This past Memorial Day I was reminded of when I was a kid and we lived up north. Memorial Day meant my father would drag out the old Weber Grill for the first barbecue of the summer. Never mind that in Chicago, snow is still a possibility until June!
My dad couldn’t do many things well, but he cooked a great rack of ribs. They were everything ribs should be; tender, juicy and delicious. He’d never give away his secret, but I, the ever observant teenager that I was, watched (OK, spied) and I learned a few of his tricks. It’s a simple as 1-2-3. Three simple steps! Okay, 1-2-3-4! Four steps to great ribs. No, five. But, I swear that’s all there is.
Step 1: Buy the right ribs.
This is a matter of taste, some prefer St. Louis, others swear by baby back ribs. Those that want the Flintstone effect go for beef ribs. They’re idiots. Let’s wait for them to leave the room now that I’ve insulted them.
Good they’re gone. Whether baby back or St. Louis is simply a matter of preference; baby back ribs come from the top of the pig’s ribcage between the spine and the spare ribs of the pig. They have meat between the bones and on top of the bones, and are shorter, curved, and usually meatier and leaner than St. Louis ribs, which come from the belly side of the rib cage. St. Louis ribs may have less meat, but are better marbled so they tend to be more tender. For the most meat to bone ratio, go for “country” style ribs, which are cut from the sirloin or rib end of the pork loin. Whichever you choose, if you follow these steps, the meat will fall off the bone.
Step 2: Make a rub
The first thing in preparing tender ribs is creating a rub. Not only does a good rub flavor the meat, it helps break down the strands of proteins that make the meat tough. In addition to kosher salt (nothing else will do - this is not the time for your fancy pink Tibetan sea salt), fresh cracked black pepper and paprika (gets it tasting smoky before you even start) you need something with acid to help break down the proteins. I use a little apple cider vinegar, but some folks swear by mustard or even tomato paste.
After you’ve got the basics down; experiment with herbs, spices and other ingredients. Try adding cayenne pepper, chopped jalapenos or crushed dried peppers for heat. If you like yours a little sweeter, add a little brown sugar. For tanginess crushed pineapple is good (also contains the acid so necessary). Make at least a cup of the rub and really spread it onto both sides of the ribs. Massage it in with your hands and place the coated ribs in a non-aluminum (the acid from the rub can interact with aluminum pans or foil, causing the pan to discolor – and the meat sometimes picks up a metallic taste) baking dish (glass, steel or cast iron is okay). Allow to sit for at least an hour or overnight (in the fridge, of course). If you don’t have a non-aluminum baking dish, wrap the ribs in plastic wrap.
Step 3: Pre-cook the ribs.
If you cook the ribs entirely on the grill, they’ll either be charred or tough. After letting the ribs rest in the rub, place them on a rack in a baking pan. Below the rack, add some liquid (I use beer), just enough to cover the bottom without touching the ribs. Cover the pan tightly and place in a pre-heated 300 degrees for 45 minutes. Precooking helps intensify the flavor; the steam generated tenderizes the meat.
Step 4: Grill the ribs
Take the ribs from the oven and let come to room temperature. If some of the rub has disappeared, you can add more, but it’s not essential. Place the ribs over indirect, medium heat on your grill. If you’re using a charcoal grill, place the coals on one side and the ribs on the other. If using a gas grill, turn to medium low on one side and place the ribs on the other. Cover the grill and walk away. Do not peek. Do not poke the ribs. Let them be. Have a drink, play some cards, watch some porn. Whatever you do leave that meat alone (the ribs, that is!).
After about 45 minutes, check to see if the ribs are tender by wiggling one of the bones. If it doesn’t pull away from the meat, replace the grill cover. Repeat every 15 minutes until the ribs are fall off the bone tender. This shouldn’t take more than two hours unless you are cooking enough for the Kardashian family.
There are those who say you should never add barbecue sauce to the meat on the grill. I say to hell with them. I baste the ribs twice during the last 10 minutes of cooking. I like how the sugars from the sauce caramelize over the heat. Some don’t even like sauce with their ribs. That’s just crazy, like sex without lube.
Step 5: Give it a rest
Take the ribs off the heat using large tongs (you don’t want all those juices to run out by puncturing it with a fork) and place them on a platter. Relax and have a beer or a martini. After letting the ribs rest 5-10 minutes, call everyone to the table, pass out the rolls of paper towels and extra barbecue sauce and enjoy.