Ribs are among the most iconic of barbecue foods, but novice backyard chefs often find them troublesome. The muscles that line the ribs are tender when cooked properly, but cooking them directly on the grill can easily produce a frustratingly tough, inedible result. The trick is slow-cooking the ribs until tender, either on the grill or before grilling.
Simmering the Ribs
A common method of precooking ribs is to simmer them until they are tender, then finish them on the grill. Advocates look on simmering as an opportunity to add flavor to the ribs with herbs and spices, while detractors argue that liquid cooking leaches out more flavor than it puts in. Simmering cooks out much of the ribs' fat but also some of their nutrition. Critics also argue that the ribs' texture suffers, being too soft at the end. If you use this technique, it's important to remember that simmering tenderizes ribs, but a full boil makes them tougher.
Slow Roasting the Ribs
Another way to precook ribs for the grill is in your oven or slow cooker. Season the ribs ahead of time with a dry rub made from herbs and spices or dried spicy dip mix, then place them on a sheet pan or in your slow cooker. Use the low setting on the slow cooker, or preheat your oven to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Slow-roast the ribs until they are nearly fork-tender, usually for 2 1/2 to 4 hours depending on the size of the rack. Transfer the ribs to your grill, and finish them over direct heat with your favorite sauce.
It's possible to slow-cook the ribs from start to finish on your grill, using indirect heat. Preheat your gas grill to 250 degrees F, with flame on only one side of the grill. If you use charcoal, set all the coals on one side of the kettle. Place the ribs on the other side of the grill. To make lots of ribs at one time, buy a rack that holds them vertically. Close the lid and slow-cook the ribs until fork-tender, usually for three to four hours. Use smoke chips at the beginning of the cooking time, and add your favorite sauce at the end.
Closed Charcoal Kettle
For the best possible ribs, dedicated backyard chefs invest in a higher-end charcoal burning kettle cooker. These heavy-duty cooker/smokers can be regulated to maintain temperatures as low as 200 degrees F, perfect for ribs, and the addition of a few hardwood chips to the coals will give a deep, smoky flavor to the meat. Season the ribs with a dry rub beforehand, and let them cook for up to four hours at that temperature before opening the cooker. Finish the ribs in the open kettle, at higher temperature, with your favorite sauce.
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Fred Decker is a trained chef and prolific freelance writer. In previous careers, he sold insurance and mutual funds, and was a longtime retailer. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. His articles have appeared on numerous home and garden sites including GoneOutdoors, TheNest and eHow.