How to Make the Best Barbecued Pork
Barbecue is the traditional low-and-slow cooking method used in pork ribs and pulled pork recipes because it provides ample time for fatty, tough cuts to become tender and palatable. We’ve spent years developing indoor and outdoor barbecued pork recipes—and cooking techniques—that avoid these challenges and turn out perfect every time. Here we share what we’ve learned, and the ingredients and tools you’ll need to prepare our foolproof barbecued pork recipes.
Here’s how to set up your grill for one of our barbecue pork recipes and how to achieve perfect barbecued pork ribs in 12 steps.
Perfect Ribs in 12 Steps
For lip-smacking good ribs with juicy, fall-off-the-bone texture, master these simple steps.
1. LOOSEN MEMBRANE
Use the tip of a paring knife to loosen the edge of the membrane on each rack.
WHY? The papery membrane on the underside is chewy and unpleasant to eat.
2. REMOVE MEMBRANE
Pull the membrane off slowly, using a paper towel. It should come off in a single piece.
WHY? The paper towel will give you a good grip.
3. SEASON RIBS
Rub the ribs with a spice mixture, wrap them in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 1 to 24 hours.
WHY? To give the rub plenty of time to season the ribs.
4. PREPARE COALS
Pour the hot coals into a steeply banked pile on one side of the grill.
WHY? By banking the coals, you’re transforming your grill into a slow, low oven, perfect for cooking ribs.
5. ADD WOOD CHIPS
Place a foil packet of soaked wood chips over the coals, cover the grill, and let them smoke for 5 minutes.
WHY? If you start the meat immediately, it will taste acrid from too much harsh smoke.
6. PLACE RIBS
Clean and oil the cooking grate, unwrap the ribs, and set them on the cool side of the grill.
WHY? So the ribs can cook low and slow without the exterior burning before the interior is tender.
7. COVER WITH FOIL
Cover the ribs loosely with aluminum foil, close the grill, and cook until the ribs are deep red, about 2 hours.
WHY? The foil will trap steam to aid in tenderizing the ribs.
8. BRUSH WITH SAUCE
Remove the ribs from the grill, brush with 1 cup of barbecue sauce, and wrap tightly in foil.
WHY? The ribs will cook for several more hours in the oven, drinking up the smoky, sweet flavor.
9. BAKE RIBS
Lay the foil-wrapped ribs on a rimmed baking sheet and move them to a preheated oven.
WHY? So the ribs can fully tenderize without your having to rebuild the charcoal fire.
10. FORK TEST
Insert a fork into the ribs and lift. If the fork pulls right out, the ribs are done. If not, the meat needs to cook longer.
WHY? To check if the ribs are truly fork-tender.
11. LET REST
Remove the ribs from the oven and let them rest, wrapped in foil, for 30 minutes.
WHY? The juice will redistribute. What does that mean? Moist ribs.
12. BRUSH, SLICE, EAT
Unwrap the ribs, brush with more barbecue sauce, slice between the bones, and eat.
WHY? We sauce the ribs twice, but not on the grill, where the sauce would burn.
Types of Fires
The biggest grilling mistake most people make happens before the food even hits the cooking grate: they set up the wrong type of fire. Here are the two grill setups we use in our barbecued pork recipes.
A half-grill fire creates two cooking zones, but here the difference in heat level between the two zones is much more dramatic: one side is intensely hot since it has all the coals, and the other side is very cool because it has none. This type of fire if used for two reasons: to make a concentrated, super-hot fire for fast and vigorous searing; and to make the cooler cooking zone more controlled for very lean and easily overcooked cuts of pork. It is made by arranging the hot coals over half of the grill and leaving the other half of the grill empty. This is the type of fire we use most often.
A banked fire has all of the coals in a small pile against one side of the grill, leaving a large, open cooking space without coals or flames. This setup is often used for grill-roasting and barbecuing, as it creates an oven-like environment where food can be placed opposite the coals or flames to cook low and slow (often with the lid down). It is often used for barbecued pork recipes that require hours on the grill, such as pulled pork and ribs.
Choosing the Right Cut for Barbecued Ribs
With three cuts of ribs to choose from, which will make the best ribs?
Butchers get three different cuts from the ribs of a pig (pigs can have anywhere from 13 to 17 sets of ribs). You can barbecue any of these cuts, but in the test kitchen, we usually reach for St. Louis cut spareribs. Because they’ve been trimmed of the brisket bone and surrounding meat, they fit nicely on a standard-size backyard grill and they give us consistent results. Ordinary spareribs, which come from near the pig’s belly, include that brisket bone and meat; their size and irregular shape make them unwieldy on a backyard grill. Among the three, baby back ribs are smallest and leanest; they come from nearest the pig’s back (and, despite the name, from an adult pig). Baby backs cook comparatively quickly, which means they tend to dry out more easily than the other cuts.
ST. LOUIS CUT SPARERIBS BEST CHOICE
Manageable size and consistent results.
Unwieldly on a backyard grill.
BABY BACK RIBS
These smaller, leaner ribs can dry out quickly
Essential Barbecued Pork Equipment
A basting brush needs to have a handle long enough to reach the pork without endangering the cook. We determined that 8 inches is the minimum length needed to comfortably brush all the pork on a grill, even the parts the farthest away. We were surprised, however, to discover that a handle can also be too long.
A good grill spatula must perform many tasks well. It needs to help you easily flip grilled pork (and transfer it from the grill), and it needs to have a handle that is long enough to allow you to move the pork around in case of a grill flare up. Our winner does all that and even has built-in bottle opener in the handle.
