Easy, fail-safe grilling tips for baby back and spare ribs

There are two basic cuts of ribs most people find in the grocery store - spare and baby back. And they each require their own preparation. CDN grill masters share their tips for success.

Photo: Jim Picht

WASHINGTON, August 20, 2016  – Creating your own rib recipe is a rite of passage for all barbecue masters. Understanding the cuts of meats and how to prepare them for their final moments on the grill will ensure that master success.

There are two basic cuts of ribs most people find in the grocery store. The spare cut is from the underbelly of the pig. They are the least meaty and most fatty of all pork and contain long bones with a thin covering of meat on the outside and between the ribs. Although they have the least meat, they are considered the most flavorful due to the amount of fat.

Country-style ribs are cut from the shoulder end of the loin and have the highest meat-to-bone ratio with the least amount of fat. Often times, country-style are mistaken for pork chops because you usually need a knife and fork to eat them.

St. Louis-style are among the most popular types. These are a further trimmed spareribs with the breastbone removed as well as cartilage and tips, creating a rectangular shaped rack of ribs.

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Baby back, also known as loin back or back  (when small), are short, easy to hold and meatier than spareribs. Containing loin meat, back are less fatty and usually smaller; a whole rack of back ribs weighs between 1 1/2 and 1 3/4 pounds. Baby back are a narrower slab of the back cut from the rib end and are sometimes called riblets.  These are increasingly popular due to their flavor and price.

Country-style and St. Louis style ribs will most often be available from a butcher; shopping at the supermarket you will most often find your choice limited to baby back and spare.

When it comes to cooking and flavor, it’s all about the fat content and choosing the absolute freshest, best quality, organically raised protein you can afford. We are going to stick to the most commonly found, spare and baby back. However these tips can be used for any cut of rib and the baby back process works wonderfully for meatier, and fatter, beef ribs.


Spare ribs are hardier to cook than baby backs as the meat won’t shred as easily during the cooking process. A favorite way to barbecue spare ribs that are tender includes a period of time in a low temperature bath.

Spare ribs have less meat per rib so you want to plan 3/4- to a whole rack for a moderate to heavy eater.

The CDN preferred method of cooking spare ribs is a warm, slow bath, done the day before the BBQ. Put spare ribs in an oven-safe dish (a large Dutch oven often works well, but you can also use double layers of tin pans with a cookie sheet beneath) deep enough to submerge them beneath a combination of water with 1/2 can of beer or a shot or two of bourbon, basil, mustard seed, garlic and salt and pepper to taste.

Place in the oven, covered, at 200 degrees for four to six hours, until the meat is fork tender. You do not want to overcook them to the point they are falling off the rib.  If you do, don’t despair. Remove the bones and create boneless ribs in the crockpot by adding your favorite sauce and seasonings and serving with “Texas Toast”, thick slices of garlic buttered bread, toasted on the outside (can be done on the grill) but warm and soft on the inside and a creamy coleslaw that will play off the sweet and tart BBQ sauce.

Remove the ribs from the bath, dry with paper towel and let them cool. Remove the membrane before you sprinkle with your dry rub, or wait until they cool before you remove the “membrane” from the back of the ribs. Using a thin or boning knife, carefully slip the blade between the membrane and the back of the rack.  The following video shows removing the membrane from raw ribs.

I find it much easier to remove the membrane from the parboiled ribs that have cooled.

Once the membrane has been removed, season the ribs and either wrap them in foil and place in the refrigerator. A dry rub is prferred at this time, adding a wet sauce prior to grilling.  Your dry rub can be made at home or purchased.  Ingredients, depending on your tastes, will include garlic powder, paprika, mustard powder, salt, pepper, dried coffee grounds, cumin, onion powder and brown sugar.

The following can be mixed together to create your own special rub starting with this “Cowboy” dry rub base.

For one rack of 12-15

  • 1 tablespoon of coffee beans (freshly ground)
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons kosher or 3/4 teaspoon of sea salt
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper (coarse-ground)

Massage the ribs with a bit of olive oil and then sprinkle liberally both side and rub well into the oiled meat. Add to your own taste.  Wrap in foil and place in refrigerator overnight or place back in a 200 degree oven for up to two hours while you create your sides and prepare for your family and guests.

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Start the grill but have the charcoal pushed to the side so it is not directly beneath the ribs or use a rib rack, that for best success you will want to rotate on the grill, and if using tongs (preferred) turn the ribs over so that you don’t burn the tips on one side.

