Grilling ribs on charcoal isn't as easy as it might sound. To get tender, juicy, "fall-off-the-bone" BBQ ribs, the barbecue needs to get kept "low and slow". And if you like a smoke flavour, add BBQ wood chips or chunks. It's mostly preparation work to get those perfect ribs.
First, if you're going to use wood chips, soak them in cold water for at least an hour before you're ready to grill. This will make them give off lots of smoke and impart great flavour to the ribs. Because the ribs will be grilled "low and slow", it's more convenient to use wood chunks (rather than chips) if you can - that way you won't have to replenish them as often.
We use back ribs because they're meatier and they cook faster (we're an impatient bunch!) but you can use side ribs too if you prefer. Set aside about 5-6 hours for back ribs, or 6-7 hours for side ribs. Prepare the ribs by taking off the membrane on the bone side of the ribs - just slip a knife under one end and jiggle it around a bit to loosen it up. Then take a paper towel, grab the membrane and steadily pull it off.
Once that's done, you'll want to trim the ribs. Remove any loose or hanging bits, which will only burn if left on. Generously sprinkle the ribs, front and back, with your favourite dry rub (buy one, or check out our recipes for BBQ rubs). There's no need to put the rub on in advance - it's not a marinade - doing it just before you throw the ribs on the grill is good enough.
Now set up your barbecue for indirect heat. That is, you want to make sure that the ribs don't sit right on top of the charcoal. Indirect heat will allow the ribs to cook for a long period with a lesser chance of burning before they're done. Crank up the heat at first, so that you can easily scrub the cooking grate clean. Then lightly oil the grate with a paper towel, holding the paper towel with tongs. Finally, lower the heat to about 215 to 225 degrees F. Remember, this low heat is important for grilling tender, BBQ ribs, so be patient.
If you're using wood chunks or chips, now's the time to throw them on top of the charcoal (or use whatever method recommended by your BBQ manufacturer).
These instructions are for back ribs. If you're using side ribs, add another 1/2 hour or so of cooking time to each step.
Put the ribs bone-side down on the BBQ and close the lid. Keeping the lid down is critical to keep moisture in, let heat circulate to cook the ribs evenly, and to let the smoke from the wood chunks/chips circulate. Flip the ribs about 1.5 to 2 hours later, and again close the lid and let them cook for another 1.5 hours.
Since we want the ribs to cook for a while longer, but we also don't want them drying out too much, now's the time to wrap them. Take them off the grill and wrap loosely with foil. Put them back and cover the lid, letting them cook for another 1.5 to 2 hours. Turn them once.
Now uncover them again and put them back on the grill to finish them off for another hour.
If you want to use BBQ sauce as well, this is when you'll add it. Put it on in layers so that you get the sauce baked on and loads of flavour. Brush the sauce onto one side, turn the ribs over and brush on more. Repeat several times, depending on how much sauce you like.
With most meat, we'd recommend using a meat thermometer to check the temperature and ensure the meat is safely cooked (pork is safe when it's cooked to 160 degrees F). The problem with checking ribs is that the thermometer can't touch bone, and that's tough to do! So with ribs, we pick up the rack by the middle. The two ends should hang down loosely, and better yet, the ribs should start falling apart (this is what we strive for, that perfect 'fall-off-the-bone' done-ness!).
Even though these instructions might seem a little long, grilling ribs on charcoal gets easier and easier the more you do it. It's actually pretty straight-forward and the results are delicious! For people who prefer to baste their meat with BBQ sauce throughout the cooking period, we do have another method of making grilled BBQ ribs. You can also check out more BBQ pork recipes as well as some great side dishes for the BBQ.