How to Rock Ribs Like a Pro

Photo: Shutterstock; illustration: Allie Pakrosnis/Thrillist
Photo: Shutterstock; illustration: Allie Pakrosnis/Thrillist

Ribs are the showstoppers of the backyard cookout -- and pulling off perfectly tender and smoky racks are a surefire way to secure the role of grill master for summers to come. But, while they may be crowd-pleasing, mastering these massive hunks of meat can be a little intimidating. Read on for tips and tricks on how to choose the best cut, tackle a little pre-grill butchery, and even how to get smoky flavor out of your (gasp) gas grill.

Choose your cut wisely 

Perusing the meat counter for the right rib cut presents several dilemmas. First, there’s the protein itself: pork ribs are the most common, especially for grilling (and thus will be the focus from here on out), but don’t discount beef and lamb ribs, which are easy to cook, flavorful, and generally under-appreciated. Then, there is the actual cut to consider. For pork, baby back ribs are the most widely purchased and easiest cut for beginners to master, as they are a bit smaller and leaner, making for a slightly quicker cook time. Pork spareribs are what rib purists usually opt for, as they’re larger and have more connective tissue, which breaks down into tender meat over a long cook time. Pitmasters, grill experts, and show-offs will reach for St. Louis-style pork ribs -- they have the rib tip removed, making them look the most uniform, but are also the least forgiving on the grill. 

Practice some light butchery 

Most ribs have a fatty membrane on the back, known as “silverskin,” and while some fat is good for flavor and texture, this is one piece you don’t want to eat. Some rib cuts you pick up at the grocery store may have the silverskin removed already, but if not, you’ll need to DIY it. To accomplish this, break out your sharpest chef’s knife, and insert it between the meat and membrane at one of the rib ends, being careful not to pierce either. Once it’s lifted enough to fit your fingers under, do just that, then pull off the rest carefully. Beyond removing the silverskin, you’ll need to trim up any meat or fat that dangles from the bone side, as well as any membrane on the meat side, too, for ribs that will look professional off the grill. 

Turn your grill into a smoker 

The thing that separates a backyard grill enthusiast from a championship pitmaster is a smoker. (OK, and a lot of other things, too, but equipment is a big one!) The good news is that you don’t need a massive professional smoker to achieve the signature smoky flavor of barbecue ribs. Any charcoal grill can be used as a smoker with the help of just two aluminum pans. After starting the fire, stick one pan directly onto the coals, underneath the grill grate. (This pan will catch the drippings from the ribs and keep them from sparking up flames in the charcoal.) Fill the second pan with water to keep the ribs moist and maintain the temperature, and put that on one side of your grill grate, then cook the ribs on the other side. Voilà, your charcoal grill is now a smoker. For gas grills (which are more convenient to set up and better at stabilizing temperature, but lack that smoky flavor), set up an aluminum foil packet with wood chips, some soaked in water and some dry, to achieve the taste of smoked ribs without charcoal. 

Decide on a pre-cook method (or not) 

Smoking ribs completely on the grill can take over an hour depending on the size of your cut, which isn’t always feasible at a backyard barbecue where you’re likely also grilling burgers or veggies. One solution is to pre-cook your ribs, either by boiling on the stove, baking in the oven, or even in the slow-cooker. However, doing any of these methods, especially boiling ribs, is a somewhat controversial topic. Parboiling to ensure the meat is fully cooked is an easy way to tenderize ribs and cut down on cook time at the grill, which can be helpful if you’re feeding a crowd. However, barbecue purists argue taking that short cut rather than the long, low-and-slow smoke time on the grill results in less flavorful ribs that can be mushy and overcooked. If you do decide to parboil, make it short: take the ribs out of the water a few degrees before the meat reaches 145 degrees. (You’ll finish them out to that safe cooking temperature on the grill.)

Raid your pantry for homemade sauce 

Getting perfectly cooked ribs is only half the battle. A sticky, sweet barbecue sauce is the perfect accompaniment, like this honey barbecue recipe, which starts with a can of Campbell’s® Condensed French Onion Soup to add a rich flavor to the sauce. Plus, it’s made with other pantry staples like ketchup, honey, and dried spices, so it's easy to whip up in minutes. When it comes to glazing the ribs with the sauce, though, make sure it’s only added at the very end of cooking -- the last 10-15 minutes at most -- and that you keep a watchful eye on the grill. If it’s put on too early, the sauce will burn, and no one wants that kind of stress at a barbecue. 

Use a dry rub to double your flavor

Whether you want to slather your ribs in a traditional barbecue sauce or a spicy Asian chili version, a dry rub can make those flavors stand out even more -- especially if they share complimentary flavor bases. For a straightforward rub that will work well alongside many types of sauces, mix garlic powder, paprika, chili powder, brown sugar, and salt & pepper. If you want to add more smokiness, switch to a smoked paprika. Once the rub is all over the ribs, cover and refrigerate for at least two hours or up to 12 hours to get the spices infused into the meat. Just remember to go easy on the brown sugar -- less is more when it comes to the sweet stuff.

Make some extra sauce for marinating

While it is possible to use both a dry rub and a marinade on your ribs for extra flavor, most backyard grillers tend to opt for one or the other. If going the marinade route, know that they require a bit more planning to reap their full flavor and tenderness potential, but you shouldn’t let the meat soak for so long that the meat becomes borderline mushy when cooked. Overnight is usually best, but watch out for acidic additions (like lemon juice or ketchup) that can break down meat faster, and adjust accordingly. Also, remember to double your sauce recipe if using it as a marinade: pour half into the bag or baking dish with the meat, then save the rest in a separate container. (This honey-and-mustard sauce made with Campbell's® Condensed Tomato Soup works great on ribs, too.) From there, it can be used as a glaze while you cook or as a dipping sauce once the ribs come off the grill.