A rack of bbq ribs on a wooden cutting board with a small bowl of bbq sauce on the side

How To Grill Ribs on Charcoal

Grilling ribs on a charcoal grill is an age-old tradition, and there's nothing quite like the mouthwatering aroma of smoky, tender ribs sizzling over hot coals. Whether you prefer baby back ribs, spare ribs, or St. Louis-style ribs, grilling them to perfection is an art that can be easily mastered with the right techniques and a little patience. 

In this comprehensive guide, we will walk you through the process of grilling ribs on charcoal, from selecting the best ribs to applying a flavorful dry rub, cooking low and slow, and finally, achieving that fall-off-the-bone goodness. Now let's fire up the grill and get started.

Selecting the Perfect Ribs

Creating mouthwatering ribs on the grill starts with selecting the right cut of pork ribs. The most popular choices are baby back ribs, spare ribs, and St. Louis-style ribs. Here's a quick rundown of each:

Baby Back Ribs

These are leaner and more tender than spare ribs, with a curved shape that makes them ideal for grilling. They are cut from the top of the ribcage and are usually smaller in size.

Spare Ribs

Spare ribs are meatier and have a higher fat content compared to baby back ribs. They come from the lower part of the ribcage and have a flatter shape.

St. Louis-Style Ribs

These are trimmed spare ribs, offering a more uniform shape. They have the excess cartilage and brisket bone removed, making them easier to grill.

When selecting ribs, look for meat that has good marbling and a pinkish hue. Avoid ribs with an excessive amount of fat or any off-putting odor. Once you have your ribs, it's time to prepare them for grilling.

Preparing the Ribs

Before you start grilling, you need to prepare the ribs. Follow these steps:

Remove the Membrane

Turn the ribs bone-side up. Use a butter knife to gently lift a corner of the membrane that covers the bone. Once you have a good grip, pull it off in one go. Removing the membrane allows the flavors to penetrate the meat and ensures a more tender result.

Trim Excess Fat

Trim any excessive fat from the ribs, especially if you're using spare ribs. Leaving some fat is fine as it contributes to the flavor, but too much can cause flare-ups on the grill.

Rinse and Pat Dry

Rinse the ribs under cold water and pat them dry with paper towels. This step helps remove any bone fragments or debris and ensures that your dry rub sticks properly.

Applying the Dry Rub

Uncooked rack of ribs with dry rub dusted on top before they are grilled

The key to flavor-packed grilled ribs is a well-balanced dry rub. You can customize your rub according to your taste preferences, but a basic dry rub typically includes ingredients like brown sugar, salt, paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, and cayenne pepper. Here's a simple dry rub recipe:


  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons paprika or smoked paprika
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  • 1 tablespoon onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper (adjust for heat preference)
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper


In a small bowl, combine all the dry rub ingredients. Mix thoroughly to ensure an even distribution of flavors. Liberally apply the dry rub to both sides of the ribs. Massage it into the meat to create a flavorful coating. For a stronger flavor, you can let the ribs sit in the rub for an hour or so before grilling. However, this is optional, and you can proceed to the next step immediately if you're short on time.

Setting up the Charcoal Grill

Now that your ribs are perfectly seasoned, it's time to prepare the charcoal grill for cooking. Here's how to do it:

Light the Charcoal

While you can fill a chimney starter with charcoal briquettes or lump charcoal, the easiest and most efficient way to light your charcoal grill is with the RocketFire Torch. The ideal solution, it eliminates the need for matches, kindling, or any liquids and can effortlessly ignite both wood and charcoal within mere seconds.

Arrange the Coals

Once the charcoal is ready, carefully pour it into the grill's firebox or on one side of the grill grate, depending on your grill setup. For indirect cooking, create a two-zone fire by stacking most of the coals on one side and leaving a smaller amount on the other side. This will allow you to control the heat more effectively.

Add Wood Chunks

To infuse a smoky flavor into your ribs, add wood chunks or chips directly onto the coals. Popular choices include hickory, mesquite, and applewood. Soak the wood chunks in water for about 30 minutes before adding them to the coals to create a slower, smokier burn.

Adjust Grill Grates

Ensure the grill grates are clean and oiled to prevent the ribs from sticking. You can use a grill brush and a paper towel dipped in vegetable oil to do this.

Grilling the Ribs

Now comes the exciting part – it's time to get your ribs on the grill! Follow these steps for a mouthwatering result:

Preheat the Grill

Place the grill grate in position and cover the grill. Allow it to preheat for about 10-15 minutes until it reaches the desired temperature. For ribs, you'll want a medium heat of around 300-325°F (150-160°C).

Place the Ribs on the Grill

Lay the ribs meat-side up on the grill grates over the indirect heat zone. This positioning helps the ribs cook slowly and evenly without direct exposure to the heat source. Close the grill lid.

Maintain a Consistent Temperature

Throughout the cooking process, your goal is to maintain a consistent grill temperature. Adjust the air vents on the grill to regulate the airflow and temperature. You may need to add more charcoal or adjust the vents periodically to keep the heat steady.

Cook Low and Slow

Allow the ribs to cook low and slow for approximately 2.5 to 3.5 hours, depending on the thickness of the meat and your desired tenderness. It's essential to be patient during this phase, as slow cooking is what makes the ribs tender and full of flavor.

Baste with BBQ Sauce (Optional)

About 30 minutes before the ribs are done, you can start basting them with your favorite BBQ sauce. Use a basting brush to apply the sauce to both sides of the ribs. Continue basting every 15 minutes until the ribs are cooked.

Check the Internal Temperature

To ensure your ribs are cooked to perfection, use a meat thermometer to check the internal temperature. Pork ribs are safe to eat at 145°F (63°C), but for the most tender result, aim for a slightly higher temperature of around 190-203°F (88-95°C).

Rest the Ribs

Once your ribs have reached the desired temperature, remove them from the grill and let them rest for 10-15 minutes. This allows the juices to redistribute, resulting in juicy and tender meat.

Slice and Serve

Use a sharp knife to slice the ribs between the bones. Serve them with your favorite BBQ sauce on the side for dipping, along with classic barbecue sides like baked beans, potato salad, or grilled corn.

BBQ Ribs and your Charcoal Grill

When it comes to cooking ribs on the grill, remember that practice makes perfect, and you may need to fine-tune your technique to achieve your ideal result. However, by selecting the perfect ribs, applying a flavorful dry rub, mastering the art of indirect cooking, and adding the smoky flavor of wood chunks, you can create BBQ ribs that are tender, flavorful, and sure to impress your family and friends.

No matter which ribs you prefer, the process of grilling ribs on charcoal remains largely the same, allowing you to create mouthwatering ribs with crispy charred edges and tender meat that falls off the bone. So, fire up that grill and start grilling your way to rib perfection.