How to Cook Ribs. A Complete (seriously) Guide.

This is it. This is the one and only guide you’ll if you don’t know how to cook ribs. Whether you’re doing them on your regular old propane BBQ, a smoker or a Sous Vide machine, this post will explain step-by-step how to get gorgeous ribs no matter what.

Beautiful racks of ribs on wood chopping block with knife and sauce to the side.

I began my quest for “perfect ribs” 11 years ago.   You have to be careful about what hobby you decide to turn into a quest. Quests are total time sucks.  For a period in high school  memorizing the lyrics to every Duran Duran song was my quest.  I nearly flunked math with Mr. Manson, but I can still tell you exactly where Rio dances.  She dances on the sand. That bit of knowledge has been every bit as valuable as knowing number stuff.

My rib quest was prompted by an afternoon of scarfing down ribs that were very different from any ribs I’d ever eaten before. They weren’t fully of chewy wads of fat, they hadn’t been boiled and they didn’t get doused with bottled sauce.  They were tender and delicious, the fat having melted into the meat. They were kissed by smoke and glazed with a delicious homemade maple bourbon sauce.

The quest began that very day with the very recipes I’d been fed by a champion pitmaster. I didn’t have a smoker or even a charcoal grill then so the instructions the pitmaster gave me were for how to do these ribs on a regular propane BBQ.

Once I got a smoker, I enlisted the help of another BBQ Pitmaster, Mike Callaghan, who told me how to do ribs up right on a smoker.  He even included the science behind why I had to do certain things at certain temperatures.  I blinked at him and told him Rio dances on the sand.

THEN I got a Sous Vide and needed instructions again. Again Mike Callaghan helped me out.  I was a little nervous about telling him I was going to Sous Vide ribs. I mean – BBQ pitmaster.  Rumour has it he once threatened to boil anyone who boiled ribs.  But to my surprise he let me know that professional barbecuers often Sous Vide their ribs when they go to rib events because it does such a great job of tenderizing them and breaking down the fat.

Want to know what a Sous Vide is and whether I think they’re worth the money? Here’s my post on that.

All of this means no matter what you have around your house for cooking ribs, I have the proper method for you to use to get perfect ribs.


If the only thing you take away from this post is that you shouldn’t boil them, you’ll be ahead of most people. Boiling ribs does a great job of removing all the flavour from the ribs and dispersing it into your cooking water. It also melts the fat in the ribs but instead of it melting into the meat, it swims away into the water, creating dry, icky, ribs.

Gooey sauce being drizzed with honey dripper onto ribs.

This is the Maple Bourbon BBQ sauce recipe I use.  It’s sweet, spicy and has a little kick from ginger.

Cooking ribs on a propane BBQ.

1. Start with placing the ribs meat side down on your prep area. Remove the membrane and start with sprinkling a generous amount of rub on the bone side.Flip the ribs over and rub them generously. You can use my Kansas City Rib Rub recipe if ya like.
2. BBQ the ribs indirect (one burner on, two off if you have a 3 burner BBQ) at about 225 F for about 2-3 hours. Indirect means your ribs are placed on the part of the grill that doesn’t have any flame under it.
3. At this point remove the ribs from the BBQ and place on a piece of foil.  Tightly pack the foil around the ribs making a nice packet. Place back on the grill. After about 1/2 hour check for tenderness.
4. If they seem tender to you then carefully remove them from the foil and place back on the grill bone side down for about 1 hour until they firm up just enough so that when you pick them up you don’t crack the rack in half.
5. Glaze with your favourite BBQ sauce in the last 10 minutes only. I recommend using my Award Losing Maple Bourbon BBQ Sauce.
6. When the glaze is nice and sticky on your ribs place the ribs meat side dow to cut them. This will make it much easier to see how the bones are laid out.


  • To add smoke to your BBQ wrap wood chips in a tin foil packet, punching holes in the top with a fork so smoke can escape.  Place this packet on the grate over the burner that has the flame going. You can also buy small smoker boxes.
  • For extra flavour and to help prevent the ribs from drying out, spray them every half hour with apple juice while they’re cooking.  Also spray with apple juice before enclosing them in their foil packet.
  • Ribs have to be at 195 degrees for half an hour for the fat to melt. So while they’re in the foil packet, stick a thermometer into the ribs to check for that temperature.
  • The most difficult part about cooking ribs on a regular propane BBQ is getting the temperature in the BBQ at 225.  Continue to monitor it and adjust the burner and lid as necessary.

