Follow our steps to become the most popular person on your block this summer.

By Stacey Ballis
February 29, 2020
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Everyone, it seems, has their favorite style of ribs. If you grew up, as my husband did, in a region devoted to actual barbecue (that means low and slow cooking with smoke), then your preferred rib might be a three-day affair with no sauce needed. Others grew up eating a kind of restaurant rib: boiled, broiled, and glazed in a sticky sauce. Most of us land happily in the middle, loving a messy-but-so-delicious rib done over the grill.

The good news is that this is an easy dish for any griller, once you know what you’re doing. So get ready to rock your summer cookouts with this no-fail guide to delicious racks of tender ribs with just the right hint of flavor.

1. Start With the Right Ribs

Get ahead of the game at the butcher counter by picking baby back ribs over other cuts. Why? Fundamentally, they cook faster. Look for what’s called a “3 and under,” a rack of ribs that’s 3 pounds or less. These will be from a younger pig and the ribs will be more tender. Larger racks come from older animals and can be a bit chewier and will take longer to cook.

Ask your butcher to remove the thin membrane that covers the bones on the underside of the racks. If you leave the membrane on it can make the ribs curl during cooking and prevents the rub from penetrating on the underside. If you have forgotten or you cannot get the butcher to do it, slide a thin flexible blade knife under the membrane and pull up a small piece. Using a paper towel or clean tea towel, grab the piece and pull firmly and slowly, like peeling off a stubborn sticker. You should be able to get it off in one piece.

2. Make Or Buy a Great Rib Rub

While good quality meats often don’t need more than salt and pepper and smoke to make them delicious, adding some extra oomph is nice. This is what dry rubs were made for, and you can make your own (see my recipe, below) or pick a good one up from the store: My favorites include Milwaukee Ave. from The Spice House, Cowboy Rub from Spicewalla, and Caribbean Rub from The Cocoa Exchange. If you are blending your own, think about a balance of salt, sweet, heat, and acid. Taste some on a fingertip to be sure you have the balance right. If you are using a store-bought rub, consider adding some fresh citrus zest—it makes a world of difference.

Easy Rib Rub

Mix the following ingredients together in a small bowl (amounts are per rib rack):

1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon sugar (demerara is nice in this)
zest of 1/2 lemon
1 teaspoon MSG
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon ground cumin
If you like a little heat, add:
1/4 teaspoon ancho chile powder
1/4 teaspoon mild chili powder

3. Prepare the Ribs in Advance

1. Pat the ribs as dry as you can with paper towels.

2. Coat each rack with about 1/4 cup of rub—use 1/3 on the underside and the rest on the flesh side. Massage it in well.

3. Wrap each rack in cling film, then stack them up like Pringles and wrap the whole stack in more cling wrap, getting it as tight as you can.

4. Put on a sheet pan or in a roasting pan, or in a garbage bag in case of leaking, and leave in the fridge for a minimum of 2 hours and up to two days before cooking. Have some apple juice on hand for basting.

4. Prepare Your Grill

You’ll need a hot side and a cool side for grilling ribs right, so set up your grill accordingly. If you’re using charcoal, you want all of the hot coals on one half of your grill and none on the other side. On a gas grill, turn on only half the burners and adjust those burners and the ventilation to keep your grill temperature at around 300°. If you want some smoky flavor, feel free to put some soaked wood chips or chunks in the mix.

5. Cook Those Ribs

1. Unwrap your racks and place bone side down on the cool side of the grill. Close the lid and cook for about 40 minutes, keeping the temperature close to 300°.

2.  After 40 minutes, open the lid and move the ribs around so that the ones that were closer to the hot zone are now farthest away.

3. Baste the top of the ribs with apple juice, close the lid and cook for another 20 minutes.

4. Flip the racks over, baste, close the lid and cook for 10 more minutes.

5. Check for doneness at this point: Open the lid and grab each rack firmly from the end side, holding the first four ribs in the tongs. Lift the whole rack off the grill: The rib meat should have softened to the point that the length not held by your tongs should be drooping down at about a 45-degree angle. If they’re drooping, they’re ready! If they stay fairly straight, put them back in the grill, baste again, and close the lid. (Make sure you check every rack as they might not all cook at the same pace.)

6. Check and baste every 10 minutes until done. Remove racks as they are cooked, and tent in foil.

7. Rest racks rest for a minimum of 15 minutes before serving.

To Sauce Or Not to Sauce?

Barbecue sauce is complicated. People who love true barbecue think that well-prepared meats don’t need any sauce at all. People from different regions have different ideas about what sauce should be made of. I like sauce as an accompaniment. But you have to be careful about sauce inside the grill, because most sauces contain sugar and that will burn. If you love a saucy rib, buy a good quality bottle of the stuff (my favorite is Rufus Teague Touch O’ Heat sauce) or make your own, then brush it on your rack in the last 20 minutes of cooking. Or just serve it on the side!