This was originally written in 2007, in a slightly different format than the one I usually currently use. Although there are substantial changes since the first time I posted it on the interwebs, I decided to keep it in (mostly) the old format. For one thing, there are so many contingencies it would have been difficult to organize it much differently. Also, I like its lack of extreme linearity.
(A GUIDE FOR THE BEGINNING GENIUS)
Presented One Step at a Time
Quantity: 2 slabs o’ ribs
Difficulty: Not very
• 2 slabs of baby backs, St. Louis style trimmed spare ribs, or untrimmed spare ribs
• 1/4 cup yellow “baseball” mustard
• 2 tbs mayonnaise
• 2 tbs dijon or other hot mustard
• 2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
• 1 tsp chipotle hot sauce
• 1 cup brown sugar
• 1/2 cup kosher salt
• 5 tbs sweet paprika
• 2 tbs coarse, freshly ground black pepper
• 1 tbs garlic powder
• 1 tbs onion powder
• 2 tsp ground ginger
• 1 tsp cayenne pepper
• 1 tsp dry mustard
• 1tsp dry thyme
• 1/2 tsp dry sage
• Full recipe amount Rub 1
• 1/3 cup ground, freshly toasted fennel seeds
• 1/3 cup ground, freshly toasted coriander seeds
• 2 tsp Chinese “five spice” powder
• 1/2 cup beer
• 1/2 cup apple juice
• 1/2 cup peach nectar
• You get the idea
Things to Think About + Technique:
I. CONSIDERATIONS and PREP
Spares or Baby Backs?
There are two basic kinds of pork ribs: spare ribs and “baby backs.” They come from different parts of the animal. Spare ribs come from the belly side of the animal. Baby back ribs (a k a BBs) come from the – wait for it – back. BBs are also known as loin backs and loin ribs. It may ease some worries to know that BBs do not come from baby pigs.
Baby backs have a higher percentage of meat to bone, are easier to prepare and easier to eat. Spare ribs involve a lot more. Human perversity being both innate and perverse, the more you know about ribs, and the better you learn to prepare them, the more you’ll prefer spares. Naturally, your guests, rogue and peasant knaves all, will prefer BBs. Go figure.
Purchasing the Ribs:
If you know something about ribs in general, and know how a particular slab is trimmed, the type of animal from which it was taken, etc., etc., you can tell a lot by size and weight. However, you never know those things, so they’re not going to help much, are they?
This means there isn’t that much I can tell you without going into so many contingencies I’d pass out from self-boredom. So… With spares, look for slabs which don’t carry too much fat and which seem to show plenty of meat between the bones. Avoid slabs which seem absurdly large or small. Baby backs are from a part of the pig which doesn’t carry much fat anyway, so large fat deposits aren’t a concern. Again, look for meat between the bones.
Removing the Membrane:
Removing the membrane allows you to season both sides of the ribs, and removes tissue that is tasteless, tough, and has a tendency to get caught between diners’ teeth. Full-service butcher shops with butchers who know what they’re doing are becoming as rare as hen’s teeth. If you’re lucky enough to buy your ribs from one, ask her to remove the membrane for you. If, like most, you’re unlucky in butchers, here’s how:
There are two membranes on the back of the ribs. The top membrane, is thin and transparent, and for most preparations, should be removed during the trimming. If you do no other trimming, pull it off before seasoning. The other “membrane” is heavy, thick, fatty and is actually not a membrane but the bone pockets. Leave it alone.
Taking off the membrane is usually the last part of the trimming process. To remove it, lift a corner with a butter knife, the handle of the spoon, any dull tool or a finger; then grab that corner with a dry paper towel and peel back the membrane. The paper towel will give you an excellent grip on the otherwise slippery membrane.
Another way to remove the membrane is by finishing the slabs of ribs over direct heat on a grill, and charring it off. This is very useful for catering situations; but a pit of a pain at home. Despite the extra trouble, eventually you should try a grill finish to see if you think it’s worth the extra trouble.
