Labor Day: Tips for buying and grilling perfect baby back ribs for summer’s last hurrah
WASHINGTON: Labor day – summers last hurrah – means it is time for that final big BBQ. Which means ribs that are finger-licking good. At the grocery store, you will find ribs in the pork section, versus beef ribs which are significantly bigger, however equally delicious. One of the biggest advantages of grilling ribs for your summer’s last BBQ is that much of the work can be done the day before.
Baby Back vs. Spare Ribs
There is a debate whether the best rib for backyard barbecuing is the Baby Back or Sparerib, which are longer, have less meat and that many rib fans find more flavorful. Personally, as a kitchen chef, I prefer the spare ribs for cost and flavor. (read my recipe here). But now we are discussing the Baby Backs.
Ribs can be a specialty item that is only found during the summer months, so if you can’t find it on the shelf ask your butcher, a few days ahead of time, to prepare the cut for you. But first, you need to know what you want to buy.
Baby back ribs are smaller, have less connective tissue and they have been trimmed into a uniform shape. When shopping for baby back ribs they should smell slightly sweet without any heavy rancid smell. Look for slightly pink and clear juices on the bottom of the tray or in the plastic bag it’s purchased in.
The bones should be an off white color (if you can see them). It is always worthwhile to splurge and buy organic or grass-fed pork for more flavorful meat. Be aware you’ll pay extra money for organic and grass-fed meats, but it’s worth it.
When you are buying Baby Back ribs, plan four to five ribs per female and then six to seven ribs per male. Men typically eat a few more but not always. And sometimes women can have great appetites… so consider your guests when ordering.
Begin your ribs the day before
The best way to create baby back ribs is the day before your party, bring them to room temperature, rub with olive oil and your favorite dry rub before wrapping in aluminum foil and placing them in a warm oven (200-225 degrees) and let them dry bake.
1 tbsp garlic powder
½ tbsp paprika
½ tsp chili powder
¼ tsp cinnamon
½ tbsp salt
½ tbsp pepper
Do not open the foil. The goal here is not to cook, but to provide a dry sauna for the ribs that will allow the rub flavors to seep into the meat.
At an oven temp is 225°F, it takes about three to four hours to cook a slab of baby backs. My trick is to reduce the temperature to 190-200 and let them cook for 6-8 hours. With ribs there is a huge difference between “done cooking” and “ready to eat”. At 145 degrees, the recommended ‘done’ temperature, your ribs will be chewy and taste undercooked.
They are safe to eat, but they are not done.
Removing the ribs from the oven
Before you remove your ribs from the oven, check the temperature, which should be, as said, at least 145 degrees at the thickest part of the meat. But for the ribs to be done, or ready to eat, they must also be fork tender. By cooking the ribs in the oven to 190 to 203°F, the collagens and fats will melt and the meat will be fall off the bone tender and juicy.
Once you remove them from the oven, leave them wrapped and let them come to room temperature (which won’t take long) and put into the refrigerator overnight. This is an important step as if you go straight from the oven to the grill, the ribs may literally fall apart in the cooking process.
Placing them in the cold overnight makes them much easier to work with when it’s time for grilling. A rib basket can come in handy when flipping the ribs on the grill.
An hour before guests arrive
An hour before your BBQ, take the ribs out of the refrigerator and unwrap and brush with your wet BBQ sauce. Let the ribs come back to room temperature and they are now ready for the grill. Tips for perfect grilling is have a nice mesquite grill chip (that has been soaking overnight to create a nice smoke) and keep the heat away from the meat as the BBQ sauce will quickly burn if too close.
You want to use zone grilling, keeping the heat indirect and to the side, not directly beneath the meat.
Warm thoroughly on the grill, adding sauce as necessary.
Time on the grill should be under ten minutes, 5 minutes on each side depending on how hot your fire is.
Prepare the ribs for your guests by cutting them into three’s (three bones per serving). The easiest way to cut them is by placing the ribs on a cutting board meat side down. Use a very sharp knife to cut in-between the ribs.
And don’t forget to add a basket of washcloths, presoaked in lemon and lavender water for after-dinner cleanup!