Food & Dining

Great barbecue ribs aren't nearly as difficult as the pros would have you believe

This is the finished product. Notice how the meat seems to fall from the bone.
This is the finished product. Notice how the meat seems to fall from the bone. Associated Press

It was one of those culinary epiphanies: I realized you rarely get great barbecued ribs from a restaurant. They have to come from backyards.

My rib-awakening came during the world's largest barbecue contest, Memphis in May. All it took was that first bite of a grill-smoked rib for me to recognize the real deal. There is nothing like homemade ribs.

And here is the dirty little secret: They don't take nearly as long as the competition guys would like you to think they do. And they are much simpler to prepare than legend has it.

The most popular ribs to cook are back ribs, but spareribs and St. Louis-style ribs are gaining traction. Back ribs are cut from high up on the rib near the spine. Back ribs are meaty, leaner than spareribs and very flavorful. This is the area of the pig from which the tenderloin is cut.

Back ribs usually are sold in either full slabs (13 ribs) or half slabs (seven ribs), and are the most expensive cut of rib. When they come from a pig that was less than a year old, they are referred to as baby back ribs. True baby backs generally weigh one to 1.5 pounds each, which makes them difficult to cook on the grill because they have so little meat.

Spareribs are cut from the belly or side of the pig. Spareribs are longer and fatter than back ribs. While they have less meat, many parts of the country prefer them and the St. Louis-style cut is gaining in popularity. The St. Louis cut is a sparerib trimmed to remove the flap of meat on the underside of the breast bone and squared off to more easily fit on the grill.

Once you decide which type of rib to buy, there are a few things to remember when purchasing your meat. First, make sure each slab weighs at least two pounds and that the ribs have a nice layer of meat covering the bone. Slabs of ribs that are factory-cut often have bone shine, or areas of the rack where the blade hit the bone and cut off all the meat.

Second, buy the best quality, freshest product available. This is especially true with meat. Look at the expiration date on the label and give your purchases the old-fashioned smell test. If it smells "off" or a little funny, then it is probably old.

The next decision that you have to make is whether to remove the silver skin. Along the back (non-meaty) side of a slab of ribs there is a smooth covering or membrane that holds the ribs together. It is often referred to as the silver skin. Some people recommend removing it, but it is purely optional.

If you leave it on, it is a good indicator of when the ribs are done because it lifts away from the meat when the meat is cooked. It is very crispy when done.

A few cooks say that leaving the membrane intact prevents the seasonings from penetrating the meat and stops the rendering of the fat. I have never found this to be true.

Finally, make sure the meat has receded from the ends of the bones and that you can bend the rack without breaking it in pieces.

Following are Memphis-style baby backs. First, what you need:

  • Six pounds baby back ribs.

  • Three cups barbecue woodchips, soaked in water for one hour.

  • Two lemons, halved.

  • Quarter cup barbecue rub (see recipe).

  • 16-ounce bottle barbecue sauce.

Remove silver skin from the backs of the ribs, if desired.

Place the soaked wood chips directly on the hot charcoals, or in smoking box if using a gas grill (place the box in the grill according to manufacturer directions). Cover the grill.

Rub the cut lemons all over the fronts and backs of the ribs, squeezing to release as much juice as possible. Set aside for five minutes, then sprinkle the ribs liberally with the barbecue rub. Let sit for 15 minutes.

Place the ribs, bone side down, in the center of the cooking grate over the cooler side of the grill. Cover the grill and cook 1.5 to two hours, or until the meat is tender and has pulled back from the ends of the bones. Do not open the grill cover for at least the first 30 minutes. After that, if the ribs start to burn at the edges, stack them on top of one another in the very center of the grill and lower your heat slightly.

Twenty minutes before serving, un-stack the ribs if necessary, then brush with barbecue sauce. Remove the ribs from the grill and let rest 10 minutes before cutting into individual or two- to three-rib portions.

If desired, additional barbecue sauce can be warmed and served alongside the ribs.

Start to finish: Two hours, 45 minutes (30 minutes active).

Servings: Six.

Nutrition information per serving: 1,410 calories; 970 calories from fat (69 percent of total calories); 107 g fat (40 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 365 mg cholesterol; 31 g carbohydrate; 1 g fiber; 22 g sugar; 73 g protein; 1,510 mg sodium.

Classic rub for ribs

  • Three tablespoons granulated sugar.

  • Two tablespoons smoked paprika.

  • Two tablespoons kosher salt.

  • Two tablespoons packed dark brown sugar.

  • One tablespoon ground cumin.

  • One tablespoon ground black pepper.

  • One tablespoon onion powder.

  • One tablespoon garlic powder.

  • Two teaspoons chili powder.

  • Half a teaspoon cayenne pepper.

Nutrition information per 2 teaspoons: 10 calories; 0 calories from fat (0 percent of total calories); 0 g fat (0 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 0 mg cholesterol; 2 g carbohydrate; 0 g fiber; 2 g sugar; 0 g protein; 320 mg sodium.

Start to finish: Five minutes. Makes 1.5 cups.