Cooking Ribs on The Grill: The Basic Set-Up

Cooking Ribs on The Grill: The Basic Set-Up

When you think barbecue, the first thing that comes to mind is ribs. Many people love attending cookouts, but not so many actually know how to grill. There are things you need to know to prepare you for cooking your barbecue ribs on the grill. We’ve laid things out here, in this article.

Essential Tools You’ll Need to Grill Your Ribs

The first thing you’ll need to cook barbecue ribs is a grill, obviously. For grills, you get yourself either a gas grill or charcoal grill.

Gas Grill

If you want a simpler cooking process, gas grills are said to be easier to start than charcoal grills. Gas grills use either natural gas or propane as a fuel source. Natural gas grills connect to your home’s gas line. Propane grills connect with a tank of liquid propane. Standard 20 lb propane tanks are good for a grilling time of about 25 hours.

Propane Tank Tip 

Always check your propane tank to make sure that you have enough fuel. Do this before making any other barbecue preparations. We recommend you check days in advance when considering hosting a barbecue. You won’t have to run around town to get a propane tank on the day of a barbecue if you don’t wait till the last minute to check. Also, it never hurts to buy a spare tank.

Propane Tank Safety

Check your tank for any damages such as dents, rust, or peeling paint. If the tank is damaged, do not use it as it could cause dangerous gas leaking. Do your due diligence and don’t skip this important step.

Always handle your tank with care. From the moment you drive it home from the store, to usage, and be careful how you store your tank when it’s not in use.

Following these safety tips will help you prevent fire damage. 

Charcoal Grill

Charcoal briquettes and lump charcoal are the two types of charcoal. The briquettes cost less than the lumps and burn longer. The lumps light faster and burn at a higher temperature than briquettes.

Use the size of your grill to gauge how much charcoal you need. A regular charcoal grill usually requires about 100 briquettes. That’s the amount for a standard charcoal chimney.

Other Things You’ll Need

Other than the grill, make sure to get:

  • Ribs (of course)
  • Sharp knife
  • Seasoning rub for pork ribs
  • Aluminum foil and a disposable large aluminum tray
  • Pair of tongs to lift and move the meat
  • Sauce brush
  • A meat thermometer is also important so that you cook the ribs to your desired temperature. The grill brush is also essential to clean the grill grate before you put ribs and any other food on it to cook.
  • Apple cider vinegar
  • Apple juice
  • Long lighter or long fireplace match

Choosing the Best Ribs

Spareribs, Baby back ribs, and St. Louis-style ribs are the three ribs used in grilling. Baby back ribs are another name for Loin back ribs. Regardless of the type of ribs you select, you should look for your ribs to have an even thickness all over.

Spareribs are ribs that come from the belly of the pig and are bigger with flat bones. With so much connective tissue, they’ll get very tender after grilling. 

Baby Back ribs are from the loin muscle area along the back of the pig on either side of the spine. These ribs are smaller than other types of ribs, the leanest, the most popular, and easiest to find.

St. Louis-style ribs are spareribs with the sternum, cartilage, and skirt removed. These ribs are more rectangular shaped compared to other types.

Prepare Your Ribs

You won’t be able to cook your ribs right away.

First, spray nonstick cooking spray or rub oil onto the aluminum pan. Put the ribs in the pan.

Then, remove the membrane from the underside of the ribs. Baby back ribs will have a tougher membrane than spare ribs. Removing the membrane will allow the smoke and seasoning to penetrate the ribs.

To remove it, insert a dull knife, like a butter knife, between the meat and the membrane with the membrane side up. With the knife, you are putting it between to make an edge to grab the membrane with your hand.

Take your fingers and loosen it up after you’ve put the knife between them.  Then, pull the entire membrane with your hand from one side to another.

Some cooks prefer to not remove the membrane, but it’s common to remove it. It’s not as easy to eat the ribs with the membrane still on them.

Check your meat for excess or loose pieces of fat, meat, or bone. Afterward, wash the rack of ribs with cold water and pat dry with paper towels.

Rub Your Ribs

Season the ribs with a dry rub to give your meat flavor and character. Make sure you apply the rub all over the front and back evenly. White the rub will naturally stick to the ribs due to the rib’s moisture, some excess rub will fall off and that’s okay. You should get the ribs on the grill ideally within 20 minutes of putting the rub on, but no longer than one hour.

Grill Prep

Starting a Gas Grill

Up to this point, you’ve got the things that you need for your gas grill. You also know the safety measures you should take. Now, it’s time to get started!

People are hungry. You are hungry. Don’t worry, you’re getting closer.

Before the next steps, make sure your grill and grates are clean.

Now, open the lid to make sure that the gas doesn’t build up in the cooking chamber. If gas fumes build up and you ignite the grill, you could cause an explosion. All knobs should be in the off position, so check that.

Whether you’re using natural gas or propane, make sure that the gas connection is secure. Then, open the valve completely by turning the knob in a counter-clockwise direction. Turn until it cannot be turned anymore.

You may have a grill with an igniter button. If so, turn the first burner knob all the way up and push the button. Refer to your grill’s user manual as the ignition system varies amongst different brands.

If your grill doesn’t have an igniter button, you’ll need to ignite manually. You will use a long lighter or fireplace match to light that first burner.

When you see that the first burner is lit, you are good to turn the other burners on high.

Preheat the grill to 500 degrees Fahrenheit (We will lower the temperature before cooking).

Now, close the lid and let the temperature heat up for about 10 to 15 minutes.

