How to Smoke Ribs on a Charcoal Grill - Do it the Best Way!
oked ribs are a summertime delicacy. If you make them right, they’re tender and bursting with flavor.
Contrary to popular belief, you can make outstanding smoked ribs at home without an expensive smoker. In fact, you can make smoked ribs on any charcoal grill with the right supplies and patience.
When you smoke ribs with a charcoal grill, the goal is to control the temperature over time. If the heat is too high, you risk drying out the meat.
You need to choose the right wood for smoking, too. Different types of wood impart unique flavors into the meat, so you want to pick pellets that compliment your ribs.
In this guide, we’ll teach you how to smoke ribs on a charcoal grill so you can make your next barbecue one to remember. We’ll talk about preparing the meat, choosing the right wood, and managing your cooking temperature.
Let’s get started.
How to Smoke Ribs on a Charcoal Grill
Before you start smoking ribs, you need to choose the right cut and prepare the meat. Once you trim and season the ribs, you can start smoking.
Choosing Your Ribs
First, you need to choose between beef and pork ribs. Both kinds are delicious when you smoke them, but for the sake of this article, we’ll focus on pork ribs.
When you’re at the meat counter at your local grocery store, you have a lot of cuts to choose from. The two primary types of pork ribs are spareribs and loin back ribs.
What about country-style ribs?
Country-style ribs are closer to pork chops than actual ribs. Meat that’s cut from the shoulder closest to the loin classify as country-style ribs. If pork chops are taken from the blade end of the pork loin, they classify as country-style ribs, too.
If you’re smoking ribs, spareribs and loin back ribs are more traditional options. Country-style ribs are better for classic barbecuing.
Comparing Spareribs and Loin Back Ribs
Spareribs and loin back ribs come from two distinct areas of the animal. As the name suggests, butchers cut loin back ribs from the hog’s back. Spareribs come from the hog’s ventral torso (the belly and chest).
Generally speaking, spareribs are larger than loin back ribs. They usually weigh between 2-4 pounds, but they can be much bigger.
If you want ribs with a lot of meat, we suggest spareribs. They cost less per pound than loin back ribs, but they contain a higher percentage of fat. Spareribs are frequently less tender than loin back ribs, so it’s important to smoke them the right way.
Loin back ribs and pork chops come from the same part of the hog. Grocery stores may label this cut as “baby back ribs” or “loin ribs” but the terms are interchangeable.
Baby back ribs are smaller than spareribs. They weigh between 1 ¼ and 2 ¼ pounds on average, with less fat and less meat. They’re more tender than spareribs and smoke much faster because of their size.
What to Look for When You Buy Ribs
When you buy ribs, buy a slab with good meat coverage. Avoid ribs with large surface areas of fat or exposed bone. If the bones are exposed, they could fall out while you smoke the meat.
Try to find fresh ribs that aren’t frozen. Buying frozen (or previously frozen) ribs could impact the taste and texture, so we recommend finding fresh cuts if they’re available in your area.
If you can’t find fresh ribs, don’t worry. Frozen ribs can taste just as great with a little extra care. Usually, any ribs you find in Cryovac packaging are fresh and never frozen.
Whether you choose a small or large slab of ribs depends on your preference. Large slabs will take longer to smoke on a charcoal grill, but they are more filling. Small slabs can be more tender and take less time to smoke, but you won’t get as much meat from one cut.
Be aware of “enhanced” slabs when you buy ribs from a grocery store chain or a discount meat market. Some vendors are injecting their ribs with water, flavorings, and sodium phosphate to artificially make the meat more tender and flavorful.
If you’re a rib enthusiast, you’ll quickly notice the difference between fresh ribs and enhanced ribs. Enhanced ribs taste salty and hammy, with an artificial aftertaste you don’t experience with untouched meat.
Enhanced ribs can be tasty, but if you buy them, pay attention to the amount of salt you apply. They’re easier to over salt than untouched ribs!
Preparing Ribs for Smoking
When you’re making ribs, you need to prepare the meat beforehand. It’s a short, simple process that will significantly enhance your meal if you do it right.
