The Rib Bible: Everything You Need to Know to Make Perfect Barbecued Ribs

4 Rivers Smokehouse

The Rib Bible: Everything You Need to Know to Make Perfect Barbecued Ribs

From what to buy to how to smoke it, this is your everything guide to barbecued ribs

Barbecue is part of the canonical gospels of Southern cuisine. Dry rubs, marinades, cuts of meat, and sauces all vary by location; however, there is one consistent offering you will find on almost every true barbecue menu whether it is the local specialty or not: ribs.

Click here for the Rib Bible: Everything You Need to Know to Make the Perfect Ribs slideshow.

Barbecue, with its slow, smoky, controlled process, can make even the toughest meats tender, rendering otherwise sinewy and fatty ribs more ideal for the smoker than for the stovetop. Of course, if you don’t have access to a outdoor grill or smoker, there are many recipes that will produce a similar smoked meat flavor indoors.

Nothing irks a pit-master more than the confusion between barbecuing and grilling. Barbecuing is a method of smoking food slowly using indirect heat with flavor derived from the wood being used, and from the rubs or marinades applied to the meat; grilling is done quickly over an intense flame to produce a char, but not necessarily a smoky taste.

The locals in each barbecue region fiercely defend their styles and specialties under the greater barbecue umbrella, from North Carolina’s vinegary sauces slathered onto buns filled with chopped pork and coleslaw to Kansas City’s tomato-based sauce and burnt ends. However, for the purposes of this article, we are only concerned with ribs: baby backs, beef ribs, St. Louis-style, and spareribs.

While most people prefer either beef or pork ribs, an experienced pit-master might try lamb riblets or even goat for a gamier tasting product. Pork ribs are the most common and are the easiest to cook, but the large beef rib, sometimes referred to as a dinosaur rib, is well-marbled, fatty, and consequently flavorful.

Click here for expert rib tips from John Rivers, owner-founder of 4 Rivers Barbecue.

We’ve broken down barbecuing ribs into a four-step process, which includes the major points of differentiation between rib-styles, starting with the cut of meat, continuing to how they are seasoned, moving on to the type of smoke used to cook and flavor them, and finishing with the sauce served alongside them.

The Cut
The two most common rib styles are spareribs and baby back ribs, both always pork. Baby back ribs come from the top of the ribcage adjacent to the tenderloin, and tend to be smaller than the spareribs (when trimmed these are referred to as St. Louis-style), which come from the bottom of the ribcage, near the belly.

No matter which cut you select, you want a well-marbled rib with fat running throughout.

The Prep
Wet rub or dry rub? In the barbecue mecca of Memphis you will find both styles of ribs. For dry, stick with an intense blend of spices, such as paprika, black pepper, and cayenne. Overly sweet sauces have no place in this type of barbecue, sweetened — if at all — with just a pinch or two of brown sugar added to the dry rub. Build layers of flavors by adding the rub the night before, letting it soak into the meat, and then showering your ribs with more rub toward the end of the cooking process. The sugars will caramelize, while the fat melts and mingles with the hot peppers. Keep your dry-rubbed ribs moist with a blend of salt water and apple cider vinegar that you can apply with a soaked rag while you ribs smoke. This is typically referred to as a mop.

For wet rub, you are looking to make a paste-like rub using vinegar, oil, beer, or some combination of the three, accompanied by peppers, like black pepper, cayenne, and/or paprika, and brown sugar for sweetness. Then, smother your ribs in the rub, wrap tightly in plastic, and let marinate in the fridge for at least an hour before smoking.

The Smoke
The smoke is just as important as the rubs when it comes to producing that barbecue flavor. The smoke flavor permeates the meat, creating that distinction between grilled chicken, slathered in barbecue sauce, and real barbecue. Last year, we asked Chris Grove, grilling pro and blogger at, his advice for cooking the perfect ribs. He says when it comes to pork ribs he adds fruity woodchips (like cherry or apple wood) to his smoker.

Finally, when its time to build that fire, Grove suggests keeping the heat low at 275 degrees F for the duration of cooking. Low-and-slow is the secret to tender, fall-off-the-bone ribs.

Barbecuing expert John Rivers, owner–founder of 4 Rivers Smokehouse with multiple location in Florida adds that you always want to smoke your ribs meat side up, and look for the meat to pull back from the bone about a half-inch, indicating that your ribs are done.

The Sauce
Once your ribs are finished cooking, you are ready to serve with the sauce of your choosing. Rivers adds that if you wish to sauce your ribs while they are cooking, wait until the last 30 minutes of cooking or flash them briefly on the grill after smoking to prevent the sugars in the sauce from burning. If you are looking for the perfect sauce to add to your ribs, check out the best store-bought sauces to try or these classic barbecue sauce recipes, and learn more about the regional differences in barbecue sauces by reading on here.

Angela Carlos is the Cook Editor at The Daily Meal. Find her on Twitter and tweet @angelaccarlos.

Additional reporting by Kristie Collado.

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