Rack of ribs just off of the smoker.


Cooking ribs on a smoker.

1. Start with placing the ribs meat side down on your prep area. Remove the membrane and start with sprinkling a generous amount of my rib rub on the bone side.Flip the ribs over and rub them generously.

2. Bring your smoker to 225 degrees. The easiest way to light your smoker is to soak a paper towel in vegetable oil and then tuck it into the lump charcoal.  Light the paper towel (which will burn a long time) and it will ignite the charcoal. Here’s a quick post I did on it, including a video.

3. Leave the top vent on your smoker open about 1″. This will allow the smoke to escape. You want the ribs kissed by smoke not mauled by it.

4. When the smoker is at temperature, drop your wood chunk in and place your ribs on the grill, bone side down.  Smoke for 2 hours until ribs are at around 150 F.

5. Wrap ribs in foil and put back on grill for another hour, checking to make sure they come to 195. A bit higher is fine, but lower is not. You want them at 195 F  for half an hour to melt the fat.

6. Remove the ribs from their foil packet and return to the grill for an hour to firm up. In the last 10 minutes, sauce your ribs.


  • For the best flavour let the ribs marinate in the rub for at least 4 hours (refrigerated).  Overnight is even better.
  • Apple, Cherry and other fruit woods will give a mild smoke. Oak, hickory, pecan and maple are slightly stronger.  Mesquite should just be avoided. It’s incredibly strong and very distinct and will overpower most anything it touches.
  • 1 fist sized chunk of wood is enough to create a powerful smoke.
  • Temperatures to remember:  150 F – When ribs are at this temp they can be wrapped in foil.  195 F – When ribs are at this temp the fat is melting. Give them half an hour.
  • You still need to be cooking the ribs “indirect” which means you need something in between the flame and the ribs.  Most smokers have a clay plate that serves this purpose.

Setting bagged ribs into Sous Vide machine.

Cooking ribs with a Sous Vide.

1. Start with placing the ribs meat side down on your prep area. Remove the membrane and start with sprinkling a generous amount of rib rub on the bone side. Flip the ribs over and rub them generously. Let sit refrigerated for 4 hours if you can. It allows the rub to soak into the meat.

2. Set Sous Vide to 165 F and cook for 12 hours.  Remove ribs from bag and dry with a paper towel.

3.a. TO FINISH IN THE OVEN. Transfer ribs to a preheated 300 F oven and heat for 20 minutes.  Sauce ribs and return to oven for another 10 minutes.

3.b. TO FINISH ON THE GRILL. Transfer ribs to a preheated BBQ (indirect heat).  Place ribs on the part of the BBQ that doesn’t have the burning going under it. Heat ribs for 20 minutes.  Transfer ribs to over the flame portion of the BBQ and sauce.  Allow glaze to get sticky. Takes about 10 minutes.



  • If you want to do your ribs in a single day you can increase the cooking temperature to 195 F and cook them for 5 hours.  BBQ or bake in oven the same.
  • With a Sous Vide, the lower the temperature the longer you need to cook something.  Conversely the higher the temperature the less you have to cook them.
  • Cooking ribs Sous Vide at a lower temperature than 195 F will STILL cause the collagen to break down because you’re cooking the for a longer period of time. It just takes longer to get to the reaction.

Sous Vide bagged ribs sitting in front of egg type smoker.

Cooking ribs with a Sous Vide and a Smoker.

1. Start with placing the ribs meat side down on your prep area. Remove the membrane and start with sprinkling a generous amount of Kansas City Rib Rub (or your favourite) on the bone side. Flip the ribs over and rub them generously. Let sit for 4 hours or overnight if you can.

2. Start smoker and get it to 225.  Smoke ribs (as with the smoker method) for 2 hours.

3. Remove from smoker, sauce the ribs and place in Sous Vide bag. Sous Vide for 2 hours.

4. You can now either refrigerate, freeze or finish your ribs.  If you freeze them, you have ready to go ribs in an instant!  All you need to do is finish them either on a BBQ, smoker or in an oven.  For oven finishing, heat the ribs at 300 F until warm (20 minutes if heating from room temperature) then sauce and return to oven for another 10 minutes.  For a BBQ, place the ribs in a preheated BBQ, indirect, for 20 minutes then sauce the ribs and move them to directly over flame for 10 minutes.  To finish on the smoker, do the same.  20 minutes to firm up and then the last 10 minutes with a sauce.



