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.
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.
FIRST LESSON IN COOKING RIBS. DO NOT BOIL THEM. EVER.
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Some last points about ribs:
PORK RIB TIPS
- 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:
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.
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