It was one of those culinary epiphanies. I realized you rarely get great barbecued ribs from a restaurant. They have to come from backyards.
My rib-awakening came during the world’s largest barbecue contest, Memphis in May. All it took was that first bite of a grill-smoked rib for me to recognize the real deal. There is nothing like homemade ribs.
And here is the dirty little secret: They don’t take nearly as long as the competition guys would like you to think they do. And they are much simpler to prepare than legend has it.
The most popular ribs to cook are back ribs, but spareribs and St. Louis-style ribs are gaining traction, too. Back ribs are cut from high up on the rib near the spine. Back ribs are meaty, leaner than spareribs and very flavorful.
Back ribs usually are sold in either full slabs (13 ribs) or half slabs (7 ribs), and are the most expensive cut of rib. When they come from a pig that was less than a year old, they are referred to as “baby” back ribs.
Spareribs are cut from the belly or side of the pig. Spareribs are longer and fatter than back ribs. The St. Louis cut is a sparerib trimmed to remove the flap of meat on the underside of the breast bone and squared off to more easily fit on the grill.
Once you decide which type of rib to buy, there are a few things to remember when purchasing your meat. First, make sure each slab weighs at least 2 pounds and that the ribs have a nice layer of meat covering the bone.
Second, buy the best quality, freshest product available. Go to a grocer that has high traffic and keeps the meat case rotated with fresh product every day. Beyond that, be sure to look at the expiration date on the label and give your purchases the old-fashioned smell test. If it smells “off” or a little funny, then it is probably old. I prefer buying ribs that are vacuum sealed, as they generally are the freshest choice.
The final thing that you need to know is that the best way to test for doneness is to make sure that the meat has receded from the ends of the bones and that you can bend the rack without breaking it in pieces. And remember that the only way the meat will fall off the bone is if you par-boil them first or if you way over-cook them. The best ribs should be tender, but have a little “chew” left.
MEMPHIS-STYLE BABY BACK RIBS
Start to finish: 2 hours 45 minutes (30 minutes active)
- 6 pounds baby back ribs
- 3 cups barbecue woodchips, soaked in water for 1 hour
- 2 lemons, halved
- 1/4 cup barbecue rub (see recipe below)
- 16-ounce bottle barbecue sauce
Prepare a grill for medium-low (about 325 F) indirect cooking. In a charcoal grill, this means banking the hot coals to one side of the grill and cooking the ribs on the cooler side. In a gas grill, this means heating the grill with all burners on, but turning off the burners on one side just before putting the food on that side.
Remove silver skin from the backs of the ribs, if desired.
Place the soaked wood chips directly on the hot charcoals, or in smoking box if using a gas grill (place the box in the grill according to manufacturer directions). Cover the grill.
Rub the cut lemons all over the fronts and backs of the ribs, squeezing to release as much juice as possible. Set aside for 5 minutes, then sprinkle the ribs liberally with the barbecue rub. Let sit for 15 minutes.
Place the ribs, bone side down, in the center of the cooking grate over the cooler side of the grill. Cover the grill and cook 1½ to 2 hours, or until the meat is tender and has pulled back from the ends of the bones. Do not open the grill cover for at least the first 30 minutes. After that, if the ribs start to burn at the edges, stack them on top of one another in the very center of the grill and lower your heat slightly.
Twenty minutes before serving, un-stack the ribs if necessary, then brush with barbecue sauce. Remove the ribs from the grill and let rest 10 minutes before cutting into individual or 2- to 3-rib portions.
If desired, additional barbecue sauce can be warmed and served alongside the ribs.
CLASSIC BARBECUE RUB
Start to finish: 5 minutes
Makes 1 ½ cups
- 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons smoked paprika
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons packed dark brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- 1 tablespoon ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon onion powder
- 1 tablespoon garlic powder
- 2 teaspoons chili powder
- ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
In a medium bowl, combine all ingredients. Mix well. For a smoother rub, process the ingredients in a spice grinder until well combined and finely ground. The rub can be stored in an airtight container for up to 6 months.