The Rib Guide: Everything You Need to Know About Preparing and Cooking Ribs

The world of barbecue ribs can seem daunting at first, especially when you conjure up images of long hours standing by a smoker, fighting to keep the temperature just right. While smoking is a great method to make fall-off-the-bone ribs, there are many ways to prepare and cook ribs. Cooking fork-tender ribs is not that difficult, and there are a ton of options. Once you figure out which method is best for you, you’ll be preparing and cooking perfect ribs in no time.

The first step in preparing ribs is to remove the membrane, called the peritoneum. If you flip the ribs over so that the curved side is facing up, you will see a thin translucent covering running across the ribs. It presents a barrier between your seasoning and the meat. If you are smoking the ribs, this membrane also prevents the smoke from penetrating the meat.

Fortunately, this membrane is simple to remove. Grab the corner of the membrane (or peel it up using a butter knife), pull it off, and discard it. That’s all there is to it!

Wet or Dry Rub?
This is the fun part. There are a million ways to season ribs, which can seem overwhelming at first, but can become very exciting. The first couple of times you season ribs, either follow a recipe that sounds good or just use seasonings you know you like – you can’t go wrong. No matter which seasonings you choose, the application will either be a dry rub or a wet rub.

No matter how you apply the seasoning, the longer the ribs set with the seasoning, the more flavorful they are. After it’s applied, place the ribs in a roasting pan, cover the pan with plastic wrap, and place it in the refrigerator for at least four hours. This time allows the seasoning to absorb into the meat and produce more flavor.

Dry Rubs
A dry rub is just what it sounds like – there is no liquid involved. Dry rubs are ideal for a good sear and a good crust, called the “bark”. You want to rub the dry seasoning into the meat rather than simply sprinkling it on, hence the name.

Ribs with a dry rub should be cooked at higher temperatures than those with wet rubs so that they don’t dry out. Some common dry seasonings to use on ribs are brown sugar, smoked paprika, salt, pepper, and garlic. They produce a savory bark and also help to tenderize the ribs during the cooking method.

Wet Rubs
Wet rubs incorporate liquid with the dry seasoning to impart additional flavor and tenderness. Ribs with a wet rub should be cooked at lower temperatures than those with a dry rub so the sauce on the ribs does not burn. If the ribs are being cooked on a grill or a smoker, the lid should stay closed so that the ribs stay “wrapped” in moisture.

Common liquids used in a wet rub are cooking oil, mustard, and an alcohol, like bourbon. While mustard may sound strange, it helps tenderize the ribs, adds no additional flavor, and the seasoning sticks to the meat better. The wet rub should be applied liberally, a process known as “mopping” in the barbecue world.

Cooking Methods
The most popular method of cooking ribs is by using a smoker or grill. This imparts smokey flavors into the meat and allows the ribs to tenderize due to the longer cooking times. Ribs should be grilled at 275 degrees F for 4 to 5 hours and misted with apple cider vinegar or apple juice every half hour. The acidic liquid adds flavor, prevents them from drying out, and tenderizes the ribs. To grill the ribs faster, they can be cooked in the oven at 375 degrees F for 1 hour before grilling.

Smoking ribs is a time-honored tradition. No matter which seasoning method is used, the temperature should range from 185 to 225 degrees F so the ribs cook “low and slow”. Along with the acidic mist mentioned above, a metal bowl of apple juice can be placed in the cooking chamber to add moisture and additional flavor to the ribs.

Hardwoods like apple, cherry, and mesquite work best for long smoking times and impart that classic smoked flavor. Depending on the weight of the ribs, smoking takes 3 to 6 hours.

Ribs can also be baked in a traditional oven at 350 degrees F for 2 to 3 hours. If you are grilling or baking without aluminum foil, the bark may form faster than you like. If this happens, wrap the ribs in aluminum foil until the last hour of cooking. If the ribs are going to be “mopped” with sauce, do so only within the last hour so that the sauce does not burn.

Braising can be done ahead of time and is a great way to achieve juicy and tender ribs. Place the ribs in a pot (you may have to cut the ribs to fit) and add enough water or broth to cover the ribs. Cover the pot tightly with aluminum foil and bake at 350 degrees F for 1 – 2 hours, or until the ribs are tender. Then grill, smoke, or bake the ribs. Braising prevents the ribs from drying out so they do not need to be covered during the cooking process.

The 3-2-1 Method
The 3-2-1 method combines smoking and grilling. It is an ideal way to cook ribs and is a good way for prospective grill masters to get comfortable with longer cooking methods. The idea behind the 3-2-1 method is to smoke the ribs for 3 hours, grill them wrapped for 2 hours, and then grill them unwrapped for the final hour so that a savory bark forms. This method incorporates smokiness and classic char flavor without the ribs drying out.

Prepare the ribs and season as usual. Then, smoke them for 3 hours and remove them from the smoker. Place the ribs in aluminum foil and add approximately one cup of acidic liquid like apple cider vinegar or apple juice and wrap tightly to seal in the juice. Place the wrapped ribs on a grill preheated to 225 degrees F for 2 hours or until the internal temperature of the ribs is 205 degrees F. Lastly, remove the aluminum foil from the ribs, mop them with sauce, and place them back on the grill for 1 hour, or until the sauce tightens.

Ribs are a staple food at most barbecues, and for good reason. There are a ton of ways to season them, and they can be cooked using almost any method. Though most people think about long grilling and smoking times for ribs, they can also be prepared indoors and come out just as tender in less time.