How to Grill Ribs on Charcoal?

The secret to the best baby back ribs is the slow cooking. We often use the words “grilling” and “BBQ” interchangeably, but the truth is, there is a slight difference. It is a difference that will make or break your rack of ribs. 


Grilling more often refers to cooking over high heat for a short period. Think chicken breasts and hamburger patties. BBQ, on the other hand, is done over low heat and is a long and slow process. The result? The most tender, juicy ribs you’ve ever had. 


Ideally, smokers result in the best ribs, but you can still get the same sweet and smokey effect on your meat if you are using a charcoal grill. Essentially, you will turn your grill into a smoker to achieve the best results. 


In this article, you will learn how to:


  • Prep your ribs to get the best flavors

  • Start a charcoal grill

  • Turn your charcoal grill into a smoker

  • Slow cook ribs

  • Finish ribs off with the perfect amount of BBQ sauce

Photo by Chad Montano on Unsplash

How to Grill Ribs on Charcoal?

Getting Started

Before you throw the rack on your grill, you’ll want to gather your ingredients and equipment and prep your meat. 


What you’ll need:


  • Charcoal grill

  • Charcoal 

  • Two disposable aluminum pans that are half the size of your grill

  • Hardwood chunks

  • Meat thermometer 

  • Aluminum foil 

  • A large knife

  • Rack of ribs (spareribs or baby back ribs)*

  • Your favorite rib rub

  • Barbecue sauce


*Please note: Spareribs have more meat than baby back ribs and will take an hour or two longer to cook. 

Preparing the Ribs

Remove the Membrane

For the best results and the deepest flavors, you’ll want to remove the membrane from your ribs. It will make the meat more tender and more flavorful. 


The easiest way to remove the membrane is to use a butter knife. Towards the end of the bone, slip the knife under the membrane. As you slide the knife around a little, the membrane will loosen and start to pull away from the bone. Using a paper towel, grab hold of the membrane with your hand and pull it off of the ribs. 


Once the membrane is gone, trim off any loose meat from the ribs. You don’t want these pieces as they will only dry out and cook unevenly.

Apply the Rub

Spread your favorite rib rub generously onto the meat. As long as the mixture is still sticking to the ribs, continue to apply it. Don’t forget to cover the front, back, and edges of the rack. 

How to Start a Charcoal Grill

If you’re wondering how to light a charcoal grill, the options to do so are easier than you might think. Your tools will be the most important part of the process, but as long as you arrange your coals to allow for aeration, an electric starter, blowtorch, or a coal chimney with some newspaper should get things going quickly. If all else fails, you can opt for lighter fluid, but seasoned professionals will always warn against this route because it’s easy to overuse and taint the taste of your meal.

Turn Your Charcoal Grill Into a Smoker

Using the two disposable aluminum pans, you can convert your grill into a smoker. One pan will catch the drippings, and the other will hold water to add moisture to the grill and help regulate the temperature. 


Steps to creating a smoker from your charcoal grill: 


  1. Make sure your grill is clean.

  2. Remove the cooking grate and start the charcoal.

  3. Place one aluminum pan on the coat grate and pour charcoal on the other side. 

  4. Add the wood to create smoke.

  5. Return the cooking grate and place the second aluminum pan on top of it. 

  6. Fill the pan up with water.


Congratulations! Your charcoal grill is now a smoker!

Photo by Alexandru-Bogdan Ghita on Unsplash

Cooking the Ribs

You can now add your ribs to the grill. Most grills can fit two racks of baby back ribs or one rack of spareribs. Just make sure that the ribs don’t overlap each other, or they won’t be exposed to enough heat or smoke. 


The ribs should be close to the water, rib side down, and not directly above the flames for best results. 


By this point, the grill should be at low to medium heat, around 250°F/120°C. The ribs should cook 3 to 4 hours for baby back ribs or 4 to 5 hours for spareribs. The final temperature should be between 180°F to 185°F or 80°C to 85°C. 

Periodically Checking on Ribs


After placing the ribs on the grill, you should let them be for about an hour. After an hour, you should check the ribs and make sure there is still plenty of fuel, wood, and water for the grill. You can now rotate the ribs so that they will cook evenly. 


By hour two, the ribs are ready to wrap in a double layer of aluminum foil. It will lock in moisture and raise the internal temperature. You do not need to add more wood, but it is a good idea to check there is still plenty of fuel and water. 


Once the ribs have been on the grill for a total of around 3 hours, it is time to remove the foil and put the ribs back on the grill until they have finished cooking. This usually lasts anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour. 


Using the meat thermometer, check to see if the ribs are cooked enough. Make sure you get an accurate reading by not getting the thermometer too close to the bone. 

Adding the BBQ Sauce and Serving the Ribs

If you choose to add BBQ sauce to your ribs, you want to add it in layers to achieve a sticky surface. Start by adding a single layer to one side, then gently turn the ribs over and add to the other side. 


Replace the ribs on the grill, close the lids, and wait 5 minutes before repeating. It usually takes about five coats for the best results. 


After removing the ribs, let them rest for 5 minutes, then cut them into two bone sections close to the bone. Serve your ribs with your favorite sides like corn on the cob and coleslaw.