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BBQ Ribs on a Charcoal Grill

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If you’re planning on making BBQ ribs on a charcoal grill then you’re in luck! Our detailed recipe guide will take you through every step of the process, including selecting the best rack of ribs, setting up your charcoal grill, and choosing the perfect flavor combinations.

Tik Tok and You Tube videos might have you believing that you need a big, expensive smoker to make the best barbecue ribs. That isn’t true. While good barbecue ribs are often made on a gas grill, the best piece of equipment to use is a charcoal grill. Making BBQ ribs on a charcoal grill is easy. First, you will need a full-sized charcoal grill with a lid and optimal airflow control. If this isn’t an option, don’t despair. Your charcoal unit can be set up in such a way to produce excellent, low, and slow barbecue. The trick is to convert the grill into a mini water smoker. All you need is a couple of disposable aluminum pans, wood for smoking, and a rack or two of ribs.

Next, your charcoal grill must reliably hold low temperatures for an extended amount of time. While most can, some can not. Determine which category your grill belongs to. To test it, build a fire in your grill and adjust the vents so that the internal temperature stays steady at a temperature near 250 degrees F (120 degrees C). The grill will need to hold this temperature for at least four hours. It may be necessary to add additional fuel during the cooking process. We will discuss that later. The grill should be large enough that a rack of ribs can sit on half the cooking surface and have room around the edges for airflow and smoke. With that said, it is time to get started on our journey of making BBQ ribs on a charcoal grill!

What you need:

To make BBQ ribs on a charcoal grill, you’ll need either pork spare ribs or baby back ribs. Spare Ribs are larger and will take up to 6 hours to cook, while baby backs will take about 4 hours. If you choose to do more than one rack of ribs, the grill must be large enough to accommodate them. There are space saving rib-holding racks available that allow multiple racks of ribs to stand on their sides.

Step One – Preparing the Ribs

Spare Ribs versus Baby Back Ribs

The ideal rack of ribs is thick and wide with a uniform rectangular shape. Before cooking a rack of ribs, trim off any pockets of excess fat. There is plenty of fat marbled into the meat to keep them moist while they cook. Thick layers of fat will produce a greasy rib. Also, trim away loose pieces since they will dry out and burn on the grill.

removing membrane

Once trimmed, turn the ribs bone side up and remove the membrane that covers the bones. If it is left on, it will toughen as it cooks and prevent smoke flavor from penetrating the meat. The best method for removing the membrane is to use a blunt knife, like a butter knife. Lift away the membrane on one end of the rack and grab it with a paper towel. It is slippery, but the paper towel will allow you to get a good grip. Now, gently pull the membrane away. It might take a few attempts to get all of it, but with a little practice, it gets easier.

Step Two – Rubbing the Ribs

Applying Rub

Flavor building starts with a good BBQ Rib Rub. Whatever flavor profile you like is fine, but that the rub is vital to producing a good bark and taste. BBQ Rubs contain herbs and spices, especially paprika. The deep red color of paprika gives pork ribs their quintessential BBQ appearance.

Before seasoning, make sure to pat dry the rack with a paper towel. Apply a thin layer of binding agent like mustard, oil, hot sauce, or mayonnaise. Coat the meat side thoroughly. A light to moderate dusting on the bone side is sufficient.

Once seasoned, handle the ribs gently to keep the rub in place. This step can be done several hours in advance to allow the rub to penetrate deeper into the meat. If you wish to do this, wrap the rubbed ribs with plastic wrap and place them in the refrigerator until 30-60 minutes before cooking. It isn’t necessary to do this, but many swear that seasoning early does the trick.

Step Three – Charcoal Grill Setup

Setting up Charcoal Grill for Smoking

To set up the charcoal grill for smoking, you will need a clean cooking surface. Start enough burning charcoal to cover half the coal grate and the two disposable aluminum pans. Do this by removing the cooking grate from the grill. Place one of the aluminum pans on the coal grate. If your unit is round, it might be necessary to bend the pan to fit. It should cover exactly half the coal grate.

Two-Zone Set Up for Indirect Cooking

Place the burning charcoal (ideally from a charcoal chimney) on the coal grate next to the pan. Spread it out evenly. The coals should be about three layers deep. Place the wood chunks on top of the burning charcoal and replace the cooking grate. You’ve just created at two-zone cooking set up for indirect cooking.

Place the second aluminum pan on the cooking grate directly over the burning coals and carefully pour in enough warm water to nearly fill the pan. The water produces steam to keep the cooking environment moist and serves to regulate the temperature by holding the heat steady. With the water pan filled, put the lid back on the grill and adjust the vents to maintain a consistent low temperature (around 250 degrees F/120 C). The water will steam away slowly. You might not need to add more water, but keep an eye on it. With this configuration, your charcoal grill is now a smoker.

