How to Make BBQ Ribs on a Charcoal Grill

Have a Charcoal Grill and want to make great BBQ ribs? This is the place for you.

Are not using a Charcoal Grill? See:

Cut Pork Ribs
Cut Pork Ribs

Barbecue competition TV shows 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 and makes great ribs. 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.

Your charcoal grill must reliably hold low temperatures for an extended amount of time. While most can, some can not. You need to determine if yours is the type that can. 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.

What you need:

  • Full-sized charcoal grill
  • Rack of ribs
  • A BBQ Rib Rub
  • Charcoal
  • 2 disposable aluminum pans about half the size of your charcoal grill
  • A pitcher of warm water
  • Hardwood chunks
  • A reliable meat thermometer
  • Heavy duty aluminum foil (if you intend to wrap your ribs)
  • A BBQ Sauce for Ribs
  • A large knife

For this method, use spare ribs or baby back ribs. Spare Ribs are larger and will take up to 5 hours to cook. Baby Back Ribs will take about 4 hours. If you choose to do more than one rack of ribs, the grill must be large enough to accommodate both racks. There are rib holding racks available that allow multiple racks of ribs to stand on their sides, making more room. The average charcoal grill might be able to accommodate three, even four racks with one of these.

Step One – Preparing the Ribs

Spare Ribs versus Baby Back Ribs
Spare Ribs versus Baby Back Ribs

The ideal rack of ribs is thick and wide with a uniform rectangular shape. Look for this shape when buying them. Before cooking a rack of ribs, trim off any pockets of excessive 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 any loose pieces since they will dry out and burn on the grill.

Once trimmed, turn the ribs bone side up and remove the membrane that covers the bones. Once cooked, it will become tough, and also prevents the flavor from getting into 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 allows for 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 becomes easy.

Step Two – Rubbing the Ribs

Applying Rub to Ribs
Applying Rub to Ribs

To get the right flavor for your ribs, start with a good BBQ Rib Rub. Whatever flavor profile you like is perfect, but the rub is vital to producing the right look and flavor. BBQ Rubs contain herbs and spices, especially paprika. The paprika helps to build the right color for barbecue ribs.

When it comes to applying the rub, the general rule is what sticks is the amount needed. Before seasoning, make sure to pat dry the rack with a paper towel. The natural moisture of the meat will hold the right amount of rub in place. Coat the meat side thoroughly. A light dusting on the bone side is sufficient since not a lot of flavor is going to penetrate. Once seasoned,  handle ribs gently to keep the rub in place. This step can be done several hours in advance to allow the rub to penetrate deeper. If you wish to do this, wrap the rubbed ribs with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator until 30 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
Setting up Charcoal Grill for Smoking

To set up the charcoal grill for smoking, you will need a clean 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.

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.

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 may not need to add more water, but keep an eye on it. With this configuration, your charcoal grill is now a smoker.

With this configuration, your charcoal grill is now a smoker.

Step Four – Placing Ribs on the Grill

Pork Ribs on 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 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 can get to them evenly. During the cooking process, it will be necessary to rotate the ribs since one side is closer to the fire than the other. The rack should be placed bone-side down next to the water pan. No part of the rib should be directly over the fire.

To get 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 finishing temperature of around 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. That whole, “falling off the bone” thing was created by bad restaurants that boiled their pork ribs.

Step Five – Wrapping the Ribs

Wrapped Pork Ribs
Wrapped Pork Ribs

Once the ribs 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 a heavy flavor of smoke. The ribs themselves should be browning. The meat should be soft and slightly damp in appearance. 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.

After another hour, wrap the ribs in a double layer of heavy aluminum foil. 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 appear 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.

If the ribs appear to have cooked well, place the wrapped ribs back on the grill, rotating them again as you do so. Check the fire and the water pan. There is no need to add additional wood chunks at this time since the smoke won’t be able to reach the ribs. The ribs 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
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 yet barbecue.

Remove the ribs from the foil and place them back on the grill, rotating them again as you do so. Again, 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. It isn’t essential to add more smoking wood, but the temperature needs to remain strong to finish the ribs.

Once unwrapped, the ribs should appear wet. 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, continued 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 185 to 190 degrees F (88 to 90 degrees C). 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 from the grill.  If you want to add barbecue sauce, read on.

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, wait about five minutes for the sauce to cook onto the surface. Repeat as many times as desired. I generally do this about five 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.

Step Seven – Cutting and Serving the Ribs

Cutting Spare Ribs
Cutting Spare Ribs

Carving 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 a 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.

There is no need to wait at this point. Dive in and enjoy!

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