ribs over charcoal grill

The art of grilling ribs

It has escaped no barbeque buff that ribs go well with live coals. However, not everyone is aware that the meat is rich in fat and connective tissue and that the tastiest way to cook it is under prolonged, moderate heat. 

Pigs – depending on the race – can have up to 17 ribs. These can be cut in a number of ways and all of them are suitable for grilling and for hot, sweet, sour and smoky flavors.

Thick ribs need more time to cook through. Thin ribs are uneven in size and shape, which puts some demands on how they are grilled. Baby back ribs are small and practical in shape and size, but their meat is leaner and dries out faster.

This is how to get the best result on your grill, no matter which kind you are cooking:

Remove the membrane

To allow the meat to absorb more flavors and for it to fall apart deliciously in your mouth, you want to remove the membrane covering the “inside” (the concave side) of the ribs. Do like this:

Use a smaller knife to lift up a corner of the membrane. Use a paper towel to get a better grip and pull it off in its entirety.

Flavor well in advance

Season the ribs at least an hour before cooking. Using a dry, flavorful “rub” is a good idea. Why not the day before you are going to cook them? (In this case, leave the salt for later.)

Indirect heat

As mentioned above, the best way to make delicious ribs is to give the meat plenty of time to develop flavors and to cook through to a tender consistency that melts in your mouth. A grill with a lid allows you to lower the intensity of the heat and to slow down the burning rate of the coals. Arrange the coals on one side, and cook your ribs in indirect heat on the other. The only direct heat they might need – this is up to you – is a quick searing before serving.

Wood flavor

If you like smoky wood flavors on your grilled meat: Allow the humid, smoking wood some time on the coals before you start cooking the meat. The first fumes can be acrid and unpleasant on the palate.

Slow grilling

To grill and to barbecue are not the same thing. The latter is more a matter of cooking the meat on indirect heat – and this is the effect you are looking for when making perfect ribs. If you don’t have a full size barbecue smoker, try to make one hot space (direct heat) and one “cool” space (indirect heat) in your grill.

The grate should be clean and oiled. Cover the ribs with aluminium foil. Close the lid and cook them for at least an hour.

If/when the live coal fades

Use this opportunity to baste the ribs with barbecue sauce or glaze. Add new coals and cover the ribs with aluminium foil and wait for the heat to come back – or go through the last stages of cooking in a hot oven. How to know when the ribs are done:

Do the fork test

Stick an ordinary fork into the meat and lift it straight up. If the meat immediately lets go, your ribs are ready.

Allow to rest

Take the ribs out of the grill/oven and let them rest in a warm place for up to 20 minutes to “un-stress” the meat.

Or boil first...

A failsafe way to guarantee a great result is to boil the ribs in broth for about an hour (or for even longer at low temperature in a concentrated spice mix, much like pulled pork) before you sear them over direct heat. This makes the actual grilling part a last touch where you quickly heat up and add a bunch of wonderful flavor to the ribs in front of your hungry guests...


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