Before heading the grill, sprinkle with a dry rub and a thin coat of your favorite sauce – either commercial, home-made or “doctored” from the store. I like to start with a good sauce that does not have high-fructose corn syrup.  In a sauce pan mix the store bought with a couple of shots of bourbon, a handful of brown sugar, salt, pepper and spices to your taste.  A bit of ancho chili powder can add some zest to your sauce.

Spare Ribs
Spare Ribs

Liberally cover the ribs and let rest until room temperature if they have been in the refrigerator.  Grill the ribs over a not too hot grill – with embers to the side – as you are actually just warming the meat and adding that final grill taste.  Have extra sauce to brush on them as you carefully turn them.


Paired: BBQ Ribs | Chef Mary Moran
Paired: Baby Back BBQ Ribs | Chef Mary Moran

Baby back ribs are “finger-licking good,” and they are ideal to serve because they’re small, tender and flavorful.  They are often more tender than spare ribs, but require extra care so that they do not overcook and fall off the bone.

Baby back ribs are small, so when you are buying them figure four to five ribs per female and then six to seven ribs per male. (Men typically eat a few more, but not always.)

First we rub the baby backs with a good drizzle of barbecue sauce and then a dry rub.  After wrapping them in foil, place them in a 225 degree oven for three or four hours, being careful to NOT overcook them. I know of people who warm-cook ribs overnight at 150-175 degrees just wrap the ribs so that there is an easy place where the doneness can be checked by touch or thermometer.

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Amazing Ribs.com offers some great tips to determine whether your ribs are done, but in general a temperature between 180 and 190 degrees, which is why they longer period of time in a 200 degree oven will gently cook the ribs, melt the collagen and render the meat tender, but still firm.

Because your baby backs have more meat, you might want to grill without sauce at first.  Take them from the grill, or if set in the refrigerator over night let them reach room temperature before they move to the grill. Once on the grill, again with charcoal to the side so that fats and sauces don’t cause flair ups, when they start to get very warm, add your sauce with just a few minutes left on the grill so the sauce doesn’t burn and ruin the ribs.

Prepare the ribs for your guests by cutting them into three’s (three bones per serving). The easiest way to cut them is by placing the ribs on a cutting board meat side down. Use a very sharp knife to cut between the ribs.  However, when you are plating them serve them meat side up.

Your guests are going to rave about your ribs.  Just make sure to hand them wet towels at the end so your hard work doesn’t end up all over your house and walls.

Chef Mary Payne Quick and Easy BBQ Ribs Recipe (for when you don’t have hours)

Time: 90 minutes
Servings: 4


  • 2 slabs baby back ribs
  • 2-½ c BBQ sauce (I always go for a sweeter BBQ sauce made from molasses)
  • 1 onion peeled and halved
  • 1 carrot peeled
  • ½ c Mary’s BBQ Spices*
  • Salt and Pepper to taste
  • ¼ c chopped parsley

*Mary’s BBQ Spices

  • 1 T garlic powder
  • ½ T paprika
  • ½ t chili powder
  • ¼ t cinnamon
  • ½ T salt
  • ½ t pepper

First cut the top and the bottom off the onion. Then peel the outer layer of the onion. Next cut the onion half.

Cut the top of the carrot off and peel it. Then cut it into large chunks.

When you’re ready, remove the ribs from the package and wash and dry them.

Next in a large pot, fill it almost to the top with water (leave enough room for the ribs).  Add the onion and carrot to the water.

Bring the water, carrot and onion to a rapid boil and add both slabs of ribs.  Boil for 35 minutes. When you are finished remove them from the pot and set them on a cookie sheet.

In a medium mixing bowl add all of the spices and mix thoroughly and set aside until you are ready to spread it on the ribs.

Next heat your grill to a medium high heat.  Rub your ribs with Mary’s Spices and a bit of canola oil. Place the ribs on the grill, presentation side down (turn down the heat directly under the ribs). Cook them for 15 minutes and then flip. Cook for another 10 minutes and then baste every few minutes for an additional 10 minutes.

Once they are golden brown remove them from the grill.

When you are ready to serve the ribs cut the them into three bone segments (it’s easiest to cut the ribs from the underneath rather than the top), garnish them with chopped parsley and serve them with more BBQ sauce.

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