Let Texans brag about brisket and Carolinians extol pulled pork shoulder. For the rest of us, the ultimate emblem of barbecue — and test of a grill master’s mettle — is ribs.
Picture meaty slabs stung with spice, bronzed with smoke and slathered with sticky sweet barbecue sauce. The meat is tender, but not too tender, with a profound pork flavor enhanced by the pit master’s art.
You may have thought such alchemy possible only at the best barbecue joints. But great ribs are surprisingly easy to make at home, which is good news at a time when eating out can be fraught.
1. Choose the right ribs
The pig supplies four types of ribs: baby backs (sometimes called top loin ribs), spareribs, rib tips and country-style ribs. You want to use the baby backs, which are cut from high on the hog (quite literally, as they abut the backbone). Baby backs have the most generous marbling and the tenderest meat, which makes them relatively quick to cook — and a natural for newbies. When possible, buy ribs from a heritage pork breed, like Berkshire (sometimes called Kurobuta). They cost more, but their intense porky flavor justifies the price.
2. Layer the flavors
One of the secrets of great ribs — indeed, great barbecue in general — is a process that creates layers of flavors. I start with a slather, like Dijon mustard, that I brush on both sides of each rack of ribs. Next, I apply a rub — in the recipe at right, a fragrant amalgam of chile powder, brown sugar, salt and pepper, with celery seed for spice. The third layer comes from apple cider, which you spritz on halfway through cooking. (This also helps keep the ribs moist.) The fourth layer — the varnish, as it were — takes the form of a chipotle bourbon barbecue sauce, which you sear into the meat over a hot fire, creating a glossy finish. The crowning touch is a light, fresh sprinkle of rub added right before serving the ribs to bring attention back to the spice.
3. Grill over indirect heat
Most professional pit masters cook ribs low and slow in a smoker. You’re going to use a hotter and faster method called indirect grilling. In short, you cook the ribs next to, not directly over, the fire, with the grill lid closed and hardwood added to produce wood smoke.
To set up a charcoal grill for indirect grilling, light the coals, then pour or rake them into two mounds at opposite sides. Place a foil pan in the center to catch dripping fat. The ribs go onto the grate over this drip pan, away from the heat.
To set up a two-burner gas grill for indirect grilling, light one side and cook the ribs on the unlit side. On a three-burner gas grill, light the outside or front and rear burners, and cook the ribs over the unlit burner in the center. On a four- to six-burner gas grill, light the outside burners and, again, cook the ribs in the center.
On a kamado-style grill, insert the heat diffuser, a ceramic plate that separates the food from the fire. Pellet grills, by their very design, grill indirectly, so no special setup is needed. Note that with all these grills, the lid must be closed.
If cooking four or more racks of ribs, you may want to invest in a rib rack, which holds the slabs vertically, allowing you to fit four racks of ribs in the space two slabs would take lying flat.
4. Apply the smoke
While you can make delectable baby back ribs without wood smoke, as the French and Brazilians do, they won’t taste like American barbecue. So which wood to use? Debate rages in barbecue circles over the superiority of apple versus cherry, hickory versus mesquite, or whether to employ a combination. Mesquite lends the strongest flavor, but any hardwood chunk or chip will deliver the needed smokiness. In my recipe I used cherry wood, simply because I had it on hand.
To smoke ribs on a charcoal grill, add hardwood chunks or soaked, drained hardwood chips. (Soaking helps slow the rate of combustion, so the chips smolder and smoke before catching fire.) In a kamado, intersperse chunks or chips with the charcoal. A pellet grill has the wood, and smoke, built into the pellets. (Note: On a pellet grill you get more smoke flavor at lower temperatures, so add cooking time accordingly.)
It’s harder, but not impossible, to smoke on a gas grill. If your grill has a smoker box with a dedicated burner, add chunks or chips there. If not, place a few hardwood chunks under the grate, directly over the burners. Or make smoking pouches: Wrap soaked, drained wood chips in heavy-duty foil to form a flat pillow shape. Poke holes at 1-inch intervals in the top with the tip of a meat thermometer to release the smoke. Position the resulting pouches under the grate, directly over the burners. Run the grill on high until you see smoke, then dial the temperature back to 300 degrees.
