The Best Way to Make Tender, Flavorful Ribs, According to a 7-Time World BBQ Champion

Summer is prime grilling time. It's hard to beat a hamburger or hot dog cooked over the coals but sometimes you want to take things in a different direction and toss a rack of ribs on the grates. Some home cooks can find ribs a little intimidating, but they're really pretty easy to cook if you have a few tips and tricks before you fire things up.

And to get just that, we went to the best of the best, Melissa Cookston. She's a 7-time World BBQ champ, a member of the BBQ Hall of Fame and someone you might have seen on The American Barbeque Showdown on Netflix. Although she's often cooking and smoking meats low and slow, she's a grilling expert too.

We recently chatted with Cookston after she wrapped up a cooking demo she was doing in Austin with Diamond Crystal kosher salt, her favorite seasoning for grilling. We grilled her about ribs so your grilling can be a lot better this summer. Here's what you need to know.

Related: Al Roker's Sticky Ginger Ale Ribs

<p>Rick Kern, Getty Images</p>

Rick Kern, Getty Images

Melissa Cookston's Top Rib Cooking Tips

With Cookston's tips you'll be making award-winning (or at least a lot better) ribs in no time.

Start online. Is the internet always your friend? Nope. But when it comes to learning new skills, like grilling or smoking ribs, there is a lot of information out there for the taking. "The thing that I tell people is when I was learning how to cook ribs, the worldwide web was not a thing," says Cookston. "I could not use the Google. There are so many videos out there now that I think should make people feel a lot more confident and a lot more comfortable when cooking some of those bigger cuts."

Baby back is where it's at. There are several rib options out there, but Cookston has a strong preference. "I use loin back ribs," she says. "The marketing term for that of course is baby back ribs. I do like a St. Louis cut spare rib. A full spare is kind of big and there's a lot of different knuckles and cartilage and things like that in there."

Do a little prep. Prepping ribs isn't that time-consuming, but you do need to remove the membrane on the back of the ribs to make sure they're as tender and flavorful as possible. Cookston takes matters into her own hands (literally). "I have these little bitty long skinny fingers, so I just run my finger through the middle of the rib under that membrane and pull up and the whole thing will come off," she says. "I've seen people run a spoon along or under the membrane, but I find that you're really affecting the meat when you do that because you're breaking up a lot of those neat striations that want and need to stay together so the bones don't fall out."

Keep it simple. One of the signs of a true pro is that they know when to keep things simple. Cookston is that way with her basic rib technique. "I remove the membrane off the back of the ribs, season it on both sides, put it in the smoke for about two hours and then wrap it and with some sort of liquid, and then unwrap it at the end," she says. "It usually takes about four to four and a half hours at 275 degrees. It's kind of foolproof."

Focus on the flavor. Texture and smoke are important, but Cookston says that building flavor from the beginning is one of the keys to great ribs. "I think people will, if something's not quite tender enough, they'll chew on it a little longer. If it tastes really good, that means you got to add some flavor there," she says. "Take that slab of ribs and make it personal to you. If you like it a little sweeter, add something sweet. If you like it saltier, add Diamond Crystal Kosher salt. If you like heat, add a little bit of cayenne. And then we have to talk about wet or dry. I'm a sauce girl."

Mix it up. So you know that flavor is important, but that doesn't mean you have to do the same thing every time. "I have eight seasonings of my own," says Cookston, "so the seasoning I use depends on the mood I'm in that day. There's a barbecue seasoning that I make from scratch that is just Diamond Crystal kosher salt, black pepper, chili powder, cumin, some smoked paprika and a little bit of dry mustard. But there's no right or wrong reason. I'm not a purist. There's a lot of great ways to achieve good barbecue. Take the ingredients that you like and add them. I'm not going to say you're going to win a competition with that, but you'll be king of the cul-de-sac."

Get in the zone. Cookston smokes her ribs, but you can also make great ribs on the grill. The key to that method? Using a two-zone cooking method. "You just make a two-zone fire where you have your charcoal on one side, but you're cooking on the cooler side," says Cookston. "And then really it's about taking the bones and tweaking them after about four hours just to see if the meat is as tender as you want because that's a personal preference. And when it's as tender as you want, take 'em out of the wrap, put 'em back on the grill, put barbecue sauce on 'em if you want to let that sit for about five, 10 minutes in the grill and they're good to go."

Add some smoke if you want. Just because you're grilling ribs doesn't mean you can add a little fragrant smoke too. "Think of it like reverse sear on a steak," she says. "If you're cooking on the cool side of the grill, you can put wood chips on your charcoal and get some of that smoky flavor. When the charcoal turns white, I put the ribs on immediately after I put those chips on," she says. If you're cooking baby back ribs, Cookston recommends going with a mellow wood, like apple, peach, pecan or oak.

Up next: The Absolute Best Way to Make Tender, Juicy Brisket, According to Chef Andrew Zimmern (and His Grandmother)