Basics for Barbecuing Ribs

One of my favorite fall feasts is barbecued ribs. I could probably eat my weight in them, especially when they’re cooked to perfection. Of course, perfection means different things to different people. We’ll show your some basics, then you can create your own definition for perfection!

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The basics for cooking ribs are pretty simple, but conditions can make these basics not so basic. As you try different methods and experience variations in heat control, weather, equipment, and even the methods themselves, you’ll figure out what works best for you.

The optimal temperature to cook ribs is 225℉, so maintaining heat at this level is ideal to keep the ribs tender and moist. That being said, if temperatures vary during the cooking process, adjust the cook time as well. If the average temperature is higher, the ribs will cook quicker, and visa versa.

Ribs are technically “cooked” at 145℉, but they will be tough at this temperature. They contain connective tissues and fat that need to be broken down slowly to make them tender. We’ve found the best temperature for ribs to be around 190-205℉. It’s hard to get an accurate temperature for ribs with an instant read thermometer, because they are thin and surrounded by bones. See below for ways to determine when ribs are ready to eat.

Baby back ribs typically need 3 to 4 hours, and spare ribs or St. Louis cut ribs need 5 to 6 hours under ideal temperature conditions.

If you want to sauce your ribs, add it 30 minutes before the ribs are ready to take off the grill. Brush them on both sides with sauce. The sauce will thicken and glaze to the ribs as they continue to cook.

How To Tell When Ribs Are Ready

Cooking times for ribs fluctuate depending on a number of variables. These include temperature control, equipment being used, and the type of ribs you’re barbecuing. Here are some tricks to determine when your ribs are ready to eat.

Bend Test: This method is the go-to for many people. Pick up the ribs at one end with tongs. Bounce them slightly. If the ribs bend easily without resistance and start to crack, they’re done.

Toothpick Test: Insert a toothpick between the rib bones. Do this in the middle and in several different locations on the ribs. If the toothpick easily slides into the meat with almost no resistance, the ribs are done.

Twist Test: Using grilling gloves, hold a bone in the middle of the rib rack and twist it. If it easily breaks free from the meat, the ribs are done.

Pop-Up Test: In this test, you check to see if the meat has pulled away from the bone tips. It should be pulled away by about ¼ inch. This method is best if you’ve let the ribs cook at ideal temperatures. If your fire has been hotter than 225℉ to 250℉, this may not be the best method to use. It’s possible that the middle part of the ribs could still underdone. Also, many competition cooks think ribs are overdone at this point. Again, you be the judge!

Sample Test: When you’re just not sure, cut off a rib and eat it! The interior should be white with no pink juices, but the smoke ring just below the surface will be pink. Take a big bite, and if the ribs meet your approval, they’re ready!

What is the 3-2-1 Method?

The 3-2-1 method is a way to cook ribs that will be treasured by many people. The ribs are tender, moist, and close to falling off the bone. They have nice smoke, too, so all the elements are there… well, almost. Ribs cooked with this method will have a softer exterior, because the bark will soften when the ribs are wrapped and steamed. Competition cooks would argue that this is a travesty, but they are still pretty darn good! Again, personal choice plays a huge role here, so why not give it a try! Here are the steps:

  • Cook prepared ribs over indirect heat at 225℉ for 3 hours.
  • Add wood chips or chunks during this time.
  • Remove the ribs from the grill and place each rack on a large sheet of heavy duty aluminum foil. The foil should be at least two and a half times longer than the rack of ribs.
  • Fold the foil up around the sides of the ribs to keep liquids from leaking out.
  • Pour a small amount of apple juice, beer, or a combination of liquids over the ribs (based on the recipe you’re using). 
  • Close the foil over the ribs to form a tight seal.
  • Let the ribs continue to cook over indirect 225℉ heat for 2 hours. 
  • Remove the ribs from the foil and place them back on the grill. Cook for an additional hour. 
  • Brush the ribs with barbecue sauce during the last 30 minutes, if desired.

And there you have it -- the 3-2-1. A variation of this method is the 2-2-1, often used for baby backs. The timing is shorter, but the steps are the same.

Spicy Smoked Ribs

These ribs are smoky, tender, and full of mouthwatering flavor!

What You’ll Need
3 racks St. Louis style ribs
4 tablespoons canola oil
Rub for Ribs (recipe follows)
Barbecue sauce (your choice)
Applewood chunks for the smoker

Let’s Do It!
Remove the silver skin from the rib bones. Lightly cover the ribs with oil and apply the rub all over, massaging it into the meat. Wrap the ribs in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 12 hours. Remove the ribs from the refrigerator 40 minutes before you plan to smoke them.

Prepare your smoker and preheat it to 225℉. Place the ribs, bone side down, directly on the grate. Close the lid, and cook the ribs for approximately 5½ hours. Brush the ribs all over with barbecue sauce and continue smoking for 30 more minutes. Carefully monitor the heat, making adjustments as needed to maintain the temperature near 225℉. Remove the ribs from the smoker and let them rest for 20 to 30 minutes. Serve with additional sauce if desired.

Rub for Ribs
½ cup dark brown sugar
¼ cup Spanish paprika
3 tablespoons granulated garlic powder
2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons chili powder
2 tablespoon onion powder
2 tablespoons coriander
2 tablespoons dried oregano
2 tablespoons Kosher salt (or 1 tablespoon table salt)
1 tablespoon ginger
1 tablespoon cumin
2-3 teaspoons cayenne

Mix all ingredients together. Store in an airtight container.

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