From Start to Finish: How to Cook Ribs on a Charcoal Grill

I have spent a couple of decades, learning how to cook ribs on a charcoal grill and perfecting my BBQ ribs. I am now all ready to share the secrets of the trade with you!

In this post, you will learn how to start a charcoal grill fire, how to prepare ribs, and a whole lot more. Let's get started!

What You Will Need?

A few essential tools for cooking ribs:

Charcoal Grill

I have to say that charcoal grills remain one of my favorite types, even though gas grills have taken over the market. See, unlike a gas grill you can easily turn your charcoal model into a smoker and get the best of both worlds.

charcoal grill

Of course, if you are reading this post, it means that you already have your charcoal grill ready to go. My personal preference is the Weber charcoal grill, but these grills tend to be pretty consistent in how they perform.

Just make sure that you know the ins and outs of your model so that you can get the best possible performance out of it.

Charcoal

Now, the biggest decision you will have to make here is whether to choose lump charcoal or charcoal briquettes for your cookout. They each have their own pros and cons.

The greatest advantage with lump charcoal is that it is all-natural and, as such, there is no odd chemical odor or taste to worry about.

To add to this, it lights quickly and burns hotter, along with easier temperature management. There is also little ash production.

The downsides, however, is that it is more expensive and it burns more quickly, meaning that you need to top it up fairly often.

Briquettes, on the other hand, are more affordable, burn for longer, and it is pretty easy to maintain a consistent temperature.

Unfortunately, they take longer to light and they produce a whole lot of ash. There is also that chemical smell to worry about but this is pretty easy to get rid of. Just let the coals burn for a while and the odor should go away.

Wood Chunks

Remember what I said about a charcoal grill being used as a smoker too? Well, if you add wood into the pile, you can get that beautiful smoky flavor as well.

Hickory, mesquite, apple, pecan, maple - choose whichever flavor you like best and use it. It will certainly take cooking ribs to the next level.

Chimney Starter

Also known as a charcoal chimney, this is definitely a tool that everyone with a charcoal grill should invest in. The main reason that I like chimney starters so much is that they allow you to sidestep the use of lighter fluid.

Thus, you don't run the risk of your hair, clothes, and food smelling like flammable liquid.

It can take some time to master the use of a chimney starter. Once you figure it out, though, it will be a quick and easy way to get your grill going.

Choosing the Best Ribs

Here's a pretty important question: when grilling ribs, what pork ribs should you choose?

Well, when choosing barbecue ribs, you have baby back ribs, spare ribs, and St. Louis style ribs to choose from. Baby back ribs are the more popular option with St. Louis spareribs a close second.

Of course, you need to understand each type if you are going to decide which one to go with, however.

Baby back ribs are taken from where the ribs meet the spine, once the loin meat is removed. They tend to be quite lean. They are named so because the ribs are smaller, only about 3 to 6 inches. They weigh 1.5 to 2lbs and can feed up to 2 people.

Spare ribs are meaty ribs taken from the belly area. They are usually trimmed down and have the rib tips removed to give way to St. Louis ribs. These are fatty and flavorful and dont really need to be accompanied by much sauce. Each 2.5lbs is enough to feed around 3 to 4 people.

So, which rack of ribs should you choose?

Well, this depends. If you are feeding your family or a small crowd, I would go with baby back ribs. On the other hand, as these are quite pricey, St. Louis ribs are better for a larger crowd, particularly as they are meatier.

At the end of the day, though, it is all down to what you prefer.

The 2-2-1 Method

When you grill ribs, one of the biggest dangers is overcooking the meat. Remember, even St. Louis and spare ribs don't have much meat on them. Thus, you have to be careful about not drying out the ribs.

To ensure this, you can use a method known as 2-2-1. This ensures that you end up with fall off the bone ribs. Now, this cooking process is usually used for smoking, but it works just as well for grilling.

The short version is that you grill the ribs for two hours, wrap ribs in aluminum foil and then place back on the grill for two hours, unwrap the ribs, and then grill for an hour more. Then, you remove ribs from the grate.

If you are grilling with St. Louis ribs instead of baby back ribs, then you may want to grill the ribs for 3 hours the first time around before wrapping the ribs in aluminum foil.

Therefore, if you are wondering:

How long does it take to cook ribs on a charcoal grill?

The answer is that it can between five to six hours, depending on the type of pork ribs you are grilling.

The Barbecue Rub

The key to delicious, BBQ ribs is a good rub. I would say that a dry rub is just as important - if not more than barbecue sauce.

