WASHINGTON, May 25, 2017 – Making a perfect grilled rack of ribs requires a bit more than just buying some ribs and slapping on some Baby Ray’s. But we are here to help.
There are two basic cuts of ribs most people find in the grocery store. The spare cut is from the underbelly of the pig. They’re the least meaty and most fatty of all pork and contain long bones with a thin covering of meat on the outside and between the ribs.
Although they have the least meat, they are considered the most flavorful due to the amount of fat.
Baby back, also known as loin back or back (when small), are short, easy to hold and meatier than spareribs. Containing loin meat, backs are less fatty and usually smaller; a whole rack of back ribs weighs between 1 1/2 and 1 3/4 pounds. Baby backs are a narrower slab of the back cut from the rib end and are sometimes called riblets.
Two other types of ribs are country and St. Louis style.
Country-style ribs are cut from the shoulder end of the loin and have the highest meat-to-bone ratio with the least amount of fat. Often country-style are mistaken for pork chops because you usually need a knife and fork to eat them.
St. Louis-style are among the most popular types. These are a further trimmed spare rib with the breastbone removed as well as cartilage and tips, creating a rectangularly shaped rack of ribs.
Country-style and St. Louis style ribs will most often be available from a butcher; shopping at the supermarket you will most often find your choice limited to baby back and spare.
When it comes to understanding ribs, the first thing to remember is that it’s all about the fat content. Spare ribs are hardier and easier to cook than baby backs as the meat won’t shred during the process. However, spare ribs have less meat per rib so you want to plan three-fourths to a whole rack for a moderate to heavy eater.
My preferred method of cooking spare ribs is a warm, slow bath for spare ribs versus the dry sauna suggested for baby backs.
Put spareribs in an oven-safe dish (I use a large Dutch oven) deep enough to submerge them beneath a combination of water with 1/2 can of beer or a shot or two of bourbon, basil, mustard seed, garlic and salt and pepper to taste. You can also add wedges of onion, garlic, and carrot for additional savoriness.
Place in oven, covered, at 200 degrees for four to six hours, until the meat is fork tender. Ribs are “cooked” at 145 degrees, however, they are still going to be chewy and less flavorful. Cooking spare ribs to 200 to 215 degrees (in the bath) will help to break down fats and tissues make them soft, easy to eat and succulent.
Remove the ribs from the bath, dry with paper towel and let them cool. You can either wrap them in foil and place in the refrigerator to cook “tomorrow” or wait until they cool before you remove the “membrane” from the back of the ribs.
Using a thin or boning knife, carefully slip the blade between the membrane and the back of the rack. The following video shows removing the membrane from raw ribs. I find it much easier to remove the membrane from the parboiled ribs that have cooled.
Once the membrane has been removed, season your ribs. I prefer a dry rub at this time, adding a wet sauce prior to grilling. Your dry rub can be made at home or purchased. Ingredients, depending on your tastes, will include garlic powder, paprika, mustard powder, salt, pepper, dried coffee grounds, cumin, onion powder and brown sugar.
The following can be added to create your own special rub.
For one rack of 12-15
- 1 tablespoon of coffee beans (freshly ground)
- 1-1/2 teaspoons sea salt
- 1-1/2 teaspoons brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon black pepper (coarse-ground)
You can also add mustard, onion or garlic powder, depending on your taste.
Massage the ribs with a bit of olive oil and then sprinkle liberally on both sides with your dry rub massaging it into the oiled meat. Wrap in foil and place in refrigerator overnight or place back in a 200-degree oven for up to two hours while you create your sides and prepare for your family and guests. Unlike the baby backs, spare ribs are not as “delicate” and can go from oven to grill.
Start the grill but have the charcoal pushed to the side so it is not directly beneath the ribs. Unwrap the ribs and coat with your favorite sauce — commercial, homemade or “doctored” from the store.
To save time I like to start with a good sauce (a favorite is Miss Patti Labelle’s BBQ) that does not have high-fructose corn syrup as the sugar will be what burns on the grill.
In a sauce pan mix the store bought with a couple of shots of bourbon, a scant handful of brown sugar, salt, pepper and spices to your taste. A favorite trick is to ask the butcher or using a very sharp bone knife, cut off the top of the ribs where the “tips” – pieces of very flavorful meat around pieces of bone and cartilage, are found.
These pieces can be added to your sauce as it simmers, retrieved and given to your favorite eater (because they are a treat) or saved for yourself after the work is done.
You can also take those pieces and slow simmer in a vegetable broth along with onion, carrot, garlic, celery salt, until liquid is reduced by 2/3. Strain and add to either commercial bbq sauce or create your own by adding:
- 1 tsp of liquid smoke
A bit of ancho or chipotle chili powder can add some zest to your sauce.
Simmer until thick. A trick is to save some of the rib tip liquid and BBQ sauce on the side for the table. Combine and bring to a rolling boil, strain through a Chinese cap or fine strainer until silky and smooth. Return to heat to thicken.
Grill the ribs over a not too hot grill — with embers to the side — as you are actually just warming the meat and adding that final grill taste. Have extra sauce to brush on them as you carefully turn them.
Remember, they fully cooked in their bath, the sauce and grill is to warm them and give them that rich, tangy flavor that makes ribs special.