If you’re a budding grill master, you’ve probably already asked yourself how to cook baby back ribs. This cut of pork is the quintessential backyard barbecue food, and weekend warriors everywhere make them regularly.
Even though baby back ribs are cooked all the time, they’re not always cooked well. Unlike burgers, dogs, steaks, and other similar cuts of meat it’s important to know exactly how to cook baby back ribs if you want to get the best flavor and the most tender meat.
How to Cook Baby Back Ribs
Today, we’re covering everything you need to know about cooking this delicious barbecue favorite. Yep…we’ll delve into heat, cooking time, and methods outside of the grill so you can make ribs no matter the weather or time of year.
Low and slow is the most important part of cooking ribs. Cook the ribs at a low temperature for a long period of time. Really good ribs are juicy and tender, holding tons of flavor and falling off the bone. Ribs that have been cooked too fast and/or at too high a temperature are the antithesis of that. They’re tough and dry – it’s an experience akin to eating shoe leather topped with barbecue sauce.
So the question is WHY do ribs have to be cooked at such a low temperature and for so long. There are three main reasons that this method is the best for cooking ribs.
The low and slow method conserves as much of the meat’s moisture as possible. When you cook meat at higher temperatures, it might get done faster but it can lose moisture. With cuts like steaks or burgers, a little moisture loss is okay, as you’re searing that outside relatively quickly. However, with ribs, which get their crusty char from extended exposure to low heat and not searing, higher temperatures leech all the moisture out of the meat.
Real ribs – not country ribs, which are actually a chop – have tough connective tissue throughout the meat. If cooked too fast, that connective tissue remains a stringy, hard to chew mess that is not appetizing in the least. However, when cooked low and slow, those tissues dissolve into a gelatin that gives the ribs extra flavor, juiciness, and tenderness, leading to ribs that are extra tender and delicious.
If you want to know how to cook baby back ribs, getting that classic char on the outside is a must to understand. As I referenced earlier, steaks, chops, and burgers get their char from the direct action of high heat on their exterior. However, ribs get that char over a long period of time at the low and slow temperature.
Cooking over a long period of time conserves the juices within the ribs, but dries out the outer layer just a bit, thus allowing the heat to make that crispy exterior that we get in every bite just before we hit the juicy meat within.
Ideal Cooking Temperature
The ideal cooking temperature for baby back ribs on the grill or in the smoker is 225 degrees. This temperature is hot enough to brown the ribs’ exterior over time but low enough to melt the fat and collagen in the ribs themselves, leading to that classic flavor and texture we love about really good ribs.
At this temperature, it takes around 4 to 5 hours to cook a slab of baby back ribs if you’re at sea level.
How to Cook Baby Back Ribs – Methods
Baby back ribs can be grilled, smoked, cooked in the oven, and even in a slow cooker. From what we just discussed, you can probably already tell what all of these have in common. That’s right, it’s the low and slow method.
Grilling and Smoking Baby Back Ribs
Grilling and smoking are the first things we think of first when we start talking about how to cook baby back ribs. These are the two classic methods for cooking ribs that we see at backyard barbecues and get-togethers.
Both of these methods require low and slow cooking, but they are done just a bit differently.
Baby back ribs are usually grilled using heat at between 300 and 325 degrees. Right now, you’re probably saying, “But wait! You said 225 degrees was best!”
Well, that’s true, but the thing to remember about grilling ribs is that they won’t be directly over the heat source. The flame isn’t what cooks the meat, it’s the heated air retained within the grill that does that.
You need heat that’s high enough to keep the ambient air in the cooker at the proper temperature. However, you also need to keep the ribs as far away from the heat source as possible so that the flame plays no part in cooking the ribs.
Cooking baby back ribs on a smoker is where we see the 225-degree temperature setting. Smokers are designed to cooking using ambient heat, so there’s no need to set it higher than what you need. That’s because there will be no open flame anywhere near the meat.
There are a variety of ways to smoke ribs. Some people like to smoke the ribs straight on the rack, while others will wrap the ribs for a time in foil to seal in flavors if they are using any sort of liquid.
My favorite smoked baby back ribs use a combination of the two. I smoke the ribs and then wrap them in foil after spraying them with juice to add a little extra flavor and moisture.
You might be surprised to see oven roasting as a method of how to cook baby back ribs, but it works very well. Again, low and slow is the method here, although the temperature is a little higher at about 300 degrees.
Slow roasting baby back ribs gives you the classic rib flavor we all love while allowing you to cook them during the winter or on rainy days – times that you really don’t want to be outside in the weather.
When cooking slow roasted ribs, I add barbecue sauce to the raw ribs and then wrap them in foil to seal in the sauce and help keep the ribs moist as they cook. It’s an excellent way to get tender, flavorful ribs without having to step outside.
Slow Cooking Ribs
Slow cooking ribs makes it easy to get tender ribs and saves a lot of time. Slow cooking does two critical things for the ribs, it cooks them slowly, and it maintains moisture.
Making slow cooker barbecue ribs uses the barbecue sauce as both flavor and moisture for the ribs as they cook. Cooking the ribs on high for 4 hours or low for 6 – 8 hours allows the ribs to retain their moisture and their connective tissues to dissolve and make the ribs even juicier.
The final step in slow cooking ribs is to finish them under a broiler for 3 – 5 minutes. This allows the barbecue on the outside of the ribs to caramelize and give that grilled flavor without using the grill.
Now You Know How to Cook Baby Back Ribs
Now that you know the basics of how to cook baby back ribs, there’s no end to what you can do with this tasty cut of meat. Whether you choose to grill them, smoke them, roast them, or cook them in a slow cooker, knowing how to cook baby back ribs allows you to master any recipe and even come up with your own. So get cooking!