Ribs—crusty with spices, fragrant with wood smoke, sizzling with fat and caramelized sauce—invoke the spirit of barbecue like no other meat. Plus, they are unabashedly fun to eat, channeling through our DNA the same hand-to-mouth pleasure our cave-dwelling ancestors experienced after they embraced the power of live-fire cooking.
Bet you could go for a slab right now. But wait—it’s a weeknight. And ribs take hours and hours to cook, right?
Yes and no. If you’re a devotee of the enormously popular 3-2-1 method of cooking ribs, then yes, they will take 6 hours to cook: 3 hours exposed to smoke and 225 to 250 degree temperatures; 2 hours enclosed in a sealed foil package, usually with liquid (a braising technique derisively known as the “Texas Crutch”); and 1 hour unwrapped over higher heat with a basting of sauce.
What results is preternaturally tender meat—some people (especially if they’re trained Kansas City Barbecue Society judges) might even call it mushy—that releases its hold on bone with the slightest tug of the teeth. For more on the 3-2-1 method, click here.
But it’s possible to put perfectly cooked bones on the table in 2 hours or less. You no longer have to eat at midnight or wait for weekends or vacation days to enjoy these meaty staves. In fact, the majority of rib recipes in my book Best Ribs Ever qualify.
For my money, baby back ribs cooked faster over higher heat are superior to long-cooked ribs using the 3-2-1 or similar methods (don’t get me started on preboiling ribs), or low and slow from start to finish. They’re simply more interesting, with better bark, juicier meat, deeper and more complex flavors, and contrasting textures. Of course, you can still employ all the same taste-enhancing techniques, including wood smoke, dry rubs, marinades, slathers (wet rubs), mops, and sauces. Note: spareribs require low and slow smoking to tenderize the tough connective tissue.
Below are five live-fire cooking methods for ribs in the fast lane along with representative recipes.
Direct Grilling: Cooking ribs directly over glowing embers or on a gas-fired grill may not be the first technique that comes to mind for most American pit masters. But in Mexico, Italy, Japan, Korea, and Argentina, ribs are routinely grilled right over the fire.
Of course, you cannot just throw any slab of ribs over a raging fire and expect the best. You must pick a rib properly suited to direct grilling, such as a tender rack like baby back pork ribs; country-style pork ribs; cross-cut beef short ribs (also known as flanken, Argentinean- or Korean-style short ribs); veal ribs; and lamb ribs.
For most ribs that are direct grilled, you’ll need to work over a medium fire and have a fire-free safety zone where you can move the ribs in case of flare-ups. (Click here for instructions on how to build two-zone and three-zone fires.)
Below are two rib recipes that use direct grilling:
Modified Direct Grilling: The term “modified direct grilling” is my own. It seems like the best way to describe a technique that straddles direct and indirect grilling. It’s the method of choice at one of America’s landmark barbecue restaurants, the Rendezvous in Memphis, Tennessee, where queued-up customers devour over a ton of baby back pork ribs on an average day.
Here’s how it’s done: The ribs cook directly over glowing coals for about an hour, but on a grate positioned high (about 24 inches) above the fire. This unique configuration allows the ribs to grill without burning as the temperature is more akin to that of indirect grilling than direct. And thanks to the distance from the heat source, dripping fat doesn’t develop into threatening flare-ups. The ribs are periodically mopped with a vinegar sauce and crusted with Rendezvous’ proprietary seasoning before serving.
If you have a built-in stone or brick barbecue on your property, you may be able to position the grate high enough above the embers to emulate the set-up at Rendezvous. (You can improvise with a grill grate and cement blocks if your community allows open fires.)
Other options include an upright barrel smoker like the Pit Barrel Cooker; a Weber Smokey Mountain Charcoal Smoker; a kamado-style cooker; or an Argentinean- or Santa Maria-style grill with an adjustable grill grate.
Here’s my interpretation of Rendezvous’ famous rib recipe. In addition to baby backs, other ribs well suited for modified direct grilling include St. Louis-cut spare ribs; Korean- and Argentinean-style cross-cut short ribs; veal ribs; and lamb ribs.
Indirect Grilling: Indirect grilling and smoke-roasting (see below) are my favorite ways to cook most ribs. Admittedly, the cooking is done at a higher temperature than the pit smoking done by the “low and slow” brigade on the professional barbecue circuit. But if you’re cooking a relatively tender, well-marbled rib, like a baby back, you want a higher heat (325 to 350 degrees) so you can melt out the fat while you sizzle and crisp the meat fibers. You can indirect grill at higher temperatures on gas or charcoal grills, most pellet grills, and some smokers.
My recipe for First-Timer’s Ribs calls for only 1-1/2 hours of actual cooking time, but it’s a blueprint for success. If you don’t own one, a rib rack will significantly increase your grill grate real estate. Since the ribs are racked on their sides, they baste themselves as they cook.
Besides baby backs, other ribs that are suitable for higher-temperature indirect grilling include country-style pork ribs, pork spare ribs, and lamb ribs.
Smoke-Roasting: This is something you might have done for years: Smoke-roasting, simply defined, is indirect grilling (see above) with the addition of smoke—usually wood smoke in the form of logs, chips, or chunks, but I have used hay as well as tea-based smoking mixtures. This hybrid technique is perfect for baby backs, pork spare ribs, country-style pork ribs, and cross-cut or thinly sliced beef short ribs.
Spit-Roasting: A rotisserie is ideal for grilling ribs. This method has three advantages: Besides being a fast cooking method (ribs can be done in as little as an hour) the lateral heat sizzles and crisps the meat while melting out the fat without burning or overcooking. And the gentle rotation bastes the ribs in their own juices, keeping them amazingly moist. (The most challenging thing is threading the ribs on the spit. I simplify the job by making starter holes at intervals between the bones with a sharp knife.) I’ve enjoyed spit-roasted ribs in many countries—Greece, France, Italy, Turkey, Brazil, and Singapore. But surprisingly, I rarely encounter them in the U.S.
Rotisserie attachments (original and retrofit) are available for many models of gas and charcoal grills.
“Mechoui” of Lamb Ribs, an example of rotisseried ribs, nods to the community feasts of North Africa where whole lambs are seasoned with a paste of pungent spices, then spit-roasted until crackling crisp.
Other ribs that take well to spit-roasting are pork baby backs, pork spare ribs, veal ribs, and beef back ribs.