This baby back ribs recipe is a perfect dish for a long lazy weekend. These ribs wow all your senses with an overnight bath in bourbon, a spicy rub, a pre-cook in the oven, and a slow smoky stint on the grill, finished with a saucy glaze. This post has been a classic on my site since 2011, updated July 2019.
The Perfect Weekend Grilling Recipe
If you’re looking for the perfect weekend barbecue project, this recipe is for you. Total time to prepare is 24 hours, but actual work time is far less. And the payoff is worth it.
If you do want to prep ribs mid-week, wrap them in foil and pop them in the oven for the whole cook. It’s a great shortcut that will yield fall off the bone, saucy goodness.
This recipe, however, yields something else – it is our definition of “perfect” baby back ribs. These ribs are tender but still firm when you bite into them. If you are used to eating your ribs with the meat falling off the bone, try them this way – you’ll be glad you did.
Our method is years in the tweaking but we were inspired by Steve Raichlen – a barbecue guru. Our rub is inspired by his basic barbecue rub .
How long should you marinate the ribs?
I usually do the initial soak in bourbon overnight. In a pinch, start them early in the morning and let them sit a few hours, then apply the rub shortly before you do the par bake.
What’s the difference between a dry-rub and a wet-rub or marinade?
A dry rub is a mix of dry spices that you “rub” on the meat before baking or grilling. A wet rub is more like a marinade – often mimicking some of the flavors in the dry rub but with the addition of an acid and possibly oil. (Here is an example of a marinade for Korean ribs or kalbi).
For this recipe, the wet rub is just straight up bourbon and a finish at the end with the barbecue sauce.
Why is it important to remove the membrane on the back of the rib rack?
Baby back ribs have a thin membrane on the underside (bony side) of the rack. If not removed, the ribs will be tough to cut and may not absorb the flavors of the rub as well. There are two ways to handle the removal – do it yourself or have your butcher do it. I have done both. Removing it is a bit of a pain but if you buy your ribs at Costco, or any place where they are pre-packaged, you’ll need to do this.
How to remove the membrane:
- Use a thin knife (doesn’t have to be sharp – can even be a butter knife) and slip it underneath the membrane but over the bone to get leverage
- Tear the membrane away
- It may not come off in one piece – no big deal, just repeat — knife under the skin and over the bone and tear again.
If your grocery store has a butcher department, when you buy the rib racks, just ask them to remove the membrane. They’ll be glad to do it and then you save yourself the trouble.
The basic method for grilling baby back ribs
- Make sure the membrane is removed from the bone side of the racks.
- Place your ribs in extra-large sealable bag or large pieces of heavy duty foil and add the bourbon. Place these packages on sheet pans just in case some liquid seeps out. Put them in the fridge, overnight if possible.
- I usually turn the packages a few times to be sure the bourbon is distributed all over.
- Meanwhile, prepare your dry rub.
- Remove ribs from fridge, and if in tin foil packages, try to re-use the foil for the par baking that comes next. Empty the extra bourbon juice, pat the ribs dry, and slather the dry spice rub all over.
- Close the packages back up and let them sit in the fridge until you are ready to prebake them.
- Bake the ribs as directed while you also preheat the grill and soak your smoker chips.
- Not mandatory, but this year we tried a rib rack and it was quite convenient for the grilling portion of the process. Transfer ribs to the grill and follow the grilling instructions. What you’re hoping for is the smoker chips to start working and slowly infuse the ribs with even more flavor while also continuing to cook them with indirect heat.
- When the ribs are nearly done, you’ll slather them with your barbecue sauce. Pay close attention – most sauces have sugar in them and will easily catch fire if you are not watching. (It’s possible this happened to us.)
Our ribs turned out tender, juicy, flavorful and worth every bit of effort we put into the process. The rub is spicy but not overpowering or over-salty so you can taste the layer of rub when you bite into the rib and then get another hit of flavor from the barbecue sauce as well. And the ribs were easy to eat and serve. Because the meat was not falling off the bone, we esily cut them up into single pieces, making the time to mouth for the diners very quick. Your guests will thank you.
My niece was not eating pork at one point, and actually started eating it again just to devour these bourbon baby back ribs. Just saying, they are that good.
