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Slow cooked, rubbed and basted racks of barbecued ribs. Just how sensory are those words? Their mere mention gets your mouth a-watering and nose to twitching. Smell the spicy-sweet meaty smoke? See the slightly crispy glistening baby-back ribs? Look closely and you’ll see your name fire-branded within the glaze. And what better treat to eat on Labor Day; the unofficial and definitely not last day of summer yet all too often, the near-end of après dining. But no more!
I’ve been grilling, baking, smoking (um, never mind) and most especially eating ribs for half my life. Yet in the past few years I’ve learned that this is a generational passion for grill masters all over America. Like hockey in Canada, too hot for humans sauna simmering in Finland, and soccer, well, everywhere but here, pride in one’s barbecued ribs has gotten real serious.
Big buck cook-offs are held all over America in Texas, Mississippi, the Carolinas, the Red Rocks of Colorado to the craggy shores of Portlands &tstr; Oregon and Maine. Nearly every state is involved hosting Grand Championships in famed barbecue meccas like Memphis and Kansas City where the biggest of them all, The American Royal Open, is held each year. Winner’s purses? Wrap your lips around $25,000 to over $100,000 in prize money. One couple earned $200,000 a few years ago winning 11 Grand Championships.
The Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue (“The Jack”) is perhaps the most prestigious international event. It is KCBS supervised and held each October in Lynchburg, Tenn. at the world-famous Jack Daniel’s distillery. Only teams that have won state or national competitions are invited to compete. And because the field is small and comprised of mostly professionals, and the sour mash whiskey goes down smooth, this is the one all the smoky cooks want to get to.
As we know, when real money is at stake, things get serious. And that’s real good for you and me. Why? Taste! I mean, after thousands of recipes have been stirred, rubbed, ground and grilled through watering eyes, singed skin and bigger belts bought, there are surely a few worth trying. That leads us to the Memphis rub below.
Why Memphis style? Unlike “wet” ribs, Memphis style is a dry-rub rib, though hardly dried out. If cooked correctly the meat remains moist and tender, just without sauce. I like this style for several reasons: it helps me determine how my ribs are cooking without the confusing cover of thick sauce, the ribs are far less messy throughout the prep and cooking stages, and dry cooking provides the best rib bark; the thin crisp that a perfectly cooked rib develops.
But, I also love a great barbecue sauce, so what do I do? Unlike Washington I appeal and deliver to both sides of the aisle. I leave half of my ribs dry and finish the other half wet with my favorite sauce. Sauces add a lot, not the least is that moist finger licking goodness described above. And when finished just right with a hot sear, a good thick sauce will caramelize into a special treat that’s hard to forget.
Yield: Approximately cups. Use about tablespoons per side of a slab of St. Louis cut ribs, and a little less for baby back. Place what’s left of your dry rub in a Ziploc bag or other airtight container.
Rub prep shouldn’t take more than 10-15 minutes.
• ½ cup packed dark brown