Cooking Ribs on the Grill: Tips, Tricks and Truth

Grilling pork spare ribs on the grill
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Cooking ribs are pretty straightforward. You basically want to cook them at a low temperature for a long time.

Cooking on a grill is equally straightforward. You light some coals (or turn on the gas), put your food on the grill and take it off when it's done.

So if life was fair, cooking ribs on the grill would be the easiest thing in the world. But oddly enough, combining two simple procedures introduces complexity.

Mainly that's because maintaining a steady, low temperature (like 225°F) on a charcoal grill for a long time (say 4½ hours) takes practice.

Can You Grill Ribs on a Gas Grill?

If you've got a gas grill, your life is going to be a lot simpler because once you have the right temperature, maintaining it is simply a matter of not touching the knobs. As long as you don't run out of fuel, you'll be fine.

Gas grills are fine for cooking spare ribs or baby back ribs, especially if you're new to all this because it's much easier to maintain a steady temperature. You can use wood chips on a gas grill to get that smoky barbecue flavor. Some gas grills have a built-in smoker box, so you just add your wood chips to the box and away you go. Or you can buy a smoker box. But you could simply wrap your wood loosely in foil, cut a few slits and set the foil packet on the grill.

Charcoal Grills: Trickier But Tastier

With a charcoal grill, you'll need to add coals from time to time to keep the temperature up.

It's best if you have a charcoal basket which will keep your coals over to one side, which allows you to cook with indirect heat. Or just make a pile of coals on one side. Just be sure your grill grate has a little gate you can open up to add more coals.

Adjusting how wide the air intake vents (the ones on the bottom) are open will also help you regulate the temperature.

Opening the vent wider allows more oxygen in, which makes the coals burn hotter. Closing the vent starves the coals of oxygen, so it cools off. Just don't close them all the way. You'll eventually get the hang of it, but I'll be honest with you, you probably won't get it right the very first time.

If your grill has a built-in thermometer, you're ahead of the game, although those thermometers don't always work as well as they should, mainly because they're too far away from the grate. A workaround is to use a cheap oven thermometer, the kind with a dial that sits right on the oven rack. They're like $3, and you can set it directly on the grate of your grill. You'll have to remove the lid to see the temperature, but the convenient thing is that eventually, you will learn the relationship between what the dome thermometer reads and what the one inside reads.

The main advantage of using a charcoal grill is that you replenish the wood chips once they're gone, but you can also use whole chunks of wood, which last much longer. Whether you use chunks or chips, you'll want to soak them first.

Prepping the Ribs

Probably the worst thing you can do is cook pork ribs without peeling the membrane off the back.

That membrane is chewy and no fun to eat, and it only takes a moment to peel it off. So do it! Just pull a corner of it up with your knife and then peel it off the rest of the way. Holding it with a paper towel can help you get a good grip on it. In addition to eliminating a chewy, gristly mouthful, removing the membrane also allows the meat to absorb the flavors of your rub, your mop sauce and the smoke from your wood.

From there, there are a number of different ways of seasoning the ribs. Some recipes will have you coat them with mustard or just olive oil, and then rub them with a dry rub. You can wrap them in foil and add juice, or cook them directly on the grill.

Grilling the Ribs

Either way, you'll want to cook them at a low temperature, using indirect heat. That means you have the coals over on one side, and you put the ribs on the opposite side.

A pan of water over the coals can help regulate the temperature as well as keeping the ribs from drying out.

If you're using a gas grill, you'll only use the burners on one side, and leave the ones on the other side off, and place your ribs on that side. You can put a pan of water over the lit burners.

If the ribs start to turn too dark, you can wrap them in foil, but if you keep the temperature at 225°, you shouldn't have to worry about that.

If you're using barbecue sauce, you'll want to brush it on 30 minutes before the ribs are done the cooking. And when are they done? Here's a simple test: If you grip one of the bones with your tongs and give it a twist, the meat should start to pull away from the bone. If it doesn't separate, it's not done yet.

You can also use a toothpick. Just slide the toothpick into the meat between the bones at a few different spots. If it slides in with little resistance, the ribs are done.

Finally, you'll want to rest the ribs for 15 minutes before serving them. It's the same principle behind resting a steak. You just want to give the juices a chance to redistribute throughout the meat.