Here is a 2-minute video to give you a visual:

Starting a Charcoal Grill

Earlier, I mentioned two types of charcoal. When you figure out which one you’d like, you can start by taking off the top grill grate. If your grill is clean, there should not be any remaining ash from the last usage.

Place your charcoal on the lower grill grate. Ignite it using the chimney starter, lighter fluid, or electric starter methods. There’s more detail below about the 4 methods of ignition within this section.

Since we are working with ribs, we need a long cooking time. Arrange the lit charcoals in a condensed layer across the surface of the lower grate. This will allow for longer cooking. Too thin of a layer allows for a shorter cooking time.

After igniting the coals, you need to open the upper and lower grill vents and keep the lid off to let air come in. This will help with the fire. Closed vents cut the oxygen flow from the grill and extinguish the fire and heat.

When the coals turn gray and are covered in ash, they are ready for cooking. 

For now, we recommend using an indirect cooking method for your ribs, so arrange the coals to make a  two-zone fire.

Using the tongs, move the coals to one side creating a hot zone. Place an aluminum pan with water on the other side, creating a cool zone.

This coal igniting process should take about 10 to 15 minutes. You need to get your grill’s temperature from 275 to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.

Let’s go over 4 ways to ignite charcoal.

charcoal burning on a grill

Using a Chimney to Light Charcoal

Put the chimney on the lower grill grate.

Add charcoal to the chimney. For smaller grills or if you want to use less heat, use less charcoal. For larger grills or using higher heat, use more charcoal.

Remove the chimney from the grill for the moment and ignite lighter cubes onto the lower grate. Some people use newspapers, wood chips, or paper cups instead of cubes as accelerants.

Place the chimney starter on top of the cubes or other accelerants.

After the charcoal inside the chimney turns to gray ash, pour the hot coals onto the lower grill grate.

Using Lighter Fluid to Light Charcoal

Arrange your charcoal in a pyramid shape on the lower grate.

You need to use your lighter fluid as directed by the instructions on the fluid’s package. You do not want to use too much fluid. Try to coat your coals evenly and never spray the fluid on a lit fire of hot coals.

Go ahead and light the coals quickly after you’re are confident you have an even coating of fluid.

Using an Electric Starter to Light Charcoal

On the lower grate, form a pyramid from your pile of coals.

After plugging your electric starter in an outlet, put the nose directly on the coals.

Pull your starter a few inches away from the pyramid, once you start seeing sparks.

With the starter still slightly away from the pyramid, move around all the coals. You’re heating them until the fire starts. Once the fire’s started, remove your electric starter.

Using Instant Lighting Charcoal

The instant lighting charcoals are already treated with an accelerant. Place the charcoal into a pile on the lower grate. Light it with a long wand or utility lighter.

Here’s a helpful video for starting a charcoal grill:

This video shows you how to arrange the charcoal for indirect cooking:

Grilling Your Ribs

Ribs on Your Gas or Charcoal Grill

Bring your grill to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. You can apply some vegetable or canola oil to the grill grates using tongs and a paper towel. This helps to prevent food from sticking later. 

After your grill maintains a steady temperature of 300 degrees, place your ribs on the grill.

If you’re using a gas grill, you can cook your ribs using indirect heat. Do this by turning off the burners that are directly under your food. Leave on the burners that are not under your food. This will ensure that you don’t accidentally overcook or dry out your ribs. 

Close the lid and let it cook for 30 minutes. Keep the lid closed to hold the smoke in. 

After 30 minutes, open the lid and check to make sure that all sides of the ribs are brown.

If not all brown and there are still some raw undercooked areas, it needs more time. Continue grilling for about 10 to 15 more minutes.

Once your ribs are brown, it’s time to put them in aluminum foil. I recommend two layers of heavy-duty foil in case the foil rips. You’re going to put apple juice or a liquid of your choice inside the foil with the ribs. This helps make them nice and tender. Water is fine as well.  

After another 30 minutes, lower the temperature of your grill and unwrap your ribs. If for some reason your ribs are still not completely brown, add more time. Close the foil and keep grilling for another 10 to 15 minutes. 

When you finally have brown ribs, they’re cooked. Remove the foil, set the grill’s temperature to about 250 degrees, and place them back on the grill.

Now, you can add some delicious barbecue sauce. The common method of applying the barbecue sauce to get your ribs nice and sticky is to use a sauce brush. Brush one side, close the lid and cook for 5 minutes. 

After 5 minutes, open the lid, turn the ribs over and brush the other side. Repeat this saucing process for 30 minutes, applying it on either side after 5-minute intervals. You will end up with two or more coats of sauce on your ribs. 

After you’ve applied the last coat, take the ribs off the grill and prepare to serve all your friends and family. Hey, if you’re alone, that’s okay too.

removing ribs from grill with tongs

If at any time, your ribs aren’t brown and have an internal temperature between 150 to 165 degrees, add time. Keep the ribs on the grill longer.

To turn off your charcoal grill, close all the vents, and allow the coals and ash to cool down for about two days.

Once they are cold, wrap them in aluminum foil and throw them in the trash. You do not want to throw away charcoal too prematurely as it would have the chance of reigniting.

Some people run their garden hoses over the charcoal but it’s too messy.

Wrap Up

Whew, after all your hard work, we’re hungry too. This is by all means not the definitive guide. There are other ideas out there about how to cook ribs but, this will get you started. You know what basic tools you need, how to select ribs, prepare ribs, and how to use a gas and charcoal grill.  

Eventually, you will explore delicious dry rub recipes. Maybe you’ll create your own recipe. Now, go forth, serve your guest or yourself, and eat till your heart is content.

D.D. Boyd

Hello, I'm D.D. Boyd, one of the contributors to this site.

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