How Long to Cook Ribs on the Grill?

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Allow for longer cooking times if loading up the smoker.
Allow for longer cooking times if loading up the smoker. (Image: stu99/iStock/Getty Images)

Although grilling aficionados can wax lyrical about meat falling of the bone, a properly cooked rib should still have a little purchase where the two join. Above all, ribs cannot be rushed on the grill. Slow grilling on a moderate heat allows the fats to render and the meat to absorb smoky flavors. If smoking several racks at once, use a rack to hold them upright rather than flat on the grill.

Pork Rib Types

Baby backs are the short, juicy ribs from close to the spine with the most tender meat. These cook the fastest. St. Louis ribs, by contrast, come from the longer bones that reach to the chest cavity.

Boneless back ribs, on the other hand, are not really ribs at all but are loin scored to look like a rib rack. This lean cut is ideal for cooks who don’t have time for a long grill but want tender, smoky meat. Marinating is important for boneless back rib to compensate for the lack of flavor. Once ready, they can be grilled for 20 minutes over a medium high heat, basting often.

Any type of rib should be cooked to an internal temperature of 145 degrees Fahrenheit, at which point the meat might still be pink. The meat will continue to cook during resting, which should be a minimum of 3 minutes.

Charcoal or Smoker

Cook ribs on a charcoal grill or smoker with a two-tier heat, heaping the coals to one side and placing the ribs on the other. This will allow them to cook with a slow, indirect heat without fat dripping down and causing flames to leap up and char the flesh. A two-tier grill also makes regulating the heat easier.

St. Louis ribs, the longer variety with an extended bone, can be ready in 2 to 3 hours at 350 degrees Fahrenheit, but for the best texture cook them low at 225 degrees F for five hours with the cover down. Place the ribs bone side up for the first half, which allows the juices to collect in the concave surface, effectively basting the meat, then flip and cook for the remaining half. Ribs are done when the bone protrudes from the edge of the meat and the rack has sufficient flexibility to fold over onto itself.

Gas Grills

Propane grills make some of the best grills for cooking multiple racks of ribs since they are typically roomier than cramped, circular charcoal camping grills, and allow cooks to keep the racks a safe distance from the heat. Avoid using a direct heat with ribs as the meat can toughen, char and contract, and don’t pre-boil the ribs, which will only leach out valuable flavors.

With a propane grill, keep just one of the two burners lit -- or half if there are multiple burners -- and cook the ribs on the unlit side. Placing an aluminum pan containing water over the hot part will allow moisture to circulate within the grill.

Place the ribs over the indirect low heat, at around 250 degrees F, for 2 ½ hours with the cover down. Start basting after an hour, continuing every 30 minutes, but save the sugar-based sauces for the end, or they will burn.

Baby Back Ribs

Smaller but more succulent, baby back ribs represent the apogee of grilling. Taking care to start grilling with the rib rack at room temperature, grill baby backs low and slow at 225 degrees F for 3 to 4 hours. The more ribs in the smoker, the longer the cooking time. To achieve this heat, let one side of the grill come to 350 degrees F and place the rib racks on the unlit side. Whether using a charcoal or propane grill, use a handheld digital thermometer to gauge temperature rather than the grill’s own thermometer, for a truer reading.

Baby back ribs can also be grilled fast over a medium heat at 350 degrees in around 1 ½ hours. For this approach, try wrapping the ribs in foil after 30 minutes to concentrate the flavors and moisture, then remove the foil for the last half hour, ready for basting with sauce.

Don’t forget to let any ribs off the grill stand for at least 10 minutes.

Beef Ribs

Beef ribs resemble pork ribs really in name only, and can be difficult to find other than at a butcher's shop. For a start, beef ribs are considerably wider and longer, and the meat significantly more chewy, lying on top of the bones rather than between them. The best beef ribs for grilling are the short ribs. Like pork ribs, they need long, slow cooking to tenderize the meat. Grill at 225 degrees F in the smoker over an indirect heat, and be prepared to set aside up to 8 hours for a large rack in order to bring the internal temperature up to 165 degrees F and break down the tough connective tissues.

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