If you’re a fan of beef ribs, you’ll love the sweet, smoky flavor of the ones we’ll help you prepare on your very own charcoal grill. Even if you’ve never attempted to prepare them this way—or never experienced the joys of a charcoal grill at all—our step-by-step guide will turn you into a pro in no time. Which is fortunate, because once you’ve tried them this way, you may find yourself making them over and over again—particularly if you invite friends and family over.
Selecting Beef Ribs for the Charcoal Grill
Pork ribs get most of the press, but smoked beef back ribs are an excellent choice for the smoker. Since the meat requires this type of long, slow cooking in order to achieve that fall-off-the-bone tenderness, it’s a perfect match. The cooking process itself should take at least four hours; any less, and your ribs may come out too tough and chewy.
To cook beef ribs on a charcoal grill, you’ll want to start with some high-quality beef back ribs. The back ribs come from the rib roast (also known as prime rib), so the meat is naturally more tender than the tougher, fattier short ribs, which are located on the lower portion of the animal. Remember that short ribs might also be labeled as braising ribs, crosscut ribs, flanken ribs, English short ribs, or Korean short ribs. If you’re unsure as to whether the cut you’ve picked out will be suitable for the grill, ask your butcher.
Pro Tip: Always strive to maintain cordial relationships with the people who work in your local meat department. A knowledgeable butcher is an invaluable asset to the home griller.
About Cooking on a Charcoal Grill
While grilling with charcoal doesn’t offer the instant gratification of cooking on a gas grill, the results are more than worth the extra time and effort you’ll put in. The meat will sear more evenly, and a charcoal fire will impart more rich, smoky flavor than a gas flame. This difference isn’t as noticeable if you’re grilling pre-cooked sausages such as bratwurst, but when you’re using the grill for long, slow cooking—as with this smoked beef back ribs recipe—you’ll definitely appreciate the boost in flavor.
Look for charcoal with as few additives as possible. If it’s advertised as additive-free, that’s the kind you want. Avoid any “match light” varieties—these contain lighter fluid additives that will adversely affect the flavor of your meat. You should also steer clear of briquettes that advertise “real mesquite flavor” or something similar. If you’ve done your work properly, the meat will achieve that flavor on its own.
If you can find lump charcoal, consider using this in your smoker instead of briquettes. Lump charcoal is actually wood that has been fired into charcoal, so it burns more cleanly and produces less ash than briquettes, which are typically formed out of sawdust. It also burns hotter, but this shouldn’t be a problem as long as your smoker’s adjustable air vents are in good working order.
Pro Tip: If you don’t have lighter fluid or a chimney starter, don’t worry. You can still get the coals to light using some crumpled up newspaper and a small amount of kindling—just like you would use for a traditional campfire. You might have to keep a closer eye on the grill, but your ribs will taste delicious.
How to Cook the Best Beef Ribs on a Charcoal Grill: A Step-by-Step Guide
This recipe will turn out the best beef ribs you’ve ever tasted. We’ve even included the recipe for a glaze that can be easily made from pantry staples, so you won’t have to rely on commercially prepared barbecue sauce (which can overwhelm the natural smoke flavor you’ve worked so hard to achieve).
Our smoked beef ribs rub contains chili powder and cumin for spice and dimension, as well as brown sugar to help give the ribs that all-important sticky char. This recipe should feed four to six hungry people. Don’t expect to have many leftovers, but if you do, they’ll make a great barbecued beef sandwich the next day (see our Pro Tip below the recipe for ideas).
To make the best beef ribs on a charcoal grill, you’ll need two aluminum pans: One to catch the drippings during cooking so the coals don’t flare up, and one to fill with water.
- 2 whole slabs beef back ribs
For the Smoked Beef Ribs Rub:
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons light brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
- 1 tablespoon Mexican-style chili powder
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
For the Glaze:
- 1/4 cup pure maple syrup
- 1/4 cup apple cider
- 3 tablespoons light brown sugar
- 3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
- 3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
- 2 tablespoons honey
- 1 teaspoon Mexican style chili powder
- Pinch of cayenne pepper
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- To prepare the ribs, place them facedown on a nonreactive cutting board and pull off the membrane (this is the thin layer of fat that runs along the underside of the rack). Trim any excess fat.
- Prepare the rub by whisking all of the ingredients together in a small bowl. Use your hands to rub the seasoning mixture all over the ribs.
- Place the ribs on a clean sheet tray and cover them in plastic wrap. Let them sit in the refrigerator for at least 6 hours (preferably overnight).
- When you’re ready to cook the ribs, prepare the grill by removing the cooking grate and stacking the charcoal on one side. Be sure to build the fire on the windward side of the grill, so that the wind will blow the smoke in the direction of the food as it cooks, and not the other way around. Light the fire using either the chimney starter or the method described in the Pro Tip above.
- Place a drip pan on the empty side of the grill, then replace the cooking grate.
- When the coals are hot, place the water pan directly over the coals and fill the pan about three-quarters of the way full with hot water.
- Arrange the ribs over the drip pan with the meatier side facing down, then cover the grill so that the vent is directly over the meat. If you’re leaving a thermometer inside while the meat cooks, place it next to the ribs before closing the lid.
- Adjust the bottom vents so that the air is coming in directly under the fire, so that the smoke will continuously pass over the meat and out through the upper vent throughout the cooking time. You want the temperature to remain consistent, somewhere between 225 to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. If it threatens to drop too low, you’ll need to add more charcoal (or hickory wood chips, if you have them) to your fire. Try not to open the lid any more than is necessary to maintain the right temperature.
- While the ribs are cooking, prepare the glaze. Combine the syrup, cider, brown sugar, vinegar, mustard, chili powder, and cayenne in a nonreactive saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. When the mixture becomes syrupy, add salt and black pepper to taste. Remove from heat.
- After about 3 hours, turn the ribs. Cook for another hour or so, until the meat falls easily off the bone when prodded with a fork.
- Brush the glaze onto the ribs and cook for another 5 to 10 minutes.
- Remove the ribs rom the grill. When cool enough to handle, slice them so that they can be stacked individually. Serve with lots of napkins and the beverage of your choice.
Pro Tip: For a great barbecued beef sandwich, warm any leftover meat pulled from the ribs in a small saucepan. Add additional glaze, if you have any left. Top with fried onions and dill pickles, or sliced jalapeno peppers if you like a little extra heat!
Making the best beef ribs on a charcoal grill requires a lot of advance preparation, but the process itself is largely hands-off, making this recipe a great choice for parties. You can prepare your favorite sides while the meat cooks, or simply use the time to socialize. Of course, once you’ve tasted the results, you might be tempted not to invite anyone over next time, so you can have them all to yourself.