How to cook pork ribs

How to cook pork ribs

Pork ribs are a classic cut of meat for the barbecue, popular with everyone from seasoned barbecue pros to enthusiastic backyard cooks. There are two cuts of pork ribs available in the UK: spare ribs and baby back ribs. Both need long, slow cooking in order to break down the connective tissue and fat between and around the rib bones. Once cooked, however, they become very juicy and tender. Many barbecue experts will consider a rib to be perfectly cooked if you can easily take a bite through the tender meat, but it won’t all fall away from the bone.

What is the difference between spare ribs and baby back ribs?

A rack of spare ribs is long and flat in shape. Cut from behind the shoulder, it will typically contain 11-13 bones. Baby back ribs are shorter and curved in shape. They’re also more tender than spare ribs, and are generally considered more flavourful.

What to look for when buying pork ribs

We recommend buying meat that is reared to the highest welfare standards in order to eliminate animal cruelty and reduce environmental impact. The meat will also have a much better flavour than anything that is industrially farmed. Always look for meat that’s a healthy pink colour; pale or discoloured meat is generally a sign that the cut is way past its best. Also look for plenty of fat marbling on the meat around the ribs - this is what will melt down during cooking to make your ribs super succulent. A rack of ribs will feed 1-2 people, depending on appetite!

Pork rib collection

How to remove the membrane from pork ribs

Most racks of pork ribs come with a thin, silvery membrane attached to the back, unless it has already been removed by a butcher. This should be removed before cooking as it’s too tough to eat and it hampers the cooking process by acting as a barrier between any seasoning added to the ribs. 

Remove it by inserting a butter knife underneath until you can grab hold of the membrane with your hands. Once you have a piece that’s loose, use a piece of kitchen paper to grab onto the membrane, peel it off and discard it.

How to cook pork ribs on a barbecue

Due to the large amount of fat marbling and connective tissue around the bones, ribs aren’t generally cooked quickly on the barbecue. There are, broadly, two approaches to cooking them: slowly cooking the ribs for a long time using a smoking or indirect heat method, or partially cooking the ribs indoors before finishing them on the barbecue.

How to smoke pork ribs on the barbecue

Pork ribs can be fully cooked inside a smoker or a lidded barbecue that is set up for 2-zone, indirect cooking. The racks are typically seasoned with a spice rub before slowly cooking inside the smoker or barbecue with some wood, to add extra smoke flavour. After a couple of hours, the ribs can be wrapped, to keep the moisture in and help them finish cooking. They are then typically glazed or served with a dipping sauce.

How to par-cook pork ribs and finish them on the barbecue

Many home cooks will prefer to pre cook their ribs, either by steaming, roasting or boiling them before adding sauce and finishing them on the barbecue. This drastically reduces the cooking time and makes it easy to get ahead if you’re cooking for other people. 

How to cook pork ribs in the oven

Ribs can be cooked in the oven on a rack set over a roasting tin filled with water. This allows the ribs to cook slowly at a low temperature while preventing them from drying out. The ribs can be covered with a barbecue rub to cook and then glazed either in the oven or on the barbecue to finish. Find a simple method for cooking barbecue pork ribs below.


Preheat the oven to 150C/Gas Mark 3.5


Place the ribs meaty side down on a chopping board and remove the membrane by inserting a butter knife underneath until you can grab hold of the membrane with your hands. Once you have a piece that’s loose, use a piece of kitchen paper to grab onto the membrane, peel it off and discard it


Combine the sea salt, brown sugar, black pepper, paprika and garlic powder and mix well. Moisten the ribs with water and sprinkle the rub all over the ribs, patting it onto the meat. Place the ribs onto a rack set over a roasting tin and pour water into the tin until it’s about one third full


Cook the ribs for 2-3 hours, or until tender


To finish, brush the ribs with the glaze and cook either on a BBQ over direct heat for a few minutes on each side, or turn the oven up to 200C/Gas Mark 7 and cook the glazed ribs for 10 minutes

Gorgeous glazes

Glazing squad

Check out our trio of delicious glazed rib recipes

Glazes for pork ribs can be as simple as using a ready-made barbecue sauce. However, it’s also easy to make your own glazes for ribs using soft drinks such as cola or ginger beer or soft fruits such as plums or quince.

Rubs for ribs

For minimal effort and maximum flavour, a spice rub does wonders. Keep it simple with salt, pepper, garlic and rosemary like they do in Tuscany, or try out the traditional barbecue rub from Memphis in Tennessee. You could also opt for an Indian take, by experimenting with cumin, coriander, cardamom and fenugreek seeds. 

Global inspiration

Fresh flavours and sticky fingers

Why not look further afield for inspiration for your next rack of ribs? 

Pork rib cuts vary around the world due to differences in butchery styles - the St Louis cut is popular in the US, for example are slightly less meaty than baby back ribs, as they have been trimmed to a more uniform shape. There are also differences in cooking methods and flavourings: Indonesian sulawesi ribs come with a fiery dabu dabu dipping sauce, for example. Why not experiment? 

Braised ribs

If you want truly fall-off the bone meat, braising them in a stew is a less-opted for but equally delicious method of cooking ribs. The traditional dish Feijoada from Brazil braises pork ribs with sausages, bacon, trotters and tongue! If you fancy something a little less adventurous, our pork rib ragu is a real crowd-pleaser... 

Get in touch

Please or register to send a comment to Great British Chefs