How To Cook Three Types Of Ribs On The Grill

You’ll be the toast of the summer barbecue circuit when you’ve mastered this skill.

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Barbecued pork ribs covered in BBQ sauce.
Barbecued pork ribs. Photo, Roberto Caruso.

There are few methods of cooking that bring out more pride or swagger than grilling— and learning how to cook ribs on the grill (pork ribs to be precise) is a winning formula.

The three most common styles of ribs

Back Ribs

Saucy grilled pork ribs on cutting board.
Classic pork back ribs. Photo, John Cullen.

Also known as baby-backs, these are the most popular ribs on the grill these days. These ribs run from the spine, and along the back of the loin section. They are tender, with smallish bones and tend to have a good proportion of meat. They’re the priciest of the ribs on the market for these reasons.

Side Ribs

Saucy pork ribs
Memphis-style pork ribs. Photo, John Cullen.

Side ribs continue from the tip of the back ribs, running under the loin toward the sternum. They are less expensive because they tend to be less tender than back ribs, with a lesser proportion of meat.

Country-style ribs

I grew up on country-style ribs. Country-style ribs are actually the same thing as a bone-in rib roast, however they are sliced through the ribs and butterflied. Therefore they have a high proportion of “white” meat. They are great grilled, but also stand up well to slow cooking or braising.

Grilling tips and tricks for ribs

Remove the membrane

The membrane will toughen as it’s cooked, so it’s better to pull it off the inner side of the ribs beforehand. It can be tough to see, but once you locate it, it is easily pulled off and discarded.  (You can always request your butcher do this for you.)

To precook, or not to precook?

The rationale behind precooking ribs is to tenderize the meat before it hits the grill. Then the grilling portion of the cooking process is more to add the char and adhere the sauce to the ribs. But is it necessary? If you’re making side ribs, then yes, it’s a very good idea. As mentioned earlier, side ribs tend to be tougher than back ribs and benefit from some low-heat cooking to tenderize the meat.

Precooking back ribs is optional; it can make for an exceptionally tender rib, but it can be bypassed if you’re not interested in cooking for hours. Do not precook country-style ribs if you intend on grilling them or they will be very dry.

The best way to precook side-ribs

  • Preheat oven to 325F. Remove membrane off ribs. Slice each rib rack in half.
  • If using a dry rub, rub spice mixture on both sides of ribs. Arrange ribs, meaty-side up, in a shallow roasting pan. Add enough water so that it reaches 1/4-in. up the side of the pan. Cover tightly with foil. Bake in centre of oven until meat is tender, 70 to 90 min. Transfer ribs to platter, discard liquid.
  • Preheat grill to medium. Add ribs and baste with BBQ sauce, turning often and basting until sauce has adhered and meat is tender, about 10 to 15 minutes.

The best way to grill uncooked ribs

The key is to keep the heat low and cook the ribs slow. Indirect heat is preferable, at a temperature between 250F to 300F. (The low temperature prevents the sauce from burning as the ribs cook.) A rack of back ribs will take between 1 1/2 -2 hours to cook (with lid closed), and you should flip them approximately every 20 minutes. Baste with BBQ sauce each time you flip. To check for doneness and tenderness, insert a sharp-knife between two ribs, it should insert without any resistance.

Originally published July 2014. Updated July 2019.