Best sides to serve with baby back ribs
Other rib recipes to try
Are you a rib fanatic? Or are you looking for a rib recipe that cooks up more quickly? Try these flanken-style short ribs (kalbi) with a Korean-style marinade. They still need 6-8 hours to marinate but they are on and off the grill in about 5 minutes.
Equipment to help you grill baby back ribs
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Perfect Baby Back Ribs
- 4 racks baby back ribs will feed up to 12 people
- 1 cup bourbon a little less or more is fine
- 1/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
- 1/4 cup sweet paprika or smoked would be nice as well
- 3 tbsp black pepper
- 3 tbsp coarse salt such as kosher
- 1 tbsp hickory-smoked salt or more coarse salt
- 2 tsp garlic powder
- 2 tsp onion powder
- 2 tsp cayenne powder less if you are not into a bit of spicy
- smoker chips
- barbecue sauce of your choosing - we like to stick with the bourbon theme and use Jack Daniel’s brand
Preparing the Racks
- First, I buy my ribs at a butcher counter where they will remove the membrane on the back of the ribs - saves time at home. If you buy your ribs pre-packaged, perhaps at Costco, be sure to find and remove the membrane on the back of the rack. It’s not hard to do and it is necessary for tenderness and ease of cutting.
Marinate in Bourbon
- When I am ready to marinate them in the bourbon, I cut each rib rack in half - it’s easier for handling later on. To marinate in the bourbon, you could place a couple split racks in a plastic bag and pour the bourbon over and then lay flat on a sheet pan or roasting pan. I wrapped a couple at a time in heavy duty foil, then re-used the foil for the pre-baking. A little juice seeped out when I turned them over but it didn’t matter. We let them sit in the bourbon in the refrigerator for a few hours or overnight, turning them once or twice to distribute the juices.
Prepare the Rub
- Meanwhile, you can make the rub. Just combine all of the rub ingredients in a bowl, mixing it up well with your hands or fork, making sure you combine completely and remove any clumps of brown sugar. This mixture can stay on your kitchen counter covered until you need it. The rub recipe was enough for 4 full racks of baby back ribs, which fed 9 people with lots of leftovers so could probably feed 12 people easily.
Rub the Ribs
- When the ribs are done marinating in the bourbon, pour off the extra liquid and then rub them all over with the rub mixture. Put them back in the tin foil and let them “marinate” for a few hours. Steve Raichlen recommends one hour - I’ve let them sit in the refrigerator for as long as overnight but usually for just a few hours until I am ready to pre-cook the ribs in the oven.
Pre-cook the Ribs
- Before they go out to the gas barbecue, we pre-cook the ribs in the oven, wrapped in the foil for 1 hour at 300 degrees convection. If you don’t have a convection oven, 1 hour at 325 degrees should do the trick.
- When they are done pre-cooking, take them out and hand the reins over to the person in the family with the barbecue gene. In our house, that is @dormantchef. Here’s how he finished the cooking on the barbecue:
The Barbecue Part
- About an hour before he’s ready to bbq, he soaks the chips he’s using to create smoke in some water or bourbon. The best ones we’ve tried are the Jack Daniels wood smoker chips but you can try other brands and types to your liking. When he’s ready to start cooking, he places the chips in the smoker tray of the gas grill.
- Total time on the barbecue is about 2.5 - 3 hours. Most of the cooking is indirect but he starts with the bbq on high and sears the ribs briefly all over. Then he turns off one side of the grill, and turns the other side to medium to medium low, placing a pan of water on the bread rack to create some moisture. The ribs remain on the no-heat side, and he rotates the ribs every 20 minutes for about 2 to 2 1/2 hours until tender. Then he turns the heat back up to high for about 20 minutes to brown the ribs again. Then back down to medium to start brushing with sauce for about the last 1/2 hour. The exact timing and heat settings will depend on your grill. The ribs are done when they are very tender but offer some resistance when you bite them; the meat should easily pull off the bone. The sauce should caramelize without burning; the ribs should be moist but not runny.
- What sauce to use - you can certainly make your own, starting out by trying Steve Raichlen’s recipe. We have chosen over the years to try any number of different sauces, but end up using Jack Daniel’s barbecue sauce, combining the regular and spicy.