Now, it is up to you to choose the spices that you want to use in your spice rub. After all, to each their own. If you aren't sure what to add, though, I would suggest the following ingredients:

Brown sugar, kosher salt, black pepper, onion powder, garlic powder, paprika or cayenne pepper.

Preparing the Pork Ribs

Here are some tips on prepping the BBQ ribs:

Trimming the Ribs

Not that you can tell by looking at pork ribs, but they do need to be prepped first before you can apply the spice mixture and grill them.

The first thing to do is to size up each rack of ribs. These have to be arranged in a single layer on your grill and can't be piled up on one another. So, now is a good time to determine how many racks you can fit in at one time. It is most likely that it will be just one rack at a time.

BBQ sauces

Now, if you have a rack of spareribs, then you may to do some trimming. On the other hand, if it is just baby back or St. Louis ribs, then there will be less work involved.

Start by removing the membrane with a knife. Slip the knife between the membrane and carefully slide it through. Once the membrane has separated, you can tear it off with your hands.

If there is any cartilage or connective tissue, this should be taken off as well.

The next move involves getting rid of the excess fat. There shouldn't be too much, but you can use a sharp knife to carefully trim it away. If you have meat scissors, you can try these too. They may make your job a little easier.

Seasoning the BBQ Ribs

I like to take the ribs out around half an hour before I place them on the grill. This way, they are able to get warmer and to cook more evenly. Remember, never leave meat out for more than an hour at a time at room temperature.

When it comes to applying the dry rub, it is up to you to decide when to do it. Some people believe that this requires some prep time and can do it hours ahead. In reality, though, there isn't too much meat on ribs and they don't need that much time to soak up the flavor.

Before sprinkling on the rub, I first apply mustard to the entire surface of the ribs - on both sides. The mustard is just there to make sure that the herbs and spices adhere to the meat. Don't worry it gets burned off by the heat while grilling. You will not be able to taste it on the ribs.

Sprinkle on the dry mix liberally and pat into the ribs.

If you are skipping the seasoning, just sprinkle on salt and black pepper before putting the ribs on the grill.

Barbecue Sauce

As I'm sure you will agree, homemade BBQ sauce just can't be beat! Although there are numerous commercial brands, it is tricky to find really good options. I prefer to make my own.

Here is a step by step recipe that you can use is:

  • 2 tbs. of chili powder
  • 1 tsp. of ground black pepper
  • 2 tsp. of kosher salt
  • 2 cups of good quality ketchup
  • 1/2 cup of yellow mustard
  • 1/2 cup of apple cider vinegar
  • 1/3 cup of Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/4 cup of lemon juice
  • 1/4 cup of good quality steak sauce
  • 1/4 cup dark molasses
  • 1/4 to 3/4 cup honey
  • 1 tsp. of hot sauce
  • 1 cup of brown sugar
  • 3 tbs. of vegetable oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 4 cloves of garlic, minced

A Note

With the honey, you can start by adding just one-fourth cup and then tasting the concoction. After this, you can pour in a tablespoon at a time until you achieve the desired level of sweetness.

Remember that most store-bought sauces are quite sweet so this level may be something that most people are already used to.

Step 1

In a small bowl, mix the salt, pepper, and chili powder.

In a larger, bowl combine the rest of the ingredients with the exception of the oil, onions, and garlic in a bowl. Mix well.

Step 2

Heat up the oil in a pan and add the onions - cook until translucent. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant. Add the dry spices. Stir and cook for about 2 minutes.

Step 3

Add the wet ingredients and mix. Let the sauce simmer for 15 minutes.

Take off the heat. If you dont want any pieces in your sauce, strain it. It is best to bottle and let the sauce sit overnight.

Serve with ribs.

Tweaking Store-bought BBQ Sauce

Don't have the time or patience to make your own BBQ sauce? No worries, simply tweak your favorite commercial brand. You can do this by adding tartness with apple cider vinegar or lemon juice.

If you would like to add a kick to it, hot sauce is the way to go.

You can also spice things up with garlic, onion, or cumin powder. Don't be afraid to experiment and find a way to take things to the next level.

Applying the BBQ Sauce

You should only apply BBQ sauce to your ribs when they are close to being done. Now, contrary to popular belief, you aren't supposed to slather it on. Doing this will only cause your BBQ ribs to feel wet and a little gross.

Instead, you are supposed to paint the sauce on in thin layers. Do this to one side, flip the rack over, and apply to the other side. Then, allow the ribs to continue cooking.