Tongs come in handy in many steps of barbecued pork recipes. From arranging a chimney full of hot coals to flipping pork ribs over on the grill, tongs get the job done—but they need to be long enough to keep us a comfortable distance from the fire. Our winner was able to do that, and measured a usable 16 inches.
Many of our charcoal-grilled barbecued pork recipes call for heating the coals using a chimney starter, then arranging the briquettes in a precise way. Because of this, we prefer chimney starters that have safety features like a handle that remains cool and a second handle that provides leverage when maneuvering the chimney starter or banking the coals.
Anyone who has ever grilled sticky, glazed cut of barbecued pork knows that removing the left-behind burned-on mess is a chore. Traditional wire bristle brushes only last for a few uses, and several other brushes out there tend to melt and lose their bristles. We’ve found that brushes with strong handles are reliable, and our ultimate favorite provided a comfortable grip.
There are two types of instant-read thermometers: dial face and digital. Both models are accurate, but we found the digital models to be quicker to register and easier to read. Our winner is affordable and has saved more barbecued pork recipes than we care to remember.
Key Barbecued Pork Ingredients
By nature, tomatoes are acidic. So ketchup, which is made primarily of tomatoes, should be plenty acidic and tangy, right? Not necessarily. Since fat and protein (say, a pork roast slathered with a ketchup-laden barbecue sauce) temper ketchup’s acidity, ketchup needs a pronounced tang to avoid tasting dull. Our three least favorite ketchups were also the least acidic.
We prefer to make our own sauce for our barbecued pork recipes, but occasions arise when you need a shortcut. Enter bottled barbecue sauce. If you’re going to keep a bottle on hand, it may as well be the best kind. We prefer sauces with more sugar than those with less, but not all sugars are created equal—we prefer a brand without high-fructose corn syrup in its ingredient list.
Molasses is a key ingredient in bottled barbecue sauces—and it’s included in many of our barbecued pork recipes, as well. It’s a byproduct of the sugar-refining process, the liquid that remains after cane juice has been boiled and the sugar crystallized. There are three different types of molasses, each produced from successive boilings of the cane sugar. As more sugar is drawn from the juice, the resulting molasses gets stronger, darker, and more bitter. Each flavor has a very distinctive flavor, so which is best? We found that when it comes to the two types of molasses that we recommend, personal preference plays a major role.
Selecting the right type of pork ribs is the first step toward making an excellent barbecued pork meal. In this guide we detail the most common cuts and what you need to know when you approach the butcher counter.
Best Barbecued Pork Recipes
Slathering a tangy mustard-based sauce on barbecued pork is a good start, but this regional specialty, nicknamed Carolina gold, demands more than just a last-minute dose of bold flavors.
The traditional approach to Lexington-style barbecue—succulent pork shoulder combined with a thin and pungent vinegar-based sauce—can be intimidating, requiring hours and hours of grilling. Could we simplify this classic recipe without sacrificing flavor?
Authentic North Carolina pulled pork is a true labor of love. It begins with a dry spice rub that coats the meat, which is then smoked over hickory or mesquite, low and slow, for hours. When cool enough to handle, the meat is “pulled,” or “picked,” into tender, bite-sized shreds and served with a vinegar-based sauce. Sure, the meat’s flavor is worth every minute, but all that time does make it a project best left for the weekend. We wondered if we could do better and produce meat with authentic, pit-cooked flavor via the slow cooker.
Barbecued ribs differ in style from state to state, even town to town. One of our favorite styles is from Kansas City: the pull-apart tender ribs are slowly smoked and slathered with a thick, sticky-sweet, spicy sauce. We would make them all the time if they didn’t take all day. Is there a way to make them a little faster and taste just as good?
To get the most flavor from our barbecue rub, we made a flavorful foundation using two barbecue must-haves: sugar and paprika. The sweet flavor and vibrant color lent by each tempered the rub’s spiciness and lay the perfect base for a variety of other flavors.
Every Southern city seems to put its own spin on ribs. In Memphis, they season the ribs with a spicy dry rub both before grilling and just before the ribs come off the grill. But this is about the only point on which Memphis-style rib recipes agree. We found dozens of recipes, each a little different than the last. We wanted a simple, easy-to-accomplish recipe that captured the flavor and spirit of Memphis.
Pork ribs marinated in various types of cola, slow-grilled to perfection, and finished with a cola-infused glaze are becoming increasingly popular at backyard barbecues and even professional competitions. So why do most recipes turn out burned to a crisp and barely edible?
Bottled barbecue sauce is a last resort for us—but we don’t always have time to make a simmered concoction to slather on our pork. We developed this great-tasting, no-cook barbecue sauce—which relies solely on kitchen staples—for just those occasions.
Traditional pulled pork is an all-day affair, involving special equipment (such as a smoker) and the regular attention of the cook. We wondered if we could reproduce authentic, pit-cooked flavor on the stovetop in a fraction of the time.
We set out to make tender ribs that were seasoned to the bone, kissed with smoke, and covered with a garlicky, gingery glaze that we’d be happy to lick off our fingers. To do this, we found a cooking method that allowed for deeply seasoned ribs and eliminated the need to marinate them.
In the Sooner State, instead of covering the meat with “extras,” they let the meat speak for itself, smoking the pork for up to 15 hours. Since we had only a backyard kettle grill—and limited time—to work with, we had to make a few adjustments to re-create this showstopper.