Think of summer foods, and ribs are sure to top the list. Summer get-togethers just wouldn’t be the same without a platter stacked with tender, saucy ribs.
Smoked or BBQ ribs are easier to make than you might think. The key, of course, is low-and-slow cooking. A great seasoning helps, and you never want to skip your favorite sauce. Anytime our BBQ instructors teach ribs to a first-timer, the top comment is always, “Wow, that was actually really easy.”
Before you plan your next summer menu, review these mistakes you’ll want to avoid with your next rack of ribs—plus, tips from our BBQ experts on how to make the best ribs of your life.
Mistake to Avoid No. 1: You took home the first rack of ribs you saw.
You weren’t sure what you were doing, so you grabbed the rack at the top of the heap in the meat section at your grocery store. Ribs are ribs, right?
What to do instead: First, familiarize yourself with the kinds of ribs you have available to you. When folks mention “ribs,” they usually mean pork ribs, so we’ll stick with that topic here. If you want a quicker cooking time and are OK with (generally) less meat, go with baby backs. If you want to go for a competition-style rack, pick St. Louis style. For the whole enchilada, grab spare ribs (you can trim these down to St. Louis style by removing the cartilage portion that’s still intact on one side of the rack—handy to know if you can’t find St. Louis style ribs at your local store).
Next, opt for ribs that look meaty, have an even thickness, and boast an appetizing, fresh, rosy-red color. If you see a rack that has large pockets of fat on the meaty side, you can save yourself some trim time by digging for a rack that has more consistent marbling.
Mistake to Avoid No. 2: You left the membrane intact.
A thin membrane, sometimes called silverskin, covers a rack of ribs on its bottom (bone side). If tender, juicy ribs are your goal, you will want to remove this membrane before cooking. It’s not absolutely essential, but if you’re looking for peak tenderness, you’ll want to go membrane-free.
What to do instead: We love Champion BBQer Jay Tinney’s method for this: Use a butter knife and, while firmly inserting it between the membrane and the bone underneath, pull up. Do this on a few bones, then use a paper towel (you’ll get added grip) to grab the loosened parts of the membrane to begin peeling it away from the ribs.
Mistake to Avoid No. 3: You under-seasoned.
It’s good to go easy on the seasoning with some meats. We’re thinking chicken, seafood, and anything bacon-wrapped. But with ribs, seasoning isn’t essential only to the flavor of the meat, but it’s also vital if you want your ribs to have bark—that delicious, crispy coating that makes the time spent on home-smoked or grilled ribs all worth it.
What to do instead: Don’t fear the seasoning. The seasoning is your friend. First, add a medium-light layer of a salt-forward seasoning to the tops, bottoms, and sides of your ribs. Allow the ribs to sweat with the seasoning about 30 minutes, then go back over the rack with another layer of seasoning. You can switch it up this time to add layers of flavor, or you can stick with what you started with. Allow this layer to sweat for at least 30 minutes, and then your ribs are ready to go to the grill.
Mistake to Avoid No. 4: You undercooked the ribs.
Time and internal temperature don’t tell the full story when it’s a rack of ribs on the grill or smoker. If you’ve never cooked a rack of ribs, or if you’ve made them only once or twice, it can be easy to miss those key cues for doneness. Even the 3-2-1 method and the 145-degree-F rule on internal temp (the answer to that question, at what temperature are ribs done?) aren’t foolproof.
What to do instead: Instead of searching endlessly for at what temperature are ribs done, learn the visual clues on how to tell your ribs are done to perfect tenderness. Try picking up the ribs from one end with some tongs. You’ll know they’re ready when the rack bends slightly, with the meat on top cracking just so. If the ribs don’t bend, or if the meat doesn’t crack, let your ribs continue to cook. You can also try gently twisting the bones. Feel some give? Those babies are done. One more test: insert a toothpick into a meaty section of the rack, between the bones. If the toothpick slides in without any resistance, that rack is done.
Want to know how to make fall-off-the-bone ribs? After smoking the ribs for about 3 hours, cook them wrapped until the bones twist with no effort—follow World Champion BBQer Doug Scheiding’s recipe for Fall-Off-The-Bone Spare Ribs.
Mistake to Avoid No. 5: You cooked the ribs over high heat.
There’s certainly a place in outdoor cooking cook high, direct heat. Think burgers, chicken wings, and hot dogs. But with tougher cuts like ribs, low-and-slow cooking over indirect heat is the key to breaking down tough connective tissues.
What to do instead: Set your grill or smoker to at least 225 degrees F, no more than 300 degrees F, and sit back and relax. A rack of ribs takes anywhere from 4-6 hours to cook properly. It’s worth the wait. If you’re working on a charcoal grill, stack coals to one side under the grates. Cook your ribs on the opposite side. Same thing with a gas grill: light just half the burners, and cook your ribs on the unlit side.
Mistake to Avoid No. 6: You put the sauce on too soon.
Ever check the ingredients on a bottle of BBQ sauce? More often than not, sugar is near the top. And sugar burns quickly. Adding a layer of BBQ sauce to a rack of ribs early on during the cooking process is a good way to coat your hard work in that burnt-sugar flavor (read: yuck).
What to do instead: Wait to sauce your ribs until late in the cooking process, about 15-20 minutes before you’re ready to pull them off the grill or smoker. By this time, the meat is more or less done cooking, and you’re working on the sweet-and-savory glaze that sits on top of the bark. Adding the sauce at the end—pour it on, don’t fuss with a brush—ensures a sweet, set glaze and a candy-coat surface, with no brushstrokes.
Our Favorite BBQ Ribs Recipes
Apple Habanero Smoked BBQ St. Louis Style Ribs
The backyard version of a competition classic. Champion BBQer Jay Tinney reveals his secrets step by step for how he makes a rack of grand champion-worthy ribs at home.
FULL RECIPE: Apple Habanero Smoked BBQ St. Louis Style Ribs
Fall-Off-the-Bone Pork Spare Ribs
This recipe and how-to for how to cook classic backyard BBQ ribs walks you through the process step by step, from start to finish. It’s one of our most popular recipes, ever.
FULL RECIPE: Fall-Off-the-Bone Pork Spare Ribs
Smoked Baby Back Ribs with Honey BBQ Sauce
Warm, toasted honey sweetens these smoked baby back ribs. We went classic with this recipe, including answers to common rib-smoking questions, like how long to smoke baby back ribs and what internal temperature to look for when you’re smoking baby back ribs.
FULL RECIPE: Smoked Baby Back Ribs with Honey BBQ Sauce
3 2 1 Ribs with Honey Dr. Pepper BBQ Glaze
Our backyard cooks love the 3 2 1 rib method. It’s a foolproof way to get fall-off-the-bone BBQ spare ribs without all the guesswork. Make them using your favorite braising liquid and sauce, or try it our way. The Honey BBQ glaze is a showstopper.
FULL RECIPE: 3 2 1 Ribs with Honey Dr. Pepper BBQ Glaze
Sugar Free Low Carb Classic BBQ Ribs
Our Sugar Free sauce adds spice and subtle sweetness, bringing BBQ ribs back to the table for anyone watching sugar or carbs.
FULL RECIPE: Sugar Free Low Carb Classic BBQ Ribs
Classic Smoked BBQ Ribs
A classic approach to a classic of BBQ—slow-smoked pork spare ribs. There are just three ingredients between you and a stackable feast.
FULL RECIPE: Classic Smoked BBQ Ribs