Keep in mind that you will be serving the ribs with more sauce so there is no need to go overboard here.

Setting Up the Charcoal Grill

If you haven't already cleaned your grill grates, now is the time to do it. You should also sweep up any leftover ash as well.

When setting up the charcoal grill, we will be using a form of indirect cooking. This is where the coals are piled up on one side of the grill and not the other. This way, the ribs aren't directly placed over the heat. This reduces the risk of them drying out.

grilled ribs for dinner

To do this, first measure out how much coal you will need for half of the grill. It will be piled up in a pyramid formation. The reason that you are measuring this out is so that you know how much to put in the chimney starter. Remember, though, that only half of the pile will be charcoal - the rest will be wood chunks.

Next, fill the chimney starter halfway with charcoal. If you are using newspaper instead of pre-made combustibles, then wad up some newspaper and place at the bottom of the starter. Make sure not to overstuff or block the airflow when you are doing this.

Light the newspaper and place the chimney starter in the middle of the grill. Cover the top but make sure that there is space for smoke to escape. In about fifteen minutes, the charcoal should be ready.

When it is, slowly pour the coals into the grill. Use an appropriate tool to pile the charcoal onto one of the grill. Pile the wood on top of this. Then, replace the grill grate and cover for about 10 minutes to allow the charcoal grill to heat up.

Grilling Temp

The best temperature for grilling BBQ ribs is between 225 to 250 degrees. Now, many charcoal grills aren't equipped with any kind of heat sensor so you often have to place your hand over the grill to determine how hot it is.

Personally, I'm not such a fan of this method as it can be pretty inaccurate. I prefer to use a thermometer. If yours doesn't have one, get a cheap one to fix to the hood of the grill. It really will make all the difference in ensuring that your ribs are juicy and tender.

Speaking of temperature, I would also advise you to use a meat thermometer to test whether or not the ribs are done. While the 2-2-1 method will serve you well, there is nothing quite like a thermometer to provide an accurate reading.

Managing the Temperature

Another trick to maintain a low temperature and encourage slow cooking is to fill a foil pan halfway with cool water. Place this on the side with the direct heat. The steam from this will help to keep moisture in the grill as well.

Remember to keep replenishing the water in the pan as it evaporates. The pan should be about half the size of your charcoal grill.

Cooking Ribs on A Charcoal Grill - Putting It All Together

Here is everything you need to know about how to cook ribs on a charcoal grill:

Step 1

Remove membrane and excess fat from both sides of the ribs. Pat the ribs dry with a paper towel.

Combine the ingredients of the rub. Apply mustard to each side of the rack of ribs. Sprinkle the spice mixture liberally and pat it on.

Step 2

Prepare the chimney starter and add enough charcoal to fill half of the grill. Light the coals and then add them to the grill, piling it onto one side. . Once they turn white, add the wood chunks on top.

Replace the cooking grate and allow the charcoal grill to heat up to desired temperature.

Soak a paper towel in vegetable oil and using tongs, wipe this across the side of the grill with the indirect heat.

Place the foil pan on the side of the direct heat and pour in the water.

Step 3

Place the rack of ribs on the cooler side of the grill, meat side up. Close the lid of the grill and cook for 2 hours. Keep the lid closed and avoid peeking in until it is nearing the time to remove the ribs from the grill.

About 10 minutes before the first cook is over, light a new batch of coals using your chimney starter. Add these when you take the ribs off the grill.

Step 4

Prepare two layers of foil on top of each other, twice the length of the racks of ribs. Spritz on some apple juice if you want. Wrap the ribs tightly and place the wrapped ribs back on the grill.

Cook for 2 hours more with the lid closed.

Step 5

Take the ribs off the grill and unwrap them. Discard the foil. Place the ribs meat side down and apply a thin layer of BBQ sauce. Grill for 15 minutes. Then, flip to have the bone side down, apply another layer of sauce and cook for 45 minutes.

Remove the ribs from the grill and allow the cooked ribs to rest.

This is all that you need to know about how to cook ribs on a charcoal grill! It can be a little tricky at first but you are going to figure it out soon enough.

By Kristy J. Norton
I'm Kristy – a chef and connoisseur of all things BBQ! You can find me either in my kitchen (or someone else's) or at a big outdoor barbecue surrounded by friends and family. In both my professional and personal life I’ve picked up more than a few tips and tricks for turning out delicious food. I consider it a privilege to share it with others!
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