3 Ways to Cook Baby Back Ribs to Tender Perfection

Learn how to cook baby back ribs in the oven, on the grill, in the cooker, and with an Instant Pot—then choose your own adventure with sauces, rubs, and sides.

If you've ever tasted ribs made by someone who has won a blue ribbon on the barbecue circuit or from a restaurant where ribs are the signature dish, you know that slow cooker rib tips are usually kept in a "vault" of sorts—what happens in the smoker (and in the sauce and spice rub) stays in the smoker. But here, we're spilling all our Test Kitchen's tips for the best way to cook baby back ribs without a smoker since we know many home cooks don't own (or want to fuss with) a smoker. We're also focusing on how to cook baby back ribs in the oven—which just so happens to be the first step for the best way to cook baby back ribs on the grill. We'll explain how to make finger-licking good slow cooker baby back ribs and weeknight-friendly pressure cooker baby back ribs that can be on the table in just 45 minutes thanks to your Instant Pot.

The 3 Best Ways to Cook Baby Back Ribs (When You Don’t Have Access to a Smoker)

Baby back ribs are cut from the lower back rib section of a pig's loin. They are meatier and leaner than spareribs, which come from the belly section. Each rack usually contains 10 to 13 ribs and weighs about 1¾ to 2 pounds. Prefer short ribs? Check out our primer on how to braise short ribs to fall-apart tender status.

Oven-to-Grill Baby Back Grill
Andy Lyons

The Best Way to Cook Baby Back Ribs on the Grill

If you think smoking is the best way to cook baby back ribs, but don't have access to a smoker, don't give up on that blue ribbon just yet! Follow our guide for how to turn your grill into a DIY smoker, then use our Texas Cowboy-Style Ribs recipe or this Red Chili-Rubbed Baby Back Ribs recipe for the exact ingredients and instructions.

You can also follow our go-to method for grilled ribs below, which involves giving them a head start in the oven, then finishing them over the grates. This variation is quicker and easier than smoking and will work if you're seeking options for how to cook baby back ribs on a pellet grill, how to cook baby back ribs on a gas grill, or how to cook baby back ribs on a standard charcoal grill.

  1. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Use a pastry brush to spread mustard all over both sides of the ribs. Generously sprinkle your desired BBQ rub mixture to coat evenly.
  2. Place the ribs in the middle of a double thickness of heavy foil cut 6 inches longer than the ribs. Wrap ribs in the foil.
  3. As we mentioned, this recipe begins by cooking baby back ribs in the oven: Bake for 1½ to 2 hours or until the ribs are tender (the two middle bones of the rack should start to pull apart easily).
  4. Use tongs ($12, Target) to remove the ribs to a tray. Discard the liquid in the foil packet.
  5. Spread your desired BBQ sauce evenly over both sides of the ribs. Grill on the rack of a covered grill directly over medium heat for 15 minutes, brushing with additional sauce every 5 minutes, turning once. Adjust heat as necessary to prevent burning.
Asian-Style Barbecue Ribs
Karla Conrad

How to Make Slow Cooker Baby Back Ribs

Experience the fall-off-the-bone goodness of baby back ribs from a slow cooker ($50, Bed, Bath, and Beyond) with these slow cooker rib tips and tricks. Bonus: This option is one of the best ways to cook baby back ribs to infuse your home with intoxicating savory aromas.

  1. Use a chef's knife to cut the ribs into two- to three-rib portions.
  2. Similar to the pressure cooker method, you may choose to add your rub at this point. Stir together your rub recipe, sprinkle each rib section evenly with the herbs and/or spices, then rub the mixture into the ribs using your clean fingers.
  3. Place the ribs in your slow cooker.
  4. Top with bottled BBQ sauce or stir together your favorite DIY BBQ sauce recipe to act as a cooking liquid. In a small bowl, stir together the sauce ingredients, then pour on top of the ribs.
  5. Cover and cook on low-heat setting for 6 to 7 hours or on high-heat setting for 3 to 3½ hours.
  6. Using tongs, transfer each rib portion to a serving platter. Cover the ribs with foil to keep them warm until it's time to serve.
  7. If the sauce looks a little thin, thicken it: Transfer the juices to a small saucepan over medium heat. Skim off the fat on top. In a small bowl, combine equal parts cornstarch and cold water (we generally use 2 tablespoons of each); whisk into cooking juices. Cook and stir over medium heat until thickened and bubbly, then cook and whisk for 2 minutes more.
Pressure Cooker Loin Back Ribs with Apple Glaze
Jason Donnelly

How to Make Pressure Cooker Baby Back Ribs

If you're curious about how long to cook baby back ribs because you're crunched for time, the best way to cook baby back ribs is in your Instant Pot ($130, Bed, Bath, and Beyond) or other form of electric pressure cooker.

  1. Use a chef's knife to cut ribs into two-rib portions.
  2. Many rib recipes call for a rub or seasoning mixture to be added to the ribs before cooking. This step is optional, but now is the time to add the BBQ rub recipe if you're using one. To do so, simply sprinkle each rib section evenly with a spice or herb mixture, then rub the blend into the ribs using your clean fingers.
  3. Place the ribs in a 6-quart pressure cooker. Add water. Set to high pressure and cook for 25 minutes. When the timer rings, preheat the broiler to use shortly. Wait 15 minutes to allow the release pressure naturally, then press the valve to release any remaining pressure. Open the lid carefully.
  4. Line a large shallow baking pan with foil and place the pressure-cooked ribs in a single layer in the pan. Use a pastry brush ($13, Williams Sonoma) to brush the ribs with your desired purchased sauce or your favorite homemade BBQ sauce recipe. Broil the ribs 5 to 6 inches from heat for 4 to 6 minutes or until the sauce is just starting to brown, brushing with additional sauce halfway through broiling. Serve the ribs with extra sauce, if desired.

Test Kitchen Tip: If you're adding a rub to your ribs and if time allows, apply the seasoning mix to the meat a few hours before cooking, then refrigerate until it's time to proceed with the recipe. (Check your instructions for how long to cook baby back ribs, then work backward to time it right.) This will allow the flavors to permeate into the meat more than if you cook immediately.

Regardless of which method you choose for how to cook baby back ribs, it's essential not to overcook or undercook the meat to score your most succulent results. When the ribs are nearing the end of their cook time, the meat will begin to retract, exposing the rib tips. To test for doneness, you can try one of these four tests:

  • 'U' Shape: Hold the ribs in the middle with tongs. When the ribs are ready, the rack will sag in a reversed 'U' shape. The meat may crack a bit, too, which is a good sign.
  • Rib Twist: Grab an exposed bone tip with your tongs and gently twist it. If the bone turns easily, the ribs are done.
  • Toothpick Test: Insert a toothpick between the ribs. If the meat is tender and the pick slides in and out easily, they're good to go.
  • Meat Thermometer: The USDA officially deems 145°F as the safe internal temperature of ribs. At this level, however, the meat tends to be rubbery and tough because the collagen takes time to break down. The temperature to cook baby back ribs is a topic of debate: Most rib experts recommend cooking until at least 180°F, and often to 195°F to 203°F. Use a meat thermometer ($16, Amazon) for a temp check. The probe should slide in and out easily, and anywhere within that range should be a sure bet, especially if the ribs pass one of the other doneness tests, too.

As soon as you reach a point where the ribs pass the test, cover them with foil and allow the ribs to rest for 10 minutes. Then gather your dinner companions and grab a stack of napkins because it's time for the final and most important step—to dive in and devour.

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