Slow Cooked Ribs
This is a recipe for slow cooked ribs, versus a recipe for “slow cooker ribs”. In Texas, the idea of cooking ribs in a slow cooker or oven seems so preposterous that we’ve never even tried it. Smoking baby back ribs on a charcoal grill is an easy set-it-and-forget-it method with excellent results. Here’s a complete list of everything you need to smoke ribs and step-by-step instructions.
Smoked ribs are comfort food in Texas and using indirect heat to cook low and slow is the same barbecuing style used by my family for generations.
My father’s father smoked meats on a Japanese ceramic Kamado (the precursor to the Big Green Egg brought back to the states after WWII), my mother’s father smoked fresh fish in a small smokehouse at their lake cabin, and my father smokes on everything from a Kamado to a Weber charcoal kettle to a dedicated smoker, and now I’m teaching my teens how to slow cook ribs on a Weber grill.
Everything you need to smoke ribs on a charcoal grill
Here’s the list of everything you will need to successfully cook ribs on your grill. If you own a grill, then you probably already have most of these items:
Tools & Accessories
Charcoal grill — A 22” Weber Kettle can’t be beat. Read expert reviews on charcoal grills here and here. If purchasing a grill, look for a built-in lid thermometer, as grilling and smoking are all about temperature control. We like the Weber Performer Premium which includes a storage container for charcoal and a table work surface.
Charcoal briquettes (or briquets) — All-natural lump hardwood charcoal is great for grilling, but over longer cooking periods its performance is too varied, so stick with longer-burning briquettes for smoking. You will need enough briquettes to fill a large chimney starter. And yes, you can reuse charcoal briquettes.
Chimney starter — A chimney starter is the fastest, easiest way to light your coals (no lighter fluid needed). Look for a large chimney that holds 6-7 quarts of briquettes which is what you will need for low and slow indirect grilling.
Flammable material and matches — Chimneys can be lit with newspaper, lighting cubes, or flammable tiles. Learn more about fire starting materials here.
Heavy-duty glove — You’ll want at least one long glove to protect yourself from the hot coals. Look for elbow-length heavy suede gloves made for barbecuing.
Grill scraper — You need to clean the grill surface before cooking. We regarded stories of people swallowing pieces of metal from wire brushes as urban legend until it happened to someone we know. Read up on wooden grill scrapers and pumice stones to see what will work best for your grill.
Charcoal baskets — Two half-moon baskets to hold the lit coals are optional. You can just pile the charcoal into two mounds, but Weber’s baskets are cheap and sturdy.
Wood chips — Wood chips or chunks are needed to make smoke. These are available on the grilling aisle at your grocery along with charcoal. Choose a lighter wood like apple, peach, cherry, or pecan. You don’t want too much smoke to overpower the meat. For ribs, you will use 2 handfuls or 4 chunks.
Water/drip pan — Using a disposable tray inside your grill makes cleaning up easier as it will catch any grease. And you will add water to it for moisture inside the kettle. If needed, you can make one out of heavy-duty tin foil. If using a Weber Kettle, their “extra large” (16.5x8.5x2) drip pans fit perfectly between two charcoal baskets.
Rib rack — A typical rib rack holds up to 4-5 slabs of ribs vertically to increase grilling capacity and helps to keep ribs away from the heat.
Sheet pans — A standard sheet pan is useful for holding the ribs before and after cooking. If using one pan, you will wash it between putting the ribs on and taking them off.
Plastic wrap — After adding the rub, you will cover the ribs then refrigerate.
Tongs — One long-handled pair of tongs is sufficient, but we use two pairs of tongs when grilling. One pair stays outside with our grill and is used for various grilling tasks like moving charcoal around. A second pair of tongs is used to get food on and off the grill.
Aluminum foil — You will cover the ribs after removing them from the grill.
Baby back ribs — Determine the number of slabs needed based on who you will be feeding and any other dishes or meats that will be served. Slabs can vary from 1.5 pounds to over 3 pounds. There is generally about 12 ribs per slab, but this can also vary.
Rub — Make your own BBQ rub or just use a simple store-bought seasoning.
