Ah… ribs… traditional barbecue at its best.
We’re talking pork ribs, not those meaty and fatty hunks of rib bone and meat coming from a bovine. Pork ribs, whether the smaller Baby Backs or larger Spare Ribs are quintessential barbecue. Served dry – Memphis-style – or wet, popular in Kansas City and elsewhere, pork ribs are great barbecue fare that are not difficult to prepare or to cook.
But you’ll need to make a few choices before you undertake cooking ribs. The first decision to make is the type of rib you want to cook. Some favor the smaller Baby Back ribs taken from the upper back loin of the hog while others suggest the larger, meatier and fatter Spare Ribs cut from the middle back loin are the ones for barbecue. The second choice is whether or not to apply a dry rub to the ribs before cooking. The third question to answer is: What kind of wood do you want to use to smoke the ribs or do you just want to grill them? Grilled ribs are not true barbecue but they’re still great food! The final decision is whether or not to sauce the ribs during cooking or to serve a table sauce on the side.
Which rib is the best is a matter of personal preference. If you decide to use Baby Back ribs, you’re ready to go—there’s no trimming required. Spare ribs, on the other hand, should be trimmed to remove the rib tips, skirt meat and the silverskin (the dull white membrane on the rib side of the slab).
To remove the rib tips, place the rack on a cutting board, rib side up, and run your fingers along the rib until you reach the end of the rib. There will be a meaty area above the rib and then several small bones (the rib tips). Use a boning knife to cut between the end of the rib and the rib tips. Square off both sides of the ribs so the slab is generally uniform. Don’t discard the trimmings. Cook them with the ribs for a great snack while the rack continues cooking. The trimmings will cook in about half the time needed for the rack, so figure about 1 1/2 to two hours. Next, remove the skirt meat, a small flap of meat on the rib side of the slab.
Removing the silverskin, a waxy membrane on the bone side of the rack, requires a bit of practice but it’s not difficult. You can leave it on but the ribs will be chewy and the silverskin will block the rub from getting onto the back of the ribs. Use a butter knife to get under a corner of the membrane. Grab the membrane with a paper towel and pull it off of the ribs. Discard the membrane. There is another thin layer of membrane-like material beneath the silverskin. Don’t try to remove this; it’s what holds the ribs and meat together!
True barbecue requires low and slow cooking with wood for flavoring. Smoking ribs is much more of an art than a science. As with most barbecue, ribs are done when they’re done. You can’t set a timer and declare the ribs are properly cooked but you can expect to smoke Spare Ribs for four to six hours at 225 degrees F. to get tender, mouth-watering ribs.
My choice for ribs is Spares trimmed in the St. Louis style, slathered with ballpark mustard and dry-rubbed with sauce on the side, thank you very much!
Chipotle Pig Powder
3 (or more) dried Chipotle peppers
2 teaspoons seasoned salt
3 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons dried oregano
1 tablespoon smoked hot paprika
1 Bay leaf
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon onion powder
Combine all of the ingredients in a spice grinder and pulse to incorporate. Rub them on the ribs.
This is a Memphis-style sweet sauce that works well on ribs, pulled pork and chicken.
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/4 cup chopped yellow onion
1 1/2 cups good-quality ketchup
1/4 cup chili sauce
3 tablespoons light brown sugar
3 tablespoons dark molasses
2 tablespoons prepared yellow mustard
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon chile powder
1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic
1/2 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
In a 2 1/2 quart saucepan over medium heat, cook the onion in the butter until the onion is softened (about five minutes). Add the remaining ingredients, then stir well to incorporate. Reduce the heat and simmer, partially covered, for 15 minutes.
Serves: 1 full rack of Spare Ribs
Heat Scale: Mild to Medium