the sauce (more on that below), you really don’t need to overdo your seasoning.
The best case scenario here is to make a blend of about one tablespoon each sea salt, MSG, and cracked black pepper per rack of ribs. Put on some food-safe gloves and rub that seasoning mix into the flesh until fully coated.
Place your ribs onto a large cookie sheet lined with tin foil. Let them rest for at least an hour. Two things are happening here. The salt is drawing out moisture and breaking down the proteins. This allows your seasonings and eventual moisture (read: sauce) to get in later. Don’t skip this step.
While your ribs are resting, make a sauce. This really comes down to your preference. You can go classic with a tomato-based sauce that’s loaded with brown sugars, paprika, garlic and onion powders, and vinegar. You can change that up and switch out the brown sugar with maple syrup and add in whiskey. Or you can go with a mustard base. Or you can maybe go with a teriyaki sauce. That’s a simple blend of soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, sugars, garlic, ginger, and sesame seeds all simmered down into a lush umami-bomb sauce.
It’s also okay to use a store-bought sauce and tweak it at home or just use it straight from the bottle. We promise we don’t judge.
Oven vs. Smoker
This is where things can be a bit of a hurdle. We all don’t all have big smokers in our backyards to smoke our racks of ribs for hours on end. There’s a very easy workaround here: use your oven.
The great thing about cooking ribs is that it’s a pretty much a set it and forget it cook. Preheat your oven to 225F (107C) while your ribs are resting.
Slather your ribs in a healthy amount of your sauce. Place the ribs, bone side down on the cookie sheet. A small protip here: Place some orange or lime wedges and aromatics (thyme, sage, rosemary, whatever is around) under the racks. This will add an extra layer of depth to the flavor of your meat as the moisture from the fruit evaporates into the herbs and travels through the meat.
Next, you’re going to want to tent foil over the whole cookie sheet. Then place the ribs in the oven and walk away.
If you’re aiming for tender ribs with a little bit of a crack to them, walk back in around four to six hours later. If you’re looking for fall-off-the-bone ribs, walk back in around six to eight hours later.
When using a smoker, you can measure your cook similarly. You generally want to aim for a 225F temperature over a similar amount of time. The difference here is that you’re going to need to keep reapplying your sauce every 45 minutes or so.
In the end, you want your internal temp to reach 155F to 165F to assure you’re getting a good texture.
Finishing On The Grill
Ribs from the smoker aren’t going to need this step. But you’re most likely going to have to use an oven. That means you’ll need a little fire to crisp these racks up.
Take your ribs out of the oven, reapply your sauce, and transfer them to a high-flame grill (gas or coal is fine). Use a sauce brush to slather those ribs in your sauce every time you flip them, and let the fire do its work. Basically, you’re creating a caramelization with the sugars in your sauce to create that wonderful outer layer. This whole process shouldn’t take more than ten to 15 minutes.
Finally, you’re ready to serve. Use a large kitchen knife and a big cutting board to slice the ribs into edible sized pieces. The best play is to cut at every second bone along the rack. Stack them up on a serving tray and drizzle a little more sauce over everything. Maybe some chopped chives or scallions. Done.
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That's a pile of 24-hr sous vide baby back rib. Rested in a dry rub of garlic powder, onion powder, allspice, smoked paprika, Italian sea salt, and cracked red and black pepper overnight. In the sous vide for 24 hours at 156F (68.5C). Slathered in a maple-whiskey barbecue sauce and crisped up in a high heat oven for 45 mins. Succulent, juicy, fatty, tangy, AMAZING!