Grilling Ribs: Perfect every time bath or sauna methods

Ribs are a favorite grilled treat and using our methods, they are easy to cook the day before, leaving the final flourish on the grill for when the company is there.

Photo: Jim Picht

WASHINGTON, May 25, 2016   – Making the 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.

These are increasingly popular due to their flavor and price.

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 sparerib with the breastbone removed as well as cartilage and tips, creating a rectangular 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 to cook than baby backs as the meat won’t shred during the cooking process.

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 ribs is a warm, slow bath for spare ribs or a warm sauna for baby backs.

Spare Ribs:

Super Bowl Spareribs with Guajillo BBQ Sauce
Super Bowl Spareribs with Guajillo BBQ Sauce

Put spare ribs 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.

Place in oven, covered, at 200 degrees for four to six hours, until the meat is fork tender.

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 both side and rub in to the oiled meat. Add to your own taste.  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.

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 or sugar as the sugar will be what burns.  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 bit of ancho or chipotle chili powder can add some zest to your sauce.

Spare Ribs
Spare Ribs

Liberally cover the ribs and let rest until room temperature if they have been in the refrigerator.  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.

Baby Back Ribs:

Paired: BBQ Ribs | Chef Mary Moran
Paired: Baby Back BBQ Ribs | Chef Mary Moran

Baby back ribs are “finger-licking good,” and they are ideal to serve because they’re small, tender and flavorful.  They are often more tender than spare ribs, but require extra care so that they do not overcook and fall off the bone before you serve them.

Baby back ribs are small, so when you are buying them figure four to five ribs per female and then six to seven ribs per male. (Men typically eat a few more, but not always.)

First rub the baby backs with a good drizzle of barbecue sauce and then a dry rub.  After wrapping them in foil, place them in a 225 degree oven for three or four hours, being careful to NOT overcook them. I know of people who warm-cook ribs overnight, reducing the temperature to 150 degrees, turning it up to 225 for the last 45 minutes.

I always wrap the ribs so that there is an easy place where I can check the doneness by touch or thermometer.  Amazing offers some great tips to determine whether your ribs are done, but in general a temperature between 180 and 190 degrees, which is why a long period of time in a 200-degree oven will gently cook the ribs, melt the collagen and render the meat tender, but still firm.

Because your baby backs have more meat, you might want to grill without sauce at first.  When they start to get very warm, add your sauce with just a few minutes left on the grill so the sauce doesn’t burn and ruin the ribs.

Prepare the ribs for your guests by cutting them into threes (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 between the ribs.  However, when you are plating them serve them meat side up.

Your guests are going to rave about your ribs.  Just make sure to hand them wet towels at the end so your hard work doesn’t end up all over your house and walls.

Chef Mary Payne Quick and Easy BBQ Ribs Recipe (for when you don’t have hours)

Time: 90 minutes
Servings: 4


  • 2 slabs baby back ribs
  • 2 ½ cups BBQ sauce (I always go for a sweeter BBQ sauce made from molasses)
  • 1 onion peeled and halved
  • 1 carrot peeled
  • ½ cup Mary’s BBQ Spices*
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • ¼ cup chopped parsley

*Mary’s BBQ Spices

  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  • ½ tablespoon paprika
  • ½ teaspoon chili powder
  • ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ½ tablespoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon pepper

First cut the top and the bottom off the onion. Then peel the outer layer of the onion. Next cut the onion half.

Cut the top of the carrot off and peel it. Then cut it into large chunks.

When you’re ready, remove the ribs from the package and wash and dry them.

Nex, fill a large pot almost to the top with water (leave enough room for the ribs).  Add the onion and carrot to the water.

Bring the water, carrot and onion to a rapid boil and add both slabs of ribs.  Boil for 35 minutes. When you are finished, remove them from the pot and set them on a cookie sheet.

In a medium mixing bowl add all of the spices, mix thoroughly and set aside until you are ready to spread it on the ribs.

Next heat your grill to a medium high heat.  Rub your ribs with Mary’s Spices and a bit of canola oil. Place the ribs on the grill, presentation side down (turn down the heat directly under the ribs). Cook them for 15 minutes and then flip. Cook for another 10 minutes and then baste every few minutes for an additional 10 minutes.

Once they are golden brown remove them from the grill.

When you are ready to serve the ribs cut the them into three bone segments (it’s easiest to cut the ribs from the underneath rather than the top), garnish them with chopped parsley and serve them with more BBQ sauce.

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