Preparing a slab of ribs involves three main steps:
- Removing the membrane from the slab
- Trimming the meat
- Cutting away excess rib tips and fat
A lot of novice cooks neglect to remove the membrane from the bone-side of the ribs. You can make delicious ribs without removing it, but cutting it away is one of the best things you can do to guarantee tender meat.
The membrane is tougher than meat and harder to chew. If you leave it intact, it’ll have a huge impact on your ribs’ texture. Not to mention, your sauces and seasonings won’t penetrate the rib membrane, so your meat is left bland when you leave it intact.
The parts you want to trim away includes the skirt, the membrane, the rib tips. The skirt is a thin piece of meat that lines the membrane alone the bone side of the slab. You can’t remove the membrane until you cut away the skirt.
To remove the membrane, simply lift up the triangular-shaped corner with your knife and peel it away. Be gentle when you’re pulling off the membrane, you don’t split up the meat and compromise the structural integrity.
Finally, you need to cut away the rib tips. The tips are above the ribs, filled with chine bone, cartilage, and connective tissue. Unlike the rib bones themselves, the tips are flexible.
You want to cut away the rib tips if your slab still has them. Some ribs (like St. Louis-style ribs) are packaged with the tips pre-trimmed.
How to Season Ribs for Smoking
It’s tempting to marinate your ribs before your barbecue, but competitive grilling teams usually, smoke their meat dry. Why? Because dry rubs impart flavor directly into the meat instead of letting it sit on top.
Dry rubs are as diverse as they are delicious. There are limitless spice combinations you can create for an excellent dry rub, depending on your tastes.
If you’re using a dry rub with salt in it, give it enough time to really penetrate the meat. We recommend applying your dry rub 8-10 hours before you start smoking your ribs.
Try applying a thin coating of olive oil, honey, or vinegar before you season your ribs. It will serve as a gentle bonding agent that helps the meat hold more of the dry rub while it cooks, enhancing the flavor.
Smoking Ribs on a Charcoal Grill
When you’ve seasoned and trimmed your ribs, you’re ready to start smoking! It’s easier than you might think, and you only need a few inexpensive materials to get started.
Choosing the Right Wood
When you smoke ribs, you’ll most likely use wood chips or pellets to facilitate the process. Charcoal won’t create enough smoke on its own. Smoking meats won’t work without wood (or another material to create smoke).
The type of wood you choose will impact your meat’s flavor. Certain woods create a subtle, sweet taste and others are stronger and smokier.
Common types of wood grill masters use to smoke ribs include:
Fruitwoods are mild and sweet, imparting a delicate flavor you might miss if you aren’t looking for it. Hardwoods create a more noticeable taste, especially mesquite.
Amazon sells wood pellets for an affordable price, so it’s easy to try a few different types until you find the wood you like the most.
Mastering the 2-Zone Setup
A 2-zone setup is a helpful strategy for smoking ribs exactly how you want them. Unlike gas grills, charcoal grills don’t give you direct control over the cooking temperature with dials and knobs. Instead, you need to manually control the heat by adjusting your coals properly and managing airflow.
Using a 2-zone setup will help you gain more control over your grill’s cooking temperature. It involves splitting your cooking space into two distinct zones, one with high heat for searing and one with low heat for long cooking.
When you’re smoking ribs, there are two key temperatures to keep in mind: 225°F and 325°F. We recommend testing and calibrating your grill before you start smoking so you can master these temperatures before you cook ribs.
If you’re smoking ribs, invest in a good digital thermometer. A digital thermometer is a must for anyone, especially if you’re new to smoking. Metal dial grill thermometers are significantly less reliable, and they can be off by as much as 50°F – save yourself the trouble and buy a digital one!
To create a 2-zone setup. All you’ll need are coals, a charcoal grill, a thermometer, and water pans.
Why water pans?
If you use water pans when you’re smoking ribs, you’ll help the meat stay moist. As the water evaporates and creates steam, the steam will tenderize the meat and keep it from drying out.
You don’t need to use water pans, but we highly recommend it.
