Should You Marinate Ribs Before Smoking/Grilling?

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Ribs are among one of the most delicious meat based products out there.

They can be easy to buy from the store and throw in the oven, but a huge part of the joy is making the ribs yourself, usually through either grilling them or smoking them, which can be a great way to enhance the already delicious natural taste of the ribs.

Should You Marinate Ribs Before Smoking/Grilling? A Guide

While a good rack of grilled or smoked ribs can have an amazing taste, can this be enhanced through marinating them?

This technique of soaking meat in a seasoned, often acidic, liquid works to tenderize and enhance its overall taste more than just seasoning it with some herbs or spices.

To ensure your mouth watering ribs are as delicious and safe as can be, we have compiled everything you need to know about the safety of marinating ribs before cooking them, and the potential benefits it could produce.

Dry Rubbing And Marinating

Dry rubbing is the most common form of preparing ribs and involves covering the meat in herbs and spices with no added liquids.

This is a very easy method to add about 2 hours before cooking to grant that extra hint of flavor and taste to already delicious ribs. 

Some chefs will even apply their herbs and spices the night before so that the spices have time to integrate into the meat and adhere to the surface. 

Marinating on the other hand is a less common practice for ribs, though in recent years it has been seeing a lot more popularity. It does take a lot longer, which for many people is a big downside if they want to quickly grill or smoke up some ribs to eat there and then. 

However, the mixture of ingredients and flavors that go into marination can make it a very worthwhile experiment if you plan ahead for your delicious meal.

Is It Safe To Marinate Ribs?

Both grilling and smoking a rack of ribs can be quite tough and if not done correctly, can lead to the ribs being tough, chewy and even undercooked.

For other meats, marinating and soaking the meat beforehand can help prevent these issues by softening up the meat and tenderizing it, and you will be glad to know this works the same with ribs.

Marinating the ribs can present you with some tastes you could never get with dry rubbing and regular sauces, and will help tenderize the meat, so it can melt in your mouth with even more flavor. 

Marinating the ribs is not essential however, and you can still smoke or grill ribs without having soaked them first, but if you want to experiment with some unique tastes that you can show others at a barbecue or simply just want to try out for yourself, marinating is always a good and easy option. 

How To Properly Marinate Ribs

When marinating the ribs there are a few things to keep in mind to make sure it comes out just as you want it, otherwise it can make the meat too soft and mushy, and can also make it difficult to cook properly.

The first thing you should do when marinating the ribs is choose the right type of marinade. You don’t want something that has too much acidity or saltiness, because they can both toughen the meat. 

Instead, look for something that is mild and balanced. A simple solution would be using apple cider vinegar, and then adding some sugar and maybe a little bit of honey to balance it out.

Next, try and soak the ribs in the marinade overnight if you can, though if you want to soak it in the day try and soak it for between 4 and 8 hours to get the best results.

If you’re going to use a large amount of marinade, you may want to cut down on how long you leave the ribs in the marina. 

When this process is complete, you should let the ribs sit for around 3 hours, and then rinse off any excess marinade.

Don’t be afraid to add some of your favorite ingredients to the marinade to see what flavors you can create, as this is the biggest part that makes it such a fun process.

Some people like to add garlic, onion, ginger, soy sauce, chili powder, and many more. The key here is to find a mixture that suits your personal preferences and tastes.

Types Of Ribs That Can Be Marinated

Types Of Ribs That Can Be Marinated

While all kinds of ribs can be marinated and will receive some tasty benefits from doing so, some benefit more than others.

Any rib enthusiast will tell you that when it comes to grilling and smoking ribs, there are a few contenders that stand above the rest. 

Some of these include baby rack ribs that are small but high quality, spare ribs that possess incredible flavor, and St Louis style ribs which tend to be meatier than other options.

The ribs that will benefit least are baby rack ribs, which tend to be small and thin, and are often sold already cooked.

These types of ribs are usually only used for making pulled pork sandwiches, and therefore won’t be able to take advantage of the benefits from marination.

Instead, if you’re using baby rack ribs simply dry rub them beforehand if you intend on boosting their flavor, they are quick and easy to cook with enough flavor to still be an exceptional treat. 

Spare ribs and any country style ribs on the other hand become much tastier after marinating, and you’ll have no problem getting everyone to agree that they taste better.

This is especially true because they are generally made from the rib bones themselves, and therefore have a lot of flavor. 

This is not to suggest that marinating is actually unsafe for any kind of ribs, it is actually a completely safe method to treat the meat.

It’s just important to remember that certain cuts of ribs are easier to marinate than others, and what meat will get the most benefit from it before being grilled or smoked. 

Negatives Of Marinating

It seems that with anything we find delicious there are always at least some drawbacks, in terms of marinating ribs, one of the main negatives is that it can make them a little too tender if done for slightly too long. 

There are ways to prevent this, but it does mean that you need to pay extra attention to the cooking time. Another downside is that it can cause the meat to dry out, causing it to become too tough to chew through.

If you do decide to go ahead and marinate your ribs, don’t forget to wash them thoroughly afterwards, and also remove any excess marinade before putting them into the grill or smoker.

This way, you can ensure that you get the maximum flavor out of your ribs without having to worry about the meat drying out, keeping it nice and fresh.

Marinating Ingredients

It’s entirely up to you what you mix into your marinade, though some good suggestions include garlic which is easy to incorporate and boost the flavor, and salt which helps to bring out the natural flavors of the meat, and if you want your ribs to be a bit more spicy, try mixing in chili powder, paprika and curry. 

You can also try citrus fruits like lemon and lime if you are more of a sweet tasting fan.

Other Solutions

Understandably, marinating ribs might just not be worth it for many people, after all it takes a lot of planning in advance and can easily be replaced with just regular spices.

There are some other options similar to marinating however that you may want to consider:

Dry rubbing as mentioned before is another great option if you want to prepare the ribs much faster. You simply rub the meat with salt and pepper, then place it in an oven set to 200 degrees Celsius (400 Fahrenheit) for 30 minutes. 

The heat of the oven will help break down the proteins in the meat, helping it to absorb the seasoning. Once cooled, the meat should be ready to eat with a very rich flavor from all the seasonings now within the meat.

Brining is another popular option that involves soaking the meat in a solution containing salt and sugar. This helps to draw moisture back into the meat, allowing it to retain its juiciness while absorbing the seasonings. 

If you want to try brining your ribs, try brining them for at least 4 hours and no longer than 24 hours, some chefs do take 48 hours to brine their meat though this is not recommended. 

This can be an alternative if you want to try out some flavors that marinating cannot offer, just make sure not to do both at the same time as one can overpower the other, causing the ribs to come out far too salty.

Salting is yet another option that works well with ribs. Simply cover the meat with kosher salt, and let sit overnight. In the morning, rinse off the salt, pat dry, and cook as normal.

This is a good option for those who like a more subtle taste, as the salt won’t overwhelm the meat and instead just add a hint of a tangy flavor to the rib.


If you are willing to take the time to marinate your ribs, be prepared for one of the best tastings ribs you have ever tried and always remember to try a mixture of ingredients if you get into the habit of marinating to make sure the friends and family at the barbecue come back for seconds next time.

Julian Wells

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