Prep, Grill, and Smoke Your Way to Rib Heaven
Written by John Thomas
Once you understand a few basic principles, mastering BBQ ribs isn’t really that difficult. First, you need to understand what kind of ribs to buy. That can be daunting when you head to the grocery store butcher section. Keep your eye out for two different cuts – baby back and St. Louis spare ribs. Baby back ribs are a thick cut located near the ever-so-tender loin region of the pig. Spare ribs are located more toward the lower portion of the rib area at the pig’s sternum. The St. Louis cut of the spare rib has the chewy cartilage and breast bone portion removed. If you are going to smoke spare ribs, I suggest going with the St. Louis cut. What follows are the principles of rib preparation, dry rub, and cooking method.
If it’s necessary, preparing ribs involves removing the tough membrane. In some cases, the butcher will have already removed the membrane from the ribs – when purchasing your ribs you can simply ask the butcher whether the membrane has been removed, which will save you some time. If it hasn’t, first rinse the ribs in some cold water. Flip the ribs over so the bottom of the rack is facing up. Use a dull butter knife and insert it right below the hazy white membrane covering the entire bottom of the ribs. Wiggle the knife around a little bit to loosen the membrane. In your other hand, grab the membrane with a few dry paper towels, and once you get a solid grip on it, pull it off the entire bottom of the rack.
Once your ribs have been prepared and rinsed, liberally apply a BBQ dry rub. A recipe for a simple dry rub is as follows:
- 1/4 cup of paprika
- 2 tbsp dark brown sugar
- 2 tbsp ground black pepper
- 1 tbsp chili powder
- 2 tsp garlic powder
- 2 tsp dry mustard powder
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 1 tsp cayenne pepper
Mix the dry ingredients together and apply to both sides of the ribs. I find it easiest to do this on a baking sheet covered by aluminum foil. Place the racks of ribs in the refrigerator overnight to let the dry rub flavors penetrate the meat. If you can’t rub the ribs the night before, add the rub at least 1-2 hours prior to smoking.
Smoking ribs is rather easy once you understand the basic formula. The idea is that you smoke the ribs directly on the smoker grate for a period of time. Then you wrap the ribs in foil with a liquid seasoning of your choice and continue cooking, and finally you unwrap the ribs for the final stage of cooking. This process allows for some fantastic smoke penetration and allows the ribs to become extremely tender since the ribs are foiled for a period. This foiling is referred to as the “Texas crutch.” For baby back ribs the formula is 2:2:1. That means 2 hours directly on the smoker grate, then 2 hours wrapped in foil, then 1 hour unwrapped. For St. Louis spare ribs, the formula is similar but calls for an extra hour in the first step, so the formula is 3:2:1. This means 3 hours directly on the grate, then 2 hours wrapped in foil, followed by 1 hour unwrapped for some final smoke penetration and addition of sauce.
To get going, fire up the smoker to a typical BBQ smoker temperature of 225-275 degrees F. Anywhere in this range and you’ll be okay. On top of the charcoal you’ll want to have a smoke wood to provide the smoky flavor. If you are looking for a more intense smoke experience, choose mesquite smoke wood. For a milder smoky flavor choose apple or cherry.
After the initial 2 or 3 hours directly on the smoker, you’ll be wrapping the ribs in heavy duty aluminum foil (to avoid accidental puncture and loss of all your liquid). When wrapping the ribs for this second phase of smoking, you can add about ½ to 1 cup of liquid on top of the ribs. Anything from apple juice to your favorite ale will work. You can even be creative and add some honey for sweeter ribs.
So you’ve gone through the cooking process and have spent 2 or 3 hours directly on the grate, an additional 2 hours wrapped in foil with your liquid of choice, and now you’re back on the grill grates. What’s next? This final hour is the time to brush on some of your favorite BBQ sauce. Any store-bought BBQ sauce will work just fine, and of course you can use any online BBQ sauce recipe. Near the end of this final hour, pick up the ribs using BBQ gloves and give them a slight “bend.” If the ribs tear just a little between the bones, they are done. If the ribs refuse to tear at all, you will need some more time. Cooked ribs can range anywhere from very tough to overly tender (“fall off the bone”). Your preference will probably be somewhere in between. I prefer to have a little bit of a bite to the ribs, so I pull them off at the first sign of tearing when you bend them. Of course, there is nothing wrong with “fall off the bone” ribs!
However you choose to rub, cook, slather, and eat your ribs, adhering to the above principles will create a result that’s tender, delicious, and perfectly cooked to your preferred taste. Enjoy (and keep the napkins handy)!