Pork ribs are to Serious Barbecue—which is something distinct from the burgers-and-dogs routine for which your average Suburban Dad-type unfurls his "Kiss The Cook" apron on the odd sunny July weekend—what the four-seam fastball is to pitching.
You may throw a mean curve (chicken thighs), a wicked changeup (brisket), and even a devastating splitter (pork loin), but if you can't rear back and throw a hard four-seamer for a strike—that is, if you cannot produce succulent pork ribs in your chosen barbecuing apparatus—ornery fartbags in baseball caps and mirrored wraparound sunglasses will grumble and bitch about how you don't have "what it takes" to succeed in "the big leagues." Also ribs are often cooked with wood smoke, and people sometimes refer to hard fastballs as "throwing smoke"? Fuck it, this analogy sucks, never mind.
The point, though, is that pork ribs are very important business in the world of giving a shit about barbecuing. There are a couple of reasons for this exalted status. The first, and lesser, is that well-cooked pork ribs are quite literally delicious enough to cause the skin, muscle, and connective tissue of your head to burst into white hot magnesium flames of pure ecstasy and burn away to nothing, leaving behind a happy-looking and perfectly bleached skull with a charming barbecue-sauce beard. The second, and much more important, is that cooking perfect pork ribs is a tricky, delicate, eminently fuckupable process, which can be used by the sorts of people who care about such things as a way to divide the Serious Barbecue Dipshits from the Amateur Dilettante Dipshits, so that the Serious Barbecue Dipshits can get down to the business of waging holy wars against each other over rib-cooking esoterica—dry rubs! barbecue sauces! wood varieties! grill types! heat sources! cooking times! sleeveless t-shirts!—while the Amateur Dilettante Dipshits busy themselves with, like, contributing productively to society and having sexual relations with people.
Barbecued ribs also turn out to be something of a perfect Labor Day foodstuff: Since they are the product of a slow, insidious process designed to render too broken-down and diminished to resist its own consumption what was once tough, hardy, and muscular, they make a handy and poignant metaphor for the current state of the holiday's namesake. The cool thing about this is that, when you make ribs on Labor Day, you get an excuse to pretend that you are Ronald Reagan—Mr. Gorbachev, tear open this bag of charcoal!—and that your grilling tools are his army of bowtied Rand-humping sociopaths hell-bent upon the creation of a permanent American underclass. Sweet, right?
Economic savagery aside, the key concept in the preceding paragraph is that the process for making tasty ribs is a slow one. There are many barbecue rib preparations—for smokers and charcoal kettles and propane monstrosities and regular old kitchen ovens and stone-lined holes in the ground and so on—but what nearly all of the very best of them have in common is very low heat, and very slow cooking. The basic idea with making tasty ribs is that you want the lowest sustainable heat you can manage, but that it is considered unfashionable in our puritanical culture to walk around with a rack of ribs stuffed into your armpit, so you make do with the next-lowest sustainable heat you can manage, which is usually around 200 degrees or so. You apply this heat to your ribs for a very long time, and at the end, whether you used a spice rub or barbecue sauce or both or neither, whether you used wood smoke or charcoal or both or neither, you will have tasty, juicy, tender ribs.
All of this is to say that we are going to take a crack at making ribs this weekend, and by "we," we mean "you," except for in the previous we, in which we meant "I," since only one of us is actually writing this goddamn thing, and it sure as shit isn't you. We (you) are going to make by-God barbecued ribs on your by-God shitty charcoal kettle grill, and they are going to be glorious. We (really we this time) will walk through the steps carefully, to minimize our (your) odds of fucking things up. And at the end, you will have some tender, juicy, beautifully cooked ribs, and the discovery that, hey, that really wasn't all that hard, after all.
Let's do this.
The first cooking step is to prep your ribs. But before we get to that, let's talk about ribs for a moment. Another moment. Shut up.
Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of racks of pork ribs that you'll find in your local supermarket or butcher shop: baby back ribs, which come from the top of a pig's ribcage (up by the pig's back, as the name indicates), and spare ribs, which come from the lower part of the ribcage, down near the pig's belly. There are different regional cuts of spare rib, which vary in the amount of bone and meat they retain, but they're still essentially spare ribs, which is why we're only working with two categories, here.