BBQ Sauce — We cook ribs dry, meaning no sauce. Great barbecue doesn’t need sauce, all you really need is a good rub. But your guests may expect sauce, so serve the ribs with a homemade BBQ sauce or your favorite all-natural, high-quality bottled sauce.
How to cook baby back ribs
Get the ribs ready. This process can be done early in the day. Place the ribs on a sheet pan and remove the membrane on the underside of the ribs — insert a butter knife between a bone and the membrane, with your fingers separate the membrane slightly, then use a paper towel to pull it away from the ribs.
Season the ribs with the rub on both sides of the ribs. If it’s early in the day, wrap the sheet pan in plastic wrap and refrigerate.
Prepare the grill. Remove any ash from the grill, open the top and bottom air vents fully, remove the cooking rack, and place the two charcoal baskets on opposite sides of the coal grate. Next, set your chimney starter in the middle of the grate and fill it with charcoal. Get your lighting material, matches, drip pan, and glove ready to go. Soak the wood chips at least 1 hour before using.
Prepare the fire. Light the chimney about 5 hours before you want to eat. When you are ready to start the fire, go ahead and take the ribs out of the fridge to sit. Light the coals, then let them burn in the chimney for at least 20 minutes. The coals are ready to dump into the baskets when the top coals have a bit of white ash on them.
Dump the coals into the 2 baskets (or mound them to one side or opposite sides). Place the chimney somewhere safe to cool down. Put the drip pan between the two coal baskets, carefully fill about halfway with water. Drain the wood chips and place on top of charcoal. Put the cooking grate on the grill. After the grate heats up a bit, clean any debris off the cooking surface with your grill scraper. Position the rib rack on the grate so the ribs will be lengthwise between the two hot baskets. Place ribs in rack.
Smoke the ribs. Close the lid grill. Position the lid where the top vent is over the meat, which should also keep the thermometer from being directly over a hot charcoal basket. Let the ribs smoke for 3-4 hours — no peeking! Use the grill vents to control the air flow to achieve a constant temperature of about 225°F. Read more below about how to control the temperature and other factors affecting cooking time. When a toothpick slides through the meat with no resistance they are ready to come off the grill.
Note, the meat should pull off the bone with almost no effort, leaving behind bare bone, but the meat shouldn’t just completely fall off the off the bone either.
Serve the ribs. When the ribs are tender, remove the racks to a sheet pan and cover with foil. You can sauce the ribs at this point or just serve sauce on the side. Let them sit for about 20 minutes before slicing.
How to keep Your Charcoal Grill at 225°F
The length of time required to cook your ribs will depend on both the meatiness of the ribs and your grill temperature. And your grill temp can vary based on things like air temperature, moisture inside the grill, air flow, type of charcoal, etc. But if using a Weber 22” kettle with standard Kingsford briquettes, the following is an almost foolproof process for controlling the temperature:
After placing the ribs and lid on the grill, adjust the bottom vent lever to where the bottom vents are open just a crack and leave the top vent fully open. The temperature will be hot at first — 400°F or more — but it will come down over the next 30 minutes or so.
When you no longer visibly see smoke exiting from the top damper, go ahead and close this top vent almost all the way. This will help the temperature fall faster. When the temperature gets closer to the ideal of 225°F to 250°F, you can re-open the top vent a little.
Keep an eye on the temperature. If it falls too far, open the top vent a bit more. It can be tempting to adjust the top and bottom vents at the same time, but it is easy to overdo it. So change them one at a time, wait, then check the temperature 5-10 minutes later. Make another adjustment if needed. Remember, if you completely close off both vents, you will lose your fire. The top exhaust damper needs to be at least partially open at all times to prevent combustion gases from smothering the fire.
Keeping the lid closed helps to maintain a constant temperature. Obviously, you will check the ribs toward the end. Use your cooking temperature as gauge of when to check — if you were cooking hotter or had wide temperature swings, then you might check them on the earlier side.
This cooking process is best suited for a weekend or holiday, but it beats the oven or slow cooker any time. And after a couple of tries, you’ll be a pro. Good luck!