No matter how smoky, glistening, and fall-off-the-bone tender your ribs are, it's guaranteed that a herd of pitmasters will shake their heads with disapproval. You're doing it all wrong, they scowl. These barbecue chefs claim it's patient attention to the time, heat, and smoke that transforms the meat into something so succulent it could make a vegetarian grab a bone and dig in.
If you think there are a lot of opinions out there about what makes a great brisket, try having a conversation about the best way to make ribs with a group of barbecue nerds. You'll get an earful about secret rubs and sauces, the best smoking wood to use, the ideal temperature to cook them – even the best type of charcoal.
Whether you're new to cooking ribs or intimidated by all of the fuss over methods, consider this your starter guide to ribs – an introduction to the most popular cuts (baby back ribs, spare ribs) and the basics you need to know to make backyard barbecue ribs. And yes, you'll need some sides, so consider a gander at these 4th of July recipes. Not enough? We've got so many more barbecue-friendly 4th of July recipes, it's ridiculous. But let's get back to the meaty topic (sorry) at hand.
Everything you need to know about cooking pork ribs starts with where they are located on the pig. Baby back ribs are cut from the tender center section of the loin (think: pork chop). Spare ribs are cut from the fattier, tougher belly section (think: bacon).
How to Cook Ribs
The truth is, you can cook ribs in a microwave or Crock-Pot if you really want to (there are countless recipes out there for boiling, braising and baking ribs), but to make true old-school barbecue joint ribs, you need the smoke and indirect, low and slow heat of a grill or smoker. The longer, slower cook breaks down the tough connective tissue and fat in pork ribs to make them toothsome or fall-off-the-bone tender, and this process also infuses the meat with rustic smoke flavor. Ribs cooked hot and fast (i.e. "grilled") will be tough and chewy.
In barbecue, the "low and slow" zone on a cooker is anywhere from 225°F to 275°F. Getting a charcoal cooker to run in this temperature range consistently for three to six hours is tricky. If you own a charcoal cooker and want to learn the process, check out "Low & Slow: Master the Art of Barbecue in 5 Easy Lessons" (Running Press, 2009). [Full disclosure: I'm a little biased. I wrote the book, and the follow-up "Low & Slow 2: The Art of Barbecue, Smoke-Roasting and Basic Curing" (Running Press, 2015), with Chicago pitmaster Gary Wiviott, who developed a step-by-step method (including charcoal loads and vent closures) that enable four types of charcoal cookers to run at a steady temperature for hours and hours.]
Some barbecue enthusiasts also endorse the 3-2-1 method for cooking ribs – smoking the ribs for three hours at 225°F, wrapping and cooking them in foil with a little liquid for two hours, and finishing the unwrapped, basted ribs by cooking them at a slightly higher temperature for one hour. This is a good method if you like the fall-off-the-bone style of ribs, although some barbecue pros (including Barbecue Bible guru Steven Raichlen) note this method actually steams the ribs, which lose a bit of their texture and flavor in the process.
Baby Back Ribs
AKA: Loin ribs, back ribs
Think of a baby back rib as a pork chop with most of the loin meat removed. A typical rack of a baby back ribs has twelve to thirteen ribs and feeds two to four people. When you're buying baby backs, the ideal rack is meaty with lots of streaky patches of white fat and no "shiners." (Shiners are barbecue slang for the bones you see through the meat when the ribs have been cut too close to the bone.) Avoid ribs that have been pre-marinated or "enhanced" with salt water/brine or other additives. Although the price fluctuates and varies by region, back ribs are more expensive than spare ribs – anywhere from $3 to $7 per pound, or more for high-end varieties (think: Niman Ranch).
Should you remove the membrane?
Baby back ribs have a thin, slick membrane covering the bone – you can remove this membrane or leave it intact. The membrane will often have a nice, papery crackle when the ribs are grilled, smoked, or baked, but some people think the membrane inhibits the rub from sinking into the meat. If you braise or steam the ribs (i.e. wrap them in foil or cook in a moist slow cooker), this membrane can turn tough. To remove the membrane, slip a non-serrated butter knife between the thicker outer membrane and the thin membrane that holds the meat together. Once you've separated enough of the membrane, grab the loosened section with a paper towel (this keeps the membrane from slipping) and gently but firmly peel it off.