Start your 2-zone setup by banking your coals on one side of your charcoal grill. Place a water pan directly adjacent, without any coals on the other side. Using this method, you can bring ribs up to a high temperature for quick crisping on one side and let them smoke at a lower temperature on the other.
If you have space, try placing another water pan on top of your grates, next to your ribs. This doubles the moisture, giving you fall-off-the-bone ribs every time.
Adding Wood and Creating Smoke
When you add wood chunks to charcoal grills, they’ll smolder and emit smoke. You can choose from different sizes of wood chunks, from large pieces to small pellets. Large chunks will produce smoke longer, but don’t produce smoke as quickly as with pellets.
Instead of adding wood directly to the charcoal, try using a smoking box instead. A smoking box protects the wood from the direct flame, so it’ll burn longer. Smoke flows out of holes in the box, helping you get the most value out of your wood pellets.
If you don’t have a smoking box, you can make your own with aluminum foil. Simply wrap your chunks or pellets in foil, poke holes in the outside to regulate airflow, and place it on top of your coals.
Controlling the Cooking Temperature
For a fire to burn, it needs adequate oxygen. If you cut a fire’s access to oxygen, it’ll burn more slowly. With more oxygen present, a fire will burn hotter.
To control your cooking temperature, you need to control your grill’s airflow. If you allow too much oxygen to flow into your kettle, your temps will soar too high. If you don’t have enough air, they won’t be hot enough.
Charcoal grills have two primary vents: one on the top and one on the bottom. Position your top vent over your ribs. This drives oxygen into the kettle from the bottom vents, over your food, and through the top vent. In the process, it’ll pull smoke from your wood chips.
There’s no fool-proof way to control your cooking temperatures with a charcoal grill. It’ll vary for each unique kettle, so it’ll take a few tries to master your process.
We recommend leaving your top and bottom vents completely open at first, closing them as your temperatures rise. Continue these steps until your grill reaches your desired cooking temperature.
Set your digital thermometer on your cooking grates to monitor the temperature while you’re smoking ribs. Keep a close eye on it so it doesn’t go too high or fall too low.
How Long Should You Smoke Ribs on a Charcoal Grill?
The amount of time you spend smoking ribs depends on their size and their fat content. Larger, fattier ribs need a longer time to smoke and tenderize, while smaller ribs will cook relatively fast.
If you’re cooking spareribs, we recommend following a “3-2-1” timing strategy. Smoke your ribs for three hours, wrap them in foil and cook them for two hours, then cook them unwrapped for another hour.
The same method applies to baby back ribs, but you should reduce the smoking time to 2 hours. Since they’re less fatty and have less meat, they need less time to cook through and tenderize.
If you’re cooking beef ribs, they’ll need more time than pork ribs. The general rule of thumb is to increase the smoking time to tenderize fat and increase the cooking time to thoroughly heat the meat.
When are Ribs Done Cooking?
You should cook ribs until the internal temperature reaches 160°F. At this temperature, the connective tissues break down and make your ribs as juicy as possible.
Check your ribs with a digital thermometer to see if they’re done. Don’t use your eyes or the texture as a guide – you can’t tell if the bacteria are eliminated from sight alone, you need to know for sure your meat has reached the minimum temperature for safe consumption.
Contrary to popular belief, your ribs shouldn’t “fall off the bone.” Your ribs should be tender and delicious, but if they’re falling off the bone, the meat will lack structure and texture.
Who doesn’t love ribs? They’re delicious, filling, and a welcome addition to any backyard barbecue.
If you love ribs, smoking them on a charcoal grill is a great way to take your experience to the next level. Smoking ribs imparts a distinct woody flavor you won’t get from making them in the oven, creating a home-style taste you’ll love.
Fortunately, you don’t need an expensive smoker to make delicious smoked ribs at home. In fact, with some wood chips and a smoking box, you can smoke ribs with any charcoal grill.
What are your tips for smoking ribs with a charcoal grill? Do you have any strategies or favorite recipes? Let us know in the comments below, we’d love to hear your thoughts!