  • Always smoke first, Sous Vide second.  Once meat is cooked it can’t absorb the smoke. So if you Sous Vide first and then put the ribs on the smoker, the smoke won’t do anything except sit on the surface of the meat. They won’t have that smoked flavour.
  • The thickness of the ribs determines the cooking times.  If your ribs are thick and meaty with a lot of loin on them, add an extra hour to your smoking and Sous Vide cooking times.

Side by side comparison of racks of ribs.

Ribs on the left were put in the Sous Vide first.  Ribs on right were put on the smoker first.  Notice the colour and texture difference.  The smoked ribs are a bit overcooked but still delicious.


Rack of ribs, cut in half, slathered with sticky Maple Bourbon BBQ sauce on butcher block countertop.

Some last points about ribs:


  • Back ribs are the best. They just are.
  • Properly cooked rib meat should pull away easily from the bone, but it shouldn’t be literally falling off of the bone.
  • What’s bark?  Bark is the leathery texture properly cooked ribs get on their surface. It’s good stuff.
  • Place your ribs bone side up to make cutting them easier. That way you can see where to cut.
  • To really go full tilt, when it’s time to put your ribs in foil, mix up equal parts of brown sugar and apple juice and glaze the ribs with it.  This *isn’t* the sauce, it’s just an extra flavour step for while they’re cooking in the tin foil packet.
  • How many do you need?  Plan on at least 3 ribs per person, or 1 rack per 3-4 people (depending on the size of the rack).

Recipes you’ll need:

Kansas City Rib Rub

Maple Bourbon BBQ Sauce

Would you like a little music to go with your rib making festivities?  Here you go.

My Spotify Big Rib Playlist.

Over 3 and a half hours of my favourite backyard, rib making music.  If you’re wondering where Rio is, she isn’t dancing on the sand. She’s sitting in the number one spot on the playlist.


Happy ribbing.






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How to Cook Ribs. A Complete (seriously) Guide.


  1. Dawn says:

    I nearly flunked math in high school a couple of decades before you because I was busy writing out the lyrics to “american Pie” WITH MY LEFT HAND during trig. :-)

  2. Andrea says:

    Yum. This has to be one of my favorite posts ever!

  3. Marie Lybrook says:

    Do you have a recipe for ribs in the oven? I live in senior housing. They don’t allow any flames or propane grills.

    • Karen says:

      Sorry Marie, I don’t. But if I were you, I’d do the ribs the exact same way, only in the oven. Put a sheet pan covered in aluminum foil under the rack for the ribs and then lay the ribs directly on the oven rack over it (yes it’s going to get dirty and sticky). The most important thing is to cook them low and slow like you would a tough roast. :) ~ karen!

      • Albeta Karen says:

        I can point out that I have made ribs in the Instant Pot. I found them to be second only to the ribs we make on our Kamado Joe smoker. So that is a good alternative if you can’t grill or smoke. I don’t use your rub Karen, but the Maple Bourbon BBQ sauce is now a staple at this house!

  4. Vanessa Devoto says:

    I was supposed to have been flying to Italy on the 4th of July (US Independence Day) but that’s not happening now! What a perfect time to try some serious ribs!!!! I’ve bottled your bbq sauce and gifted it on father’s day before, (totally took credit for it! ;) ), can’t wait to try it and the rub on ribs!!!!

  5. Nancy says:

    For those without a smoker, Alton Brown is a cook that makes one out of a cardboard box. I’ve never done it, but it sounds fun.

  6. Just like that river twisting through a dusty land
    And when she shines she really shows you all she can
    Oh Rio, Rio dance across the Rio Grande

    I lost an entire summer in middle school learning the lyrics to the Reflex and picked up this one along the way (I blame adulthood brain fog to the hours of MTV I watched waiting for the video to come on… want the lyrics to Legs or Take me home tonight, Take on me? They were songs I learned waiting.)

    Then I lost another summer and my girlish figure (thankfully I got that back) to mastering brisket. Now I must break my silence and say I’ve lost part of this summer reading a blog that I only just discovered that is clearly written by my Canadian thought twin. You are so refreshing! Thank you for doing the stuff that I haven’t gotten to do yet.

    Right, now I’m off chickens and on to duck raising. Keep it up, Love!!

