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How to Make the Best Barbecued Ribs

A barbecue champ shows how simple spices and slow cooking yield fall-off-the-bone-tender Kansas City style ribs

Fine Cooking Issue 28
Photos: Joanne Smart and Mark Ferri
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Whenever I teach a class on barbecue, it seems that all people really want to hear about is ribs. Which are better, beef or pork? Baby back or spare? Kansas City style or St. Louis? A rub or a marinade? Barbecue sauce or no barbecue sauce?

Before I answer, you need to know something about me. Although it’s rare in the opinionated world of barbecue, I don’t like to force my beliefs on anyone. My terrible jokes, yes; my beliefs, no. Instead, I insist on saying, “This is one successful way to do it.” So while I’m giving you a delicious recipe for ribs, I hope that I’m also giving you enough know-how so that you can tinker with the recipe. Because that’s the fun of barbecue—always striving to make it better. With that in mind, here are my answers to the questions posed above: pork, spare, Kansas City, rub, and sauce—preferably on the side.

To get the best ribs, make friends with your butcher

Done properly, both baby back ribs (which come from the loin, or back, of the pig) and spareribs (which come from the front part of the belly) are wonderful. But I almost always go for spareribs, which, though a tougher cut, ultimately cook up more juicy and tender. The more expensive baby backs take less time to cook, but their more delicate nature makes them easier to overcook.

When buying ribs, look for the most meat coverage. I don’t want to see any bones popping out while I’m barbecuing (we call those ribs “shiners”). And while some fat on the ribs is fine, avoid those with huge globs of it. But my best piece of advice for buying ribs is for you to become friendly with the butcher at the grocery store, preferably a store that has a good meat selection. This way, when you ask to special-order a case of ribs, he or she will be more accommodating.

The reward for trimming your own ribs: the tasty tips. We barbecuers consider a slab of ribs to be about a dozen ribs, but the Department of Agriculture says nine bones or more make a slab—all the more reason to get to know your butcher.

I like to buy full slabs of ribs so I can trim them myself. Trimming doesn’t take long, and you get to keep the tasty, tender, boneless rib tips that some butchers trim off. You also get the skirt, a meaty flap that starts at the large end of the slab and curves down to the bottom of the slab. (A Kansas City style rack always includes the skirt. Some butchers trim it off, however, which turns the rack into St. Louis style ribs.)

When you get your rack or slab home, you’ll want to trim off any excess fat and remove the membrane that runs the length of the bone side of the rack. If you don’t remove this membrane, your smoke and seasoning won’t penetrate the ribs nearly as well. And if you’ve ever eaten barbecued ribs and got something that felt like plastic wrap stuck between your teeth, you know the other reason that the membrane should come off.

Give the ribs a rub. A good rub begins with equal amounts of sugar and salt; add to this chili seasoning and black pepper in equal amounts, plus paprika for color and you’ve got your basic rub. The final four ingredients in the rub recipe are where you can have fun playing, substituting and adding your favorite dried herbs and spices.

By the way, chili seasoning (also called chili powder) is chile powder (note the eat the end of chile in this case, meaning ground dried chiles) that’s combined with other dried herbs and spices.

It’s a tried-and-true seasoning for meat and one I build on in many rub recipes. As you get more into barbecuing, you may want to make your own chili seasoning, starting with pure chile powder or even dried chiles, which you grind yourself.

Author Paul Kirk shows what a properly devoured rib should look like.

Indirect cooking for tender ribs

Indirect cooking means the ribs are cooked slowly by smoke over a fire that has burned down to coals. The most delicious spareribs will take at least five hours to cook. That may seem like a long time, but if you set up your barbecue as sugested in the recipe Kansas City Style Barbecued Ribs, you don’t need to do much to the ribs once they’re cooking. The main thing is to check the temperature inside the grill with a thermometer, one that came with the grill or one you rig yourself through an air vent. The temperature should hover between 230° and 250°F. You can adjust the temperature of the grill by allowing more or less air in through the vents.

The fuel is also the flavor. It stands to reason that if whatever you’re barbecuing is cooked by the heat of the coals and the flavor of the smoke, the smoke and coals should help the flavor, not hurt it. I like a mix of charcoal and hardwood chips; this gives me the benefit of the control of charcoal and the flavor of wood.

Use a good-quality charcoal with as few additives as possible. Even better, try using lump hardwood charcoal which burns cleaner though hotter. For lump hardwood charcoal and hardwood chunks, call People’s Woods in Rhode Island, (800/ 729-5800 or 401/725-2700) or Lazzari Fuel Company in San Francisco (800/242-7265). As for the wood chips, most people think we barbecuers always use hickory. But I find hickory can be harsh, especially when used alone. I prefer to use some pieces of apple and oak, which I don’t bother soaking.

To start the fire, you can use a barbecue chimney (my preferred method), an electric starter, kindling, or a blowtorch. Just stay away from chemical starters, which can give your food a chemical flavor.

A water pan keeps the meat from drying out. I always cook ribs on the grill over a pan full of water. Aside from acting as a drip pan, the water adds moisture to the mix, keeping the ribs juicy. I use a bread pan I found at a tag sale for 25 cents, but a disposable aluminum pan would do the trick.

how to trim a rack of ribs

Start by scraping away any excess fat with a small knife. A little fat is fine, but too much will cause your fire to flare up.

  • Pull off the tough membrane on the bone side. Cut a horizontal slit in the membrane just below the rib tips. Wiggle your finger beneath the membrane to get it loosened and then pull.
  • Find the skirt—the meaty flap that curves down the bottom of the bone side—and trim off the thick white membrane on its edge.
  • Cut off the rib tips—but save them for the grill. Cutting off the tips just makes the ribs easier to handle—you won’t have this floppy part sitting on top. Feel where the first large rib bone ends and cut horizontally. This shouldn’t be a struggle— you’re cutting cartilage, not bone.


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