Cooking baby back ribs: Top tips for cooking ribs with a smoker, grill or oven

The Fourth of July is just around the corner so it's time to start planning your holiday weekend menu.

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/ Source: TODAY
By Carrie Parente

Now that it's summer, grilling season is officially here. If you're tired of burgers and hot dogs, then it's time to try barbecuing baby back ribs. When cooked properly, the meat from these ribs will just fall off the bone. They're tender, versatile and even make great leftovers.

Prepare a rack of baby back ribs

Before you start cooking, it's important to prepare the meat properly. There is a thin, shiny membrane on the back (the bone side) of the ribs that should be removed. Use a knife to pry up a corner of the membrane, then grab it with your fingers or a paper towel and carefully pull it off of the entire rack of ribs. It may tear, so keep working it off until it’s all gone. By removing the membrane, your ribs will be more tender and will easily absorb that deliciously smoky flavor from the grill.

Use a dry rub

Use a dry rub to spice up any rack of ribs. Let it flavor the meat for several hours, or even overnight, before cooking. DebbiSmirnoff / Getty Images stock

A dry rub is a mixture of salt, dry spices and, sometimes, sugar. It brings a lot of flavor to your ribs and is best used alongside your favorite barbecue sauce. Unlike a sauce, however, a dry rub should be rubbed all over the ribs (including the backside) at least an hour before cooking them. It can even be rubbed in overnight. There are plenty of varieties available in grocery stores, but it's also easy to make your own dry rub.

Prepare a great barbecue sauce

A great barbecue sauce is essential for a rack of finger lickin' ribs. Bill Boch / Getty Images stock

It doesn't matter which cooking method you're using: Barbecue sauce is an essential element of any great rack of baby back ribs. However, a major mistake many people make when preparing ribs is putting on the sauce way too early, resulting in burned bits of sauce and undercooked meat. For optimal results, brush your ribs with barbecue sauce during the last 30 to 40 minutes of cooking time (not before). Start off by brushing on a few thin coats, always keeping an eye on the rack. That sugar in barbecue sauces will add beautiful caramelization and flavor, but if it cooks too long or at too high of a heat, it will burn. Just before serving, it's OK to add even more sauce.

How to cook baby back ribs

There are several different ways to cook ribs to tender perfection, so the method is really all up to personal preference. Don’t have a grill? No problem. Oven-baked ribs may not have the same smoky flavor, but they can be just as tender.

Whether you're cooking just a half rack or several at a time, the cooking time will be the same as long as the racks are in a single layer on your grill or in your oven. Ribs should be placed on the grill or in an oven meat-side up. You can tell they're done when the meat has shrunk back from the ends of the bone to expose it and the meat's internal temperature reaches 190 degrees on a digital thermometer.

What will vary by cooking method is time. Here's how long baby back ribs need to cook depending on how you cook them.

How long to smoke baby back ribs on a smoker

Smoking ribs in a smoker takes about 5 hours. When smoking baby back ribs in a smoker, follow a "2-2-1" hourly schedule. First, the smoker should be preheated to 225 degrees and, during the cooking process, the temperature should be kept between 225 and 250 degrees. First, the ribs should be placed directly on the grate and smoked for two hours. Then, take the racks off the grill and wrap the racks tightly in foil before returning them to the smoker to cook for another 2 hours with the lid tightly closed. Before the last and final hour of cooking, carefully remove ribs from foil, place them back onto the grate and brush on several coats of barbecue sauce every 15 minutes or so while the ribs cook for an additional hour.

How long to smoke baby back ribs on a gas grill

Smoking ribs on a gas grill takes about three hours and 30 minutes. If you're cooking ribs on a gas grill, first preheat the grill to about 300 degrees. Once preheated, turn off one burner and reduce heat on the other burner(s) to medium or medium-high heat. Arrange ribs on the grate over the burner that has been turned off. Close the grill's lid and cook for about three hours, or until the ribs are tender. Then brush on several coats of barbecue sauce every 10 minutes or so for the final 30 minutes of cooking.

How long to smoke baby back ribs on a charcoal grill

Charcoal grills are easy to use, but note that the temperature will differ on different parts of the grill. mphillips007 / Getty Images stock

Cooking ribs on a charcoal grill takes about three hours. First, set up the grill for indirect cooking over low heat, about 300 degrees. Once coals are blazing red, push them to one side and place a drip pan in center of grill. (If your grill has a built-in drip pan, there's no need to add one.) If using wood chips, scatter about one cup directly over the coals, then replace the top grate. Arrange ribs on the center of the grate, close the lid and cook for about three hours, or until ribs are tender. Replenish the charcoal as needed to maintain a steady temperature, adding about 10 new coals every 45 minutes of cooking time. During the final 30 minutes of cooking time, brush several coats of barbecue sauce onto the ribs every 10 minutes.

Grilled Baby Back Ribs

How long to cook baby back ribs in the oven

Cooking baby back ribs in an oven takes about three hours and it's a great method you can use all year long. First, preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Wrap the dry-spiced ribs in foil and place the rack on a cookie sheet. Cook for about two hours and 30 minutes, or until the ribs are tender. Remove ribs from the oven and raise the temperature to 350 degrees. Open up the foil and brush the ribs with your favorite barbecue sauce. Return the rack to the oven and cook for an additional 30 to 40 minutes, brushing with additional coats of sauce every 10 minutes.