    • Karen says:

      Hi Katt! Maybe together we can conquer “It’s The End of the World”. I gave it a go in high school and came pretty close. Ducks! Those are eggs worth making a souffle with. ~ karen!

  7. ronda says:

    charcoal griller here. not sure I can adjust the gas grill instructions to suit. but love the playlist!

    • Rod from Calgary says:

      Ronda…with a charcoal grill, all you need to do is move all the briquettes over to one side to duplicate Karen’s “one burner on, two off” scenario on a propane BBQ. Then you’d start the ribs on the side without any coals underneath.

  8. Melissa says:

    Hi Karen,

    I know the conclusion you reached about the Instant Pot, but I’d be curious if it could be used in combination with a grill to cook a decent rack of ribs, i.e., could you start them in the IP to get the meat tender and then finish them on the grill?

    If anyone knows, it’s you (or possibly your readers!)


    • Deb says:

      I do that all the time! I love to soften them up and render the fat in the instant pot, then throw them on the grill to dry out and add the sauce. Pinterest has a lot of good recipes in that regard.

    • Joe Townsend says:

      Yes IP works great18 minutes, let pressure bleed off for 5 minutes than open up the vent to bleed of the rest, move to your grill , brush on you sauce and cook till done.

      • Toni says:

        I don’t have a grill. I don’t have a smoker. Oh, no pressure cooker either.
        Have oven, it just has to work, it just has to. Ribs here I come.

    • Cathy McCoy says:

      You have to flip your process, as Karen said. Smoke first!! Then IP. Your ribs will still be tender, but have a better smoke flavor. When I get ribs from takeout, I always foil them with more sauce and place in a 200 degree oven for at least 1 hour. They taste homemade then and so tender and juicy.

  9. Rod from Calgary says:

    Great stuff, Karen…thanks. I’m a rib nut too. About 2 years ago, I discovered a website, and it is now my “go to” website for anything grilled or smoked. Lots of recipes there, including some fantastic rubs. The pitmaster also explains all the science behind grilling, smoking, etc., and busts a lot of myths in the process. His recipe for Pulled Pork will send you straight to culinary heaven. The website also has lots of great advice for people who are looking to buy a BBQ, a smoker, digital thermometer, or any other tool needed. Have a look at the site…you won’t be disappointed.

  10. Mary W says:

    You sure did a lot of work for us – thanks from the bottom of my heart where my ribs reside. I wasn’t hungry until I saw the pictures and now – I need food! can almost smell/taste them

  11. TucsonPatty says:

    So I did indeed send your rib posts to my “big-brother-the-BBQer”, and he just wrote that he learned something new. He didn’t realize the part about smoking them first. He is going to also try your sauce recipe. This is from a 74 year old long time lover of cooking and smoking meats. Thanks for helping me score points with the man!

    • Karen says:

      Glad to hear he’s open to changing his ways after all that time. That’s impressive and admirable! ~ karen

  12. Wendi says:

    Based on your playlist, we must be close to the same age, Karen! Duran Duran {{sigh}}

  13. Alberta Karen says:

    Planning ribs for this weekend. Will be using your instructions for smoker first and sous vide second. excited to try the result!

  14. Tina says:

    I’m doing a big cook-out at my friend’s house in Brussels in August and thought I’d do your rub and your sauce. Just the rub is 27g of sugar per serving!!! Oh My GOD! Just kill me dead now! I know ribs are always sugary and plan accordingly but never looked at the numbers. I guess I’ll eat salad.

    • Karen says:

      The “per serving is misleading” that’s actually for a whole rack of ribs. So really it’s half of that amount of sugar. And less obviously if you use less rub. Also … this isn’t health food we’re talking about here. It’s a once in a while thing. ;) ~ karen!

  15. Kirsten says:

    PIT master!! Lol

    • Karen says:

      Ohhhh PIT master. I was about to give you a rundown of their mini put prowess. I never go to ribfest so I can’t help you there. But I can tell you that the pit master who helps me out is from The Black Pig. I’m not sure that they do rib festivals like this though. ~ karen!

  16. Kirsten says:

    Sounds like a lot of work, I’ll just go to rib fest instead. Speaking of which we annually go to the one in Burlington, I don’t suppose you’ve done any research as to who the best put masters are there? Every year we try a few different ones but haven’t come up with a clear cut favourite as of yet.

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