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Spare Ribs -- Low and Slow on a Charcoal Grill

I've got a recipe for ribs that we've really enjoyed. It calls for prepping them (removing the membrane and "docking" between the ribs), covering them with a dry rub, letting them sit for an hour or so, baking them, covered, in a low oven for a couple of hours, then finishing them on the grill, slathering with BBQ sauce while turning them a couple of times. I've varied the dry rub and sauce, depending on the style of ribs I'm in the mood for, and I have to say, I don't think I've ever been disappointed.

But, I'm ready to take my grilling abilities to the next level, and I'd like to cook the ribs, low and slow, totally on the grill. I'll be using a 22" Weber Performer charcoal grill. I also have a "stand-up" rib rack that I've never used. I've pretty much decided to use pork spare ribs rather than baby back ribs. Now I need some advice.

1. What kind of charcoal should I use?
2. Should I buy wood chips for smoking? If so, what kind of wood? How should I use them?
3. How should I build the fire? I'm assuming I want to cook the ribs over indirect heat. How many coals to begin with? How often should I add more coals/smoking chips, and how should I add them?
4. Should I prep the ribs first, the way I've been doing them using my other technique?
5. How hot should the grill be during the cooking time? For how long should I cook the ribs? Do I need to do anything to the ribs during that time? How do I know when they're done?
6. Should I use my stand-up rib rack, or is it better to just lay the racks of ribs flat on the grill?
7. Should I use a drip pan under the ribs? If so, should I put water and/or anything else into it?
8. When and how should I baste them with sauce? Is that done over direct or indirect heat?
9. Finally, does anyone have a to-die-for combination of dry rub and sauce recipes?

I know I'm asking a lot here, but I'm really ready to roll up my sleeves and dive in, and I appreciate any advice our grilling gurus can offer. Thanks!

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  1. I did spare ribs last weekend on my Weber. Just used regular Kingsford charcoal, about 3/4 full of a chimney starter. Soaked some hickory chips. I add a drip pan with some water underneath where the ribs will go for indirect cooking. Preped the ribs the same way you do. I rubbed them down with a rub while the coals were doing their thing. Once the charcoal got going poured it one one side of the grill opposite the drip pan, added some of the soaked hickory chips, put the ribs on and let em go. I tried to keep my grill at about 225-240. I basted my ribs with apple juice every half hour or so. Added a little charcoal every hour if the temp was getting low, which I only had to do once in the three and half hours I cooked them. And I added more wet chips every hour. I've never used a rib rack, but then again I was only cooking one rack. I basted the half the ribs with some sauce during the last half hour or so. (I like to do half dry half wet ribs) As far as rubs and sauces go, there are so many different options...I like to mix it up. Last weekend I dry rubbed some Byrons Butt Rub and cajun seasoning into the ribs, and the sauce I used was Sweet Baby Rays. You might like this website I refer to a lot...
    www.bbqpitboys.com
    The guys sounds like Wilford Brimley, very entertaining.

    1. 1. Although you may get some grief, Kingsford or Royal Oak are fine for your first foray into REAL bbq ribs.
      2. If you can find wood chunks, use those instead of chips. Chips burn too fast. Find a few pieces of fruit or nut wood about the size of your fist. Soak them if you want (I generally don't), and set them on top of your charcoal when you add the meat.
      3. Bank about 40 lit briquets on one side of your kettle, and add 20 every hour. If you have a hinged grate, just position the hinge over the pile. If you have a standard grate, position one handle over the pile, and drop fresh briquets through the gap. You can add fresh wood chunks when you add briquets, but the meat will only take smoke until it gets to about 140F more or less, so you will probably only need to add wood one time (in addition to your initial wood chunks, that is).
      4. Prep the ribs just as you've been prepping them (although I don't peel the membrane...personal preference...I like the 'snap' the membrane offers, sort of like a natural casing on a hot dog).
      5. Your kettle should be around 225-250F. Keep the top vents wide open, and modulate the bottom vents to control the temperature. If you close the top vents to smother the fire, it'll generate a lot of creosote, which tastes bitter. Rather, control the size of the fire by controlling the flow of fresh oxygen to it (lower vents). Spares will take about 4-5 hours, depending on a lot of things, including the ambient air temp, wind, the size of the rack, your ability to control the fire, the phase of the moon (jk!)....the list goes on. Not to worry, tho...your window of perfection is pretty big when it comes to spare ribs. I test for doneness by wiggling a rib and trying to turn it in it's 'socket'. If seems kind of loose, it's done.
      6. I have one of those rib racks, too. I've used it once. (Want it?)
      7. The pan will come in handy for a couple of reasons: (1) it'll provide a little control over the briquets when you pile them and drop fresh ones in; and (2) it contains the drippings from the ribs, making cleanup easier. No water, tho...you don't want to steam your ribs, you want a dry environment.
      8. Baste? What baste? Let the natural juices render and mix with the rub to create the best sauce in the world. If you must baste, do it at the end, especially if your sauce has a high sugar content.
      9. About half the time, I go with a pretty basic Dalmatian rub (half cracked black pepper, half kosher salt). You can add cayenne, chile powder, brown sugar (not too much or it'll burn), onion powder, garlic powder, msg, cumin, curry powder....basically I'd recommend you just go all Mad Scientist with your herbs and spices in a small bowl until you get a combination you like. As for sauces, I used to make my own, but I've gotten lazy of late. Now, I just mix Cattleman's and a raspberry-chipotle sauce (I get it from Costco) in a 50/50 mix and serve it on the side.