Step Four – Placing Ribs on the Charcoal Grill

Pork Ribs on Charcoal Grill

Now that the charcoal grill is configured for smoking and holding the right temperature, it is time to put on the ribs. Place them bone-side down directly over the aluminum pan that is sitting on the coal grate. There should be good airflow all around the racks so that smoke and heat is distributed evenly. It will be necessary to rotate the ribs during cooking since one side is closer to the fire than the other.

Getting the ribs to tender perfection will take about 4 to 5 hours depending on the grill, weather, and the racks themselves. They should be monitored, but lift the lid as little as possible. You will need to hold in the heat and the smoke and keep it consistent. Look for a doneness temperature of 185 to 190 degrees F (88 to 90 degrees C). At this point, the ribs will have their maximum tenderness before the meat starts falling off the bone. Remember that a well-cooked rib has a bone in it and doesn’t fall into a pile of meat when it comes time to eat it.

Step Five – Wrapping the Ribs

Wrapped Pork Ribs
Wrapped Pork Ribs

Once the ribs are cooked for an hour, it is time to check on them. Make sure that the temperature is holding steady, that the fire is still burning, and that there is plenty of water in the water pan. At this time, add new hardwood to the fire to continue smoke production. Barbecue ribs should have an ample, but not heavy smoke flavor.

The Bark

You’ll notice that the bark is starting to set up on the ribs. Check for any signs of burning. At this time, rotate the ribs, keeping them bone side down, but exposing the other side of the rack to the heat. If they seem dry on top consider spritzing them with a little apple juice or apple cider vinegar.

Wrapping the Ribs

After another hour, wrap the ribs in a double layer of heavy aluminum foil or pink butcher paper. It should be as airtight as possible. This wrapping holds in moisture and helps to raise the internal temperature of the ribs. When you pick up the racks to place them on the foil, they should curve nicely, but not fold. If they are still rigid and raw in any part, leave them on the grill for an additional 30 minutes. Check to make sure that the temperature is correct.

There is no need to add additional wood chunks at this time since the smoke won’t be able to reach the ribs. They have absorbed all the smoke they are going to get. Allow them to continue cooking for another hour.

Step Six – Unwrapping and Saucing the Ribs

BBQ Sauce on Pork Ribs

The ribs have now been on the grill for at least 3 hours. Technically speaking, they are cooked through, but they are not done yet.

Remove the ribs from the foil and place them back on the grill, rotating them again as you do so. Check to make sure that the fire is still active and that there is water in the water pan. If the grill needs additional fuel, add it now.

Once unwrapped, the ribs should will appear wet and steamed if you’ve used aluminum foil. They should bend easily, but not fold. If the bones are loose or the rack folds in the center, it is time to take them off the grill. Otherwise, continue cooking. You can test the temperature of the ribs with a good meat thermometer. Unfortunately, this can be a challenge.  Fully cooked ribs will reach an internal temperature of 195 to 203 degrees F. The bone will be a different temperature from the meat and to get an accurate reading; you will need to check the meat without getting too close to the bone. Test in several locations.

If the grill temperature is consistent, the ribs should need another 30 minutes to an hour to reach perfection. Close the lid and continue cooking until they reach the right internal temperature.

Once the ribs reach the right level of doneness, remove them from the grill.  If you want to add barbecue sauce, read on.

Applying BBQ Sauce on the Ribs

When the ribs are almost done, it is time to slather on the barbecue sauce. Do this in thin layers and make sure to use warmed barbecue sauce. By layering on the sauce, it will form a sticky surface on the ribs and not a thick wet coating. Start by adding a layer. Close the grill lid, and wait about five minutes for the sauce to cook on the surface. Repeat as many times as desired. I generally do this about 4-5 times to give the ribs a thick coating.

Once the saucing is complete, remove the ribs from the grill and place them on a large cutting board. Let them rest for 10 minutes.

Step Seven – Cutting and Serving the Ribs

charcoal grill set up for cooking

Carve the ribs with a long sharp knife and a pair of tongs. Hold the rack on its edge with the bones facing towards you. Slide the knife down, between the bones evenly. By cutting straight down through the rack, you can get an even and uniform rib. The bones tend to turn a little more towards the small end, but with a bit of practice, you will get the hang of it.

Voila! You’ve successfully made BBQ ribs on a charcoal grill! Now it’s time to dive in and enjoy! And then try out all our Best Rib Recipes!

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2 responses to “BBQ Ribs on a Charcoal Grill”

  1. Amazing technique, I’ve been using it for a years and people love the way I grill my ribs.

    • Tried this method for the first time today and it was AHHHMAZING!! The ribs were delectable and finger licking good!! Followed the recipe exactly as instructed on our Old Smokey charcoal grill, Thank you!!

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