The Ideal Time To Slather On The Flavor To Ribs

A lot about cooking –- barbecuing especially –- is about layering flavors. The earlier you build those flavors, the better your food will be. It's why a marinated chicken breast tastes better than one with some salt and pepper that is immediately tossed onto the grill. That's not to say that last-minute touches like seasoning salt or a squeeze of lemon juice are wrong –- often they're necessary. But when you're barbecuing, smoking, or slow-cooking ribs in the oven, there are a few times to keep in mind if you want to capitalize on flavor.

Depending on what cut of rib you have –- baby back or spare ribs –- you can choose to marinate or do a dry rub. Baby back ribs are ideal for spice rubs, while spare ribs love a good marinade. Marinades use acidic ingredients like citrus or vinegar to break down and tenderize meat, while dry rubs use salt and spices to impart flavor and get that crusty bark on them. To get the most out of your efforts, marinate your ribs about 12 to 24 hours before you start cooking (per BBQ Host). 

For extra flavor, be mindful of the wood you're using if smoking your ribs. Fruit trees will have more subtle, sweeter flavors, while woods like hickory and mesquite can be strong and potentially overwhelm your ribs (via Smoked BBQ Source). If you're gas grilling, there are ways to get that smoky flavor, like using a pellet box (via Washington Post).

Saucing your ribs too early an lead to burnt and bitter barbecue sauce

Ribs are meant to be saucy and slathered in barbecue sauce, but everyone has an opinion on when to give ribs their sticky exterior. Some say before cooking, periodically throughout, or just before you pull them off. But you don't want to slather on a sweet and tangy barbecue sauce too early. Sugars from the molasses or brown sugar will burn, leaving your ribs bitter and decidedly not delicious. 

If you're smoking ribs, a good rule of thumb is to not sauce until the last 15 to 20 minutes of cooking, especially if your smoker is running a little hot. If you went really low on the temperature, you could probably get away with saucing your ribs a full half hour before you pull them off the smoker. That way, the sugars caramelize and get sticky, but they don't burn (via Weber). If you're using a mopping sauce to add another layer of flavor (a thin vinegar- beer- or juice-based sauce for basting), you can start that an hour into smoking your meat (per Food Fire Friends), then sauce them accordingly.

The bottom line is, don't be intimidated by the pitmaster competition shows –- experiment with your flavors and wood, and don't sauce too early!