What about smoking ribs indoors? I know it smacks of heresy, but you can achieve a reasonable approximation of barbecued ribs in the oven. Cook them on a rack in a roasting pan at 300 degrees. To add a smoke flavor, mix a half teaspoon liquid smoke with 4 tablespoons melted butter, and brush this mixture on both sides of the ribs a few times during the last hour of cooking.
5. Sizzle the sauce
While barbecue sauce isn’t mandatory, for most Americans, ribs just don’t taste complete without it. This version calls for one of my favorites — a sweet, smoky blend of molasses, brown sugar and ketchup, with bourbon for kick and chipotles to crank up the heat. The sauce goes on in layers — first brushed on and roasted into the ribs during cooking, then applied again and seared into the meat over high heat, and finally served with the ribs for dipping.
A crucial factor is the sizzle, moving the ribs right over the fire for the final four minutes or so — long enough to caramelize the brown sugar and molasses, and sear the sauce into the meat. Take care to avoid the cardinal sin of applying the sauce too early. That’s what grown-ups did when I was young, and the sugar in the sauce invariably burned long before the meat was cooked. For years, I thought barbecue was supposed to taste burned.
6. Know when to stop
Pork ribs come with their own version of the pop-up thermometer that signals when a turkey is done: The meat shrinks back from the ends of the bones. When you see a quarter- to a half-inch of clean bone at the end of each rib, it is ready. You should be able to pull the individual ribs apart with your fingers. The meat should resist, but just a little.
Many Americans are accustomed to meat that falls off the bones — a style that may have begun with the doleful practice of boiling or steaming ribs before grilling. The notion of soft (dare I say mushy?) ribs took root in our collective consciousness.
Root out that idea now. Ribs should be tender, but they should retain a little chew. That’s why we have teeth.
SPICE-RUBBED BABY BACK RIBS WITH CHIPOTLE-BOURBON SAUCE
By Steven Raichlen
To set up the grill, use 2 large or 4 small hardwood chunks or 3 cups hardwood chips (chips should be soaked in water 30 minutes). Have 1/2 cup apple cider on hand in a spray bottle.
2 racks baby back ribs (2 pounds each)
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon chile powder
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons black pepper
1/4 teaspoon celery seeds
>> Chipotle-bourbon barbecue sauce:
1-1/4 cups ketchup
1/3 cup Thai sweet chile sauce
1/4 cup bourbon
3 tablespoons dark brown sugar
3 tablespoons molasses
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 to 2 canned chipotle chiles en adobo, minced, plus 1 to 2 teaspoons sauce
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest, plus 1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon liquid smoke
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
Place ribs on a rimmed baking sheet. Remove any papery membrane from concave side. Lightly brush both sides with mustard.
Prepare the rub: Combine ingredients. Reserve 1-1/2 teaspoons for serving; sprinkle the rest on ribs, coating both sides.
Set up charcoal grill for indirect grilling and heat to 300 degrees.
Add half the wood chunks or chips. Arrange ribs meat side up on grate away from heat, then close lid. Grill ribs over indirect heat 1 hour.
Spray ribs on both sides with apple cider. Add remaining wood chunks or chips to fire and close grill.
Prepare sauce: Place all ingredients in heavy saucepan; whisk to mix. Bring to boil over medium-high, whisking often. Reduce heat and gently simmer, uncovered, until thick, 6 to 8 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings; set aside.
Continue grilling ribs until sizzling, browned, tender and meat has shrunk back from ends of the bones, 2 to 3 hours. In the last 20 minutes, brush ribs on both sides with sauce. When ready, meat should be tender enough to pull individual ribs apart.
Brush on both sides with more sauce. Move each rack directly over fire to sizzle the sauce into the meat, 2 to 4 minutes per side.
Transfer ribs to serving platter; brush with more sauce and sprinkle with remaining rub. Serve remaining sauce on the side. Serves 2 to 4.
Nutritional information unavailable.