WASHINGTON. The perfect grilled rack of ribs requires a bit more than just buying some ribs and slapping on some Baby Ray’s. But do not fear, we are here to help. The first step is knowing what type of ribs you want to serve – baby back or spare being the most popular cuts of ribs most people find in the grocery store.
Spare Ribs vs Baby Back Ribs
The spare ribs 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 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. They 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. They 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 spare ribs with the breastbone, tips, and cartilage trimmed away, creating a rectangularly shaped rack of ribs. See below for directions on how to cut spare ribs into the preferable St. Louis style.
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 the moderate or heavy eater.
Preparing spare ribs for the grill
My preferred method of cooking spare ribs is a warm, slow bath that will help break down fats and cartilage versus the dry sauna suggested for baby backs. (LINK)
Put spareribs in an oven-safe dish (I use a large Dutch oven) deep enough to submerge the ribs 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 a 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. Either way, you need to remove the “membrane” from the back of the ribs, a keen difference between cooking spare and baby back ribs. Carefully using a sharp boning knife, pry up a corner of the thin membrane from one edge of the ribs. Using a paper towel for purchase, slowly pull that member from the slab. This is a good time to trim off any chunks of fat or cartilage.
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.
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. Cutting spare ribs into uniform rectangles is not hard. However it is necessary. A whole rack of spareribs has lots of tough pieces of cartilage in it, which end up as hard-to-chew bits.
The end result is a rack of ribs that is more uniform in shape, smaller, and easier to eat,
Once the membrane has been removed and you have trimmed your ribs, season the meat. I prefer a dry rub at this time, adding a wet sauce just prior to grilling. Your dry rub can easily be made at home. Ingredients, depending on your tastes, will include garlic powder, paprika, mustard powder, salt, pepper, dried coffee grounds, cumin, onion powder, and brown sugar.
Creating your signature dry 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.
Using Cooking Zones on your Charcoal Grill
You have already cooked the ribs to 215 degrees so grilling is more about finishing, then cooking. Unwrap the ribs and coat with your favorite sauce, commercial, homemade or “doctored” from the store. Let them warm to room temperature (if taken from the refrigerator) slathered in sauce, while you start your grill.
The number one thing to remember is that you want indirect heat. You do not want direct heat beneath the ribs. It will cause your sugar-rich sauce to burn before they have time to fully warm and absorb the sauce.
If you are using a gas grill, turn on your side burners to higher heat, putting your center burners on low heat.
Getting ready for the grill – trimming to sauce
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 excess sugar will be what burns on the grill. For a quick sauce, mix the store-bought sauce with a couple of shots of bourbon, a scant handful of brown sugar or honey, salt, pepper and spices to your taste.
BBQ Sauce Recipe
Don’t throw out your trimmings. Add the tips to your sauce as it simmers, the trimmings put on the side to be given to your favorite eater. They make a great BBQ Pork sandwich with coleslaw.
You can also take those pieces and slow simmer in a vegetable broth (4 cups) along with onion, carrot, garlic, celery salt until liquid is reduced by 2/3. Retain two cups of the strained liquid for your sauce. Excess broth can be frozen in ice trays for future use. Place the cubes in an airtight container or bag once frozen.)
To the strained broth add to either commercial bbq sauce or create your own sauce by adding to your personal taste:
- 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 broth 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. It is not a bad idea to invest in a rib basket to make flipping easy. If room temperature when grilling, they should not take more than
Remember, they fully cook in their bath, the sauce and grill are to warm them and give them that rich, tangy flavor that makes ribs special. Do not overcook on the grill as it will dry out your ribs. Five to ten minutes per side is a general guide depending on the heat of your grill.