The Beginner’s Best Strategy:
Experienced pitmasters get the “falling off the bone” question a lot from newbies. Very few experienced barbecuers like their rib meat that tender. Once we’ve bowed to the pressure from our Significant Others, and met the challenge of getting it that soft, we find the exercise was in vain and we prefer a little “pull” to our ribs
3,2,1 and 2,1,1:
The best spare rib preparation for beginners is 3, 2, 1. For baby backs, it’s 2, 1, 1. What do these numbers mean? The first number is time in the chamber at 225 – 235, unfoiled. The second number is time in the chamber at the same temperature, wrapped in a foil packet with a little moisture. The third number is time in the chamber at the same temperature, with the foil opened, and occasional basting.
The result is a fairly tender (bordering on too tender) rib. The method is fairly certain, works well with less than excellent meat, is largely based on time cues (easier for beginners than touch and appearance); and is emotionally easier on most beginners than keeping the door closed for 6 hour or so.
The more experience you have with smoking in general and ribs in particular, the more likely you are to prefer your ribs cooked without foiling.
Depending on where and when you bought your spares, some or all of the trimming may already have been done. Lay your slab flat, back up. That is, with the curve of the bones facing so the top of the cup is up (U).
• The meat may extend beyond the bones and onto a complex system of cartilage. The cartilaginous part is called the “rib tip.” Tips are messy eating and somewhat fatty. Naturally, some folks think they’re the best part of the slab. They are usually removed for restaurant service and competitions. When they are removed, the remaining ribs are usually referred to as “St. Louis,” or “Kansas City” style.
• On the end with the longer ribs, there may be a spongy bone separated from the ribs by cartilage. The bone is part of the sternum and called the “chine.” (Chine, by the way is a generic term for a straight bone attached to a number of ribs. It can be chest or back.)
• Running more or less the length of the back may be a flap of meat. Happily, it’s called the flap.
• On the end with the shorter-length ribs may be a triangular flap of meat. It’s sometimes called the brisket (although the same term is sometimes used to refer to meat at the chine). Also, the very shortest ribs may not run straight, and appear tangled.
• The chine, flap, brisket, and splayed ribs are, more or less, undesirable. Remove the chine bone completely by cutting through the cartilage near the top or the ribs with a heavy knife or cleaver. Rest your free hand on the knife’s spine and rock it through. Remove the brisket up to where the bones are not tangled. Remove the flap by bending it back and cutting parallel to the slab. Try and leave a little bit, about 1/2″ of flap attached. It presents a great appearance, and it’s a nice, contrasting texture on the finished rib. Reserve any piece with meat on it.
• I prefer tips on, to tips off. But if you want to trim to “St Louis,” hold the rib ends with one hand, grab the tip ends with the other and flex the slab back and forth until you get an idea of where the bones end and the cartilage ends. Then lay the ribs flat on your board and lightly score the line you think you’ll want to cut along. Test again to make sure you’re close to the top of the bone by flexing, then cut through the cartilage with a heavy knife or cleaver.
• If you’re leaving the ribs whole, there’s a finishing cut you may want to make. There’s a cartilage system in the tips which runs perpendicular to the ribs themselves. If the ribs are served as pairs or partial slabs, this cartilage will be difficult for the diner to cut through. Cutting through this, between the cartilaginous tips is not easy because the tips run at an angle off the bone-end. To make the trim, turn the ribs so the tips face you. Put your index finger between the tops of the two longest bones and press slightly as you draw your finger towards your body, angling the line slightly towards the small ends. Now try and run a knife point between the tips. Once you’ve got the idea of how the cartilage runs, try and make a short cut from the end of the top to the top of the bone. These cuts will make the top of the slab look something like toes.
If this sounds too technical, forget it. Instead, after the ribs are cooked, cut the slab into individual ribs for service. What’s difficult to do on a plate, is easy on your board.
Remove the ribs from the fridge. Use a “slather” to create a base for the dry rub. Most people use plain yellow aka ballpark mustard (You won’t taste it on the final product, it’s mostly vinegar and turmeric). I prefer a slather with a little taste. Consider: 1/2 mayo, 1/2 Dijon plus a tbs or two or Worcestershire and a little chipotle hot sauce. Or, follow your fancy.