Cook time: Up to 3 hours at low and slow temperature.
Smoked Barbecue Baby Back Ribs
To smoke these baby back ribs, you'll set up a kettle-style grill for indirect heat cooking, which means the burning charcoal is banked to one side of the bottom grate and the ribs are positioned on the other side of the top grate. If you want to fit more ribs on the grate, you can use a roasting rack turned upside down as a rib rack. Get our Smoked Barbecue Baby Back Ribs recipe.
Untrimmed spare ribs cut from the belly (with the tips and sternum intact) are bigger, meatier and tougher than baby backs and require a bit more cooking time to tenderize the meat. Like baby backs, the ideal rack of untrimmed spare ribs is meaty with plenty of streaky white fat and no shiners. The racks weigh around six pounds and can feed 4 to 6 people. (A heavier rack may indicate an older animal and tougher meat.) Pricing varies, but racks of untrimmed spare ribs can cost as little as $1.50 per pound; the average price is closer to $3.50 per pound.
St. Louis-style ribs are trimmed spare ribs – the long strip of "rib tips" are removed to produce a more uniform rack, which cooks more evenly and makes for a more picturesque presentation (the ribs look like longer, meatier baby backs). You might also run across Kansas City-style ribs, which have had the tips and skirt of flap meat removed. Pitmasters and competition barbecue folks often refer to the best trimmed spare ribs as "3 1/2 down" -- meaning they weigh 3 1/2 pounds or less.
Rib tips are cut from the short, meaty section on spare ribs between the lower end of the ribs and sternum. If you trim your own rack of spare ribs, cook the tips alongside the ribs. They'll cook in half the time and you can serve them as an amuse bouche (or keep them to yourself for a chef's snack). Barbecue joints chop the smoked, chewy tips into bite-size pieces and toss them with sauce.
Cook time: Up to 6 hours at low and slow temperature.
Backyard Championship Ribs
If you're new to cooking with charcoal and attempting this rib recipe, opt for a rub that does not contain sugar, such as Gary Wiviott's Barbecue rub (below). Learning to control the airflow and temperature in your cooker takes time and practice, and if the temperature spikes, the sugar may burn. Get our Backyard Championship Ribs recipe.
Country-style ribs are not ribs in the classic sense. They are meaty slabs cut from the blade end of the loin and shoulder section. These "ribs" are often boneless, although some slabs may contain slices of shoulder blade or rib bone. You can cook country-style ribs low and slow, but they are best when grilled over high heat. Get our Grilled Country-Style Ribs recipe.
Gary Wiviott's Barbecue Rub
If you like a little spice in your barbecue, this rub brings a bright, fruity heat to ribs and pork shoulder and complements the smokiness. It might seem like a lot of chile, but remember that the flavor of any spice mellows after a long low and slow cook. For the best results, slather your rack of ribs with a few tablespoons of cheap yellow mustard to help the rub stick. Get the recipe here.
Basic Barbecue Sauce
If you've been buying bottled barbecue sauce, earn your sauce training wheels with this straightforward recipe. This sweet sauce goes with any smoked meat (particularly ribs), but use it sparingly. If you spent hours on those ribs, you don't want to cover up the meaty, smoky flavor with too much sweet, sticky sauce. Get our Basic Barbecue Sauce recipe.
Bourbon-Bacon Barbecue Sauce
This is the sauce that threatens to upstage your barbecue if you're not careful. The combination of smoky bacon and sweet, boozy bourbon are a perfect fit for low-and-slow cooked ribs, but think of the sauce as an accessory, not a side dish. A little goes a lot way. Get our Bourbon-Bacon Barbecue Sauce recipe.
Colleen Rush is a food and travel writer who eats, drinks, cooks, and writes mostly in New Orleans, but also ... everywhere else. She is the author of "The Mere Mortal's Guide to Fine Dining" (Broadway Books, 2006), and coauthor of "Low & Slow: Master the Art of Barbecue in 5 Easy Lessons" (Running Press, 2009) and the upcoming "Low & Slow 2: The Art of Barbecue, Smoke Roasting, and Basic Curing" (Running Press, 2015). Follow her on Twitter or Instagram.
— Original article published May 11, 2015; updated by Amy Sowder June 29, 2016.