      Good luck!

      1 Reply
      1. re: ricepad

        I used my rib rack once also. If I want to cook more that will fit, I stack them and shuffle them about every 45 minutes.

      2. I do a (gasp!) par-boil the night before (hey I don't have a proper smoke box at the moment and this stupid POS grill doesn't seal as good as a Weber), I dry rub it in as ricepad puts it a Mad Scientist mix of what sounds good at the moment, this last time was paprika, blk pepper lotta garlic powder, onion powder, little cayenne, sage, cumin, salt and some other stuff I don't really remember and let it sit in the fridge overnight.

        def. hickory for the smoke IMHO, but apple works or if you want to go SxSW then mesquite.

        personally I like a caramelized sauce and in the last 40 minutes or so I start slathering it on so the brown sugar and molasses DOES get crusty and gradually move it closer to the heat - but that's just me.

        1. ricepad was generous in his post of awesome information and I echo most of his thoughts and suggestions.

          I would also suggest that the OP pop over and spend some time on any of dozens BBQ forums and sites on the web.

          www.amazingribs.com and www.bbq-brethren.com/ are two that I visit daily.

          Since I have 2 actual smokers, my grill stays my grill, but I have smoked on a Webber many times. I suggest you brine your ribs in a water/salt/sugar bath for at least two hours prior to adding the rub. i also suggest allowing the rub to be on overnite while ribs are wrapped in cling film.

          Hickory is my wood of choice and I buy it in chunk form or in logs and saw into chunk form.
          Search for the "minion method" for fire and charcoal setup info and that should set you up, and dedicated BBQers use hardwood charcoal, not pressed briquettes.

          No par-boiling for me at all, just low and slow at 250 to 275 till meat pulls way from bone or about 195 to 200 internal. Then rest and throw on a HOT grill for 3 to 4 minutes per side. Warm sauce on the side or baste with sauce during the above final crisping period of 4 minutes a side.

          As long as you keep an even temp, and wood to provide the smoke, they are a set and forget deal and hard to &^%$ up. As for racks, I use them for saving space when doing a lot of food, but you don;t need them if you have adequate space.

          All in all, the answers to your questions can be found and the science behind them at the sites I listed above .

          2 Replies
          1. re: jjjrfoodie

            Good advice from all the posters. However, having been a backyard chef for 40 years I've simplified my approach to ribs.

            Rub baby backs with Cajun seasoning (usually Tony Chachere's). Cook on grill over moderate heat until meat pulls away from bone, usually 2 hours or so. I use a briquet/lump/woodchunk mix and vary between direct/indirect heat depending on temp. Let rest while you get the rest of the meal on the table.

            We generally eat the ribs without anything other than additional Cajun seasoning. If we have folks with us who prefer sauce we pull out Stubb's Original.

            1. re: jjjrfoodie

              Those look like really great websites. Thanks for the links. I thought I'd be doing those ribs today, but now it seems I've got a ton of reading to do first. Last night I experimented for the first time with 2-zone grilling. I did a variation of "beer can chicken". I didn't love the chicken, but I did learn a lot about maintaining relatively even heat. It's a bit tricky, especially with adding more charcoal during the cooking (we did preheat the charcoal before adding it). I'm guessing it'll be even more challenging with ribs, which require a much longer cooking time.

              As for the "minion method" - that appears to be a technique used with a smoker, which I don't have. Is that right?

            2. CindyJ -
              You've gotten some good/great advice here. It's easier than you think once you get the hang of it. One thing I notice ppl don't mention is proper venting when using a kettle for smoking. venting effects heat AND airflow. If you bank your heat/smoke source on one side, I would suggest placing the vent of the top opposite to draw the flow of smoke through the product (meat.) might be something to keep in mind when you are putting on the top to start your smoke. Good Luck. After a few smokes, you'll definitely get the hang of it. I'll throw this out there as a site suggestion: http://www.lowslowbbq.com/

              There are easy lessons to get you adjusted to using a smoker setup.

              1 Reply
              1. re: gordeaux

                good point about strategic venting and what I miss about my old weber - fire and smoke one side, escape vent the other. this POS has bottom vent and top both center, no options.