If you’re using a slather containing several ingredients – just mix them with a fork.
When you have you slather, rub it over the meat – not too generously – with a brush or your finger tips.
Rubs are all about balancing salt, heat, herbals and sweetness. Depending on the meat or the particular profile you want to create, the balance can be pushed in one direction or another.
Pork rubs usually involve a fair amount of sweetness – usually from brown sugar. Rubs “1” and “2” are certainly typical in that respect. A fair bit of paprika, mostly for color is also common. NO PEEKING.
You can certainly use a store bought rub if you have a favorite.
If, you’ve got a favorite homemade rub, or are following this recipe, make the rub by mixing the dry ingredients with a fork so they’re distributed equally. A lot of pit masters like to run the rub through a spice grinder or blender to get everything the same size and keep the mix homogenized. It’s a good idea.
Season the slathered ribs well (along with the tips and flap if you have them) with the dry rub on both sides.
You can cook immediately, or return the ribs to the fridge for a little marination. A few years ago, a long dry marinade was very popular. Now, not so much. It’s generally agreed that dry (and slathered) spices get maximum penetration within half an hour.
II. THE COOK
Allow the ribs to come to room temperature, about 45 minutes. Prep the smoker to run at 225 – 235. Use a water pan!
The single most important thing to remember about smoking is not to open the pit unnecessarily. That is, NO PEEKING.
Place the ribs on the grate, bone side down. Lay on the trimmings as well. If your smoker runs evenly from side to side, walk away for three hours. If not, rotate the ribs at the one and a half hour point (1 hour for BBs). Stay out of the cook chamber. Other than rotation there is no need to mop the ribs or otherwise check on them. Do only what you have to do to keep the temperature steady. NO PEEKING.
At the three hour point (2 hours for BBs) remove the ribs from the cook chamber and close the chamber door. Wrap the slabs in foil packets (you can put two whole slabs in a packet — bone to bone — if you’ve got a space problem, and add a little liquid before you seal the packet up. Beer is an excellent choice. So are juices, wines, barbecue sauce, bourbon, fruit drinks, you name it. Don’t feel like you have to be tethered by suggestions. Follow your fancy.
Return the packets to the cook chamber, and lay them bone side up if one slab to the pack, and close the chamber. You don’t need a water pan for this part of the process. Nor do you need to burn chip or chunk for smoke. At the one hour point (1/2 hour for BBs), rotate the meat if your smoker runs unevenly. Otherwise, keep the chamber door closed. Tend the fire when you must, but keep the firebox door(s) closed as much as possible too. NO PEEKING.
After two hours (1 hour for BBs) in foil, turn the slabs bone side down and open the foil so the meat is exposed. You do not have to remove the foil from the chamber, you can fold the edges to make little pans, but you can remove it if you want. Sauce the ribs with a thin coat of your finishing sauce. Close the chamber, and cook for half an hour, and apply more sauce. After fifteen minutes more, begin testing for doneness and applying sauce every fifteen minutes.
To test for doneness: A clock does not test for doneness in barbecue. Pick up a slab of ribs with a pair of tongs, by holding the slab at one of the middle ribs. If the ends of the slab point straight down (an upside down U) the ribs are tender. Serve, or (better) remove them, wrap them and hold them for as long as several hours and reheat just before serving in a hot smoker, medium home oven (300), or (best) directly over a low fire on the grill .
There’s such a thing as too tender. Ribs should have enough bite to them that the bones don’t fall out of the slab when it’s being moved, and so that the diner can take a bite without getting all the meat off the rib. Ideally, a bite should take a bite’s worth and leave a bite sized cutout on the rib.
Ideal shmideal. A lot of people like “fall off the bone,” and I’m not going to tell them they’re wrong. If “fall off the bone,” is what must be, cook 3 hours out of foil and 3 hours in (or 2, 2 for baby backs), and allow only 15 minutes or so to finish the ribs un-foiled. The longer “braising” period will tenderize the meat to where even your outlaws are happy.