Baby back ribs have a higher ratio of meat to bone; spare ribs have a lower ratio but also more fat, which means that when they're cooked well, spare ribs can be tastier and juicier than baby back ribs, even though they won't return as much meat for your effort. For the purposes of this preparation, it doesn't particularly matter which variety you're working with, so you can go with what's cheapest, or what's freshest, or what's wiggling itself seductively at you because you are profoundly psychotic, or whatever criteria you like. Spare ribs often have a little folded-over flap of meat on one side; when you're applying a spice rub and/or barbecue sauce to your ribs, you'll want to remember to tuck some of that flavorful stuff under this flap, but otherwise, the two varieties of rib can be treated the same.
So. Prep your ribs. This entails rinsing the rack under cold water for a few moments, then patting it dry with a fistful of paper towels, then placing it on a flat surface without somehow getting hit by an asteroid in the meantime. The most difficult part of this step is figuring out how to perform it without spattering assuredly germ- and parasite-rife pig fluids all over your kitchen, a challenge over which science has not yet come close to triumphing. Get a bottle of bleach-based kitchen cleaner for later.
Now your rack of ribs is rinsed and dried and, oh man, that was really kinda gross. It's time to season your ribs. Do what you like, here: Your seasoning can be as simple as a generous application of salt and black pepper, or as elaborate as a 53-spice rub passed down through your family ever since your ancestors were barbecuing field mice in the caves at Lascaux, or some sensible middle-ground between the two. If you decide to combine several large fistfuls of dark brown sugar with a few tablespoons of cumin, some chili powder, some cayenne pepper, several very big pinches of kosher salt, and ten or so go-rounds on the pepper mill, that will be a good idea, but if you want to dismiss that idea and go with some crazy shit of your own devising—mustard seed and tarragon and fenugreek! Turmeric and onion powder and white pepper! Garlic salt and powdered cheese sauce!—that's cool, too. Make sure to include plenty of salt. In any case, whatever you use and in whatever proportions, coat your rack of ribs very generously with it. Fistfuls, if you're using a spice rub, particularly if that spice rub is the one described above.
(A note, here. Many rib preparations advise you to apply your spice-rub to the ribs a day, or even two days, before you intend to grill them. The thinking here is that the extra time allows the salt in your spice rub to perform some curing action on the meat of your ribs, which, I dunno, I guess some people like their ribs to be especially hamlike? Is that a thing? Like, don't we already have enough ham without making all the other things taste like ham? Anyway, you don't have to do this. You can apply your seasonings—your spice rub—whenever you want, up to and including immediately before you stick the ribs on the grill. If you wait until after your ribs are on the grill, though, you will just be rubbing fistfuls of your spice rub on the outside of a closed grill, and then you will have to explain that to the police.)
Now that your ribs are prepped and seasoned, set them aside for a moment and prepare your shitty charcoal kettle grill. This is pretty straightforward. Build a deep pile of charcoal on one side of the grill, and leave the other half empty. If you have a sturdy metal baking dish with deep sides that will fit into that empty space next to the pile of charcoal, go ahead and put it down there: not only will this catch the liquefied pork fat as it drips out of your ribs during cooking, safeguarding against that fat igniting and burning your ribs, but it'll also help prevent your pile of charcoal from spreading across the floor of the grill as it burns and settles. (If you don't have a metal baking pan, your local supermarket likely sells disposable aluminum baking dishes that will work just fine, too. It's also perfectly OK to not worry about this.)
Go ahead and build a fire in your grill. If you don't feel confident in your ability to control and maintain low heat in your cheap, crummy charcoal job (and that's perfectly OK, whatever your haughty neighbor with the Big Green Egg might think about it), this is one instance in which you may be better served by charcoal briquettes than by the otherwise superior lump charcoal. Briquettes don't burn as hot as lump charcoal, and they burn more evenly, which will give you a more predictable heat source at a lower temperature than if you use the lump stuff. It's OK to use lump charcoal, too—just be aware that you'll have to be vigilant about keeping it under control.
(Another note. Commonly, rib-cooking instructions for charcoal grills advise you to stick some hunks of smoking wood—mesquite, say—on top of the charcoal, either before you light the fire or after the fire has retreated inside the charcoal. That's a fine thing to do if you're particularly interested in doing it—you'll get a smokier-tasting final product, which is nice—but your ribs will taste just fine even if you can't find any big hunks of wood or aren't interested in trying to find any.)
(Don't say that out loud, though. You could get shot.)
Eventually your charcoal will be ash-covered and glowing orange and ready for cooking. Almost. Down on the bottom of your shitty charcoal kettle, there's an intake vent that feeds oxygen to the fire; close the intake vent on the bottom of your grill nearly all the way, so that there's just a wee sliver of an opening for air to flow into. This will ensure that, once you stick your rack of ribs on the grill and clamp on a lid, the fire will cool dramatically due to the very small amount of available oxygen, but will not burn out all the way. You want your fire to be just hot, under there; just alive.
(Your charcoal grill also has an exhaust vent, or chimney, on its lid. Go ahead and leave this all the way open, so that your fire will be able to ventilate the gases it produces and create room for the oxygen coming in the small sliver of space you left open in the intake vent on the bottom. Otherwise your fire will go out, and you will be a sucker.)
Now, place your ribs on the half of the grate that is not sitting directly atop the hot charcoal, clamp the lid on the whole friggin' thing, and walk away. Cook your ribs! Oh wait, let's pause for another note. Sorry.
You'll see rib-grilling recipes out there that suggest placing a pan or small pot or other fireproof vessel filled with water on the grate of your grill, directly above the charcoal, next to the rack of ribs. This is kind of a neat trick. The water evaporates over time, which moisturizes the air inside the closed grill, which both moderates the heat of the fire and prevents the ribs from drying out—but also, even more coolly, the water gives you a handy dandy way to check the heat of your grill if you happen not to be an obsessive-compulsive lunatic and therefore do not own a precise grilling thermometer. Pop the lid open for one second: If the water is boiling furiously, your grill is too hot and you need to restrict the airflow even more; if the water is simmering gently, or isn't quite simmering but is giving off a lot of steam and looks like it's close to breaking into a boil, that's more like it; if it has a penguin in it, my God what have you done. On the other hand, if for whatever reason you can't or don't want to do the pot-of-water trick, that's fine too. Once again: All that really matters is that you keep the heat extremely low. If the heat in your grill is low enough, and steady enough, your ribs are going to be great, and that is all that matters.
So your ribs are cooking in there. Leave them alone. Hopefully you possess the restraint to let your rack of ribs cook unmolested (save for perhaps the occasional very brief peek to make sure it is not, say, burning to ashes or not cooking at all or actually your cat) for at least three hours, or even four. You can do that, right? Go throw a frisbee. Hobnob with the relations. Swing by every 20 minutes or so, just to eyeball the closed grill and maybe hold your hand over the exhaust vent to make sure that the fire has neither gone all the way out nor somehow become thermonuclear. Leave the ribs alone.
At some point during the three- or four-hour wait, grab a bowl and a whisk (or fork) and make barbecue sauce. That's right, dammit! Make barbecue sauce, even if you used a spice rub! Listen. Here's the thing. Yes, the barbecue aficionados are right: perfectly-made ribs should be—and, in your case, will be—juicy and tasty even without the added moisture and vivid flavor of a gloopy barbecue sauce. That is true. But, dammit, gloopy barbecue sauce is fun! It makes a wreck of your face, and your fingertips, and whatever pretense of coolness or reserve or shyness was preventing you from relaxing and having fun with all these weirdo losers you invited to your Labor Day cookout. Gloopy barbecue sauce is a social lubricant! Make barbecue sauce, dammit.
Use what you like. We've covered this before, but you can make a tasty barbecue sauce out of stuff you can find in damn near any kitchen, so long as you've got something sweet and sticky (like, say, honey or pancake syrup or molasses or grape jelly) and something tart to balance it (ketchup or mustard or vinegar or sriracha or whatever). If you should happen to have, say, a cup of ketchup, a few big tablespoons of dijon mustard, a few big tablespoons of molasses, a generous squirt of sriracha, and a few splashes of worcestershire sauce, that will make a delightful barbecue sauce. So will maple syrup and tomato paste and beer. Use what you have.