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How to cook baby back ribs in a smoker, grill or oven

Learn how to cook ribs every which way.
Helene Dujardin
/ Source: TODAY

Now that warm weather is finally here, it's officially time to fire up that grill. And if you're ready to graduate from burgers and hot dogs, 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. First things first: let’s go over what to look for when shopping for ribs. You’ll come across two common cuts — spare ribs and baby back ribs — both of which are varieties of pork ribs.

Baby back ribs tend to be more tender but less flavorful than spare ribs. Baby back ribs are a cut that literally falls on the pig’s back around the loin, which is why they’re so tender. By comparison, spare ribs tend to have more marbling and fat, which makes them more flavorful. However, spare ribs come near the belly area on the lower part of the pig; because of their proximity to the pig’s legs, they tend to be a cut of meat that gets overworked and is therefore harder to ensure tenderness. Baby back ribs are the more popular cut because of their ability to fall off the bone, so that’s the cut we’re focusing on here. Ahead, we’ll explain how to prep a rack of ribs with a delicious dry rub and share directions for how to cook them on a gas or charcoal grill, in a smoker and in the oven.

How to prepare a rack of baby back ribs

Before you start cooking ribs, 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 remove 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 bone tender and will easily absorb that deliciously smoky flavor from the grill.

Spice-Rubbed Ribs

Use a dry rub

A dry rub is a mixture of salt, dry spices and sometimes brown sugar. Most commonly, the rub will include spices such as garlic powder, mustard powder, smoked paprika, cayenne pepper and black pepper. There are plenty of varieties available in grocery stores, but it's also easy to make your own dry rub. This combination of sweet and fiery spices brings a lot of flavor to your ribs—dry-rubbed barbecue is popular in parts of Texas but across other parts of the midwest and south, it’ll be accompanied by a tangy barbecue sauce. Unlike bbq sauce, however, a dry rub should be rubbed all over the ribs (including the backside) at least an hour before cooking them, and up to overnight. By allowing the meat to rest with the rub for a few hours, it will not only make them more flavorful, but also draw out some moisture, which, in turns, ensures that they develop a perfect crust.

Grilled Baby Back Ribs

Prepare a great barbecue sauce

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 bbq 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. It’s so easy to make baby back ribs in the oven. Although oven-baked baby back ribs may not have the same smoky flavor, they can be just as tender as ones cooked on the grill.

Whether you're cooking just a half rack or several racks of pork ribs 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 F on a digital thermometer.

What will vary by cooking method is time. Here's how long baby back ribs need to cook depending on whether they’re grilled, smoked or oven-baked.

How long to smoke baby back ribs on a smoker

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

Blackberry Barbecue Ribs

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 F. Once it’s preheated, turn off one burner and reduce the 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 bone tender. Then brush on several coats of barbecue sauce every 10 minutes or so during the final 30 minutes of cooking.

How long to smoke baby back ribs on a charcoal grill

Cooking ribs on a charcoal grill takes about three hours. To do so, first, set up the grill for indirect cooking over low heat, about 300 F. Once the coals are blazing red, push them to one side and place a drip pan in the center of the 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.

Chef D's Grilled and Glazed 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 F. Wrap the dry-spiced ribs in foil and place the rack on a baking 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 F. 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.

Oven-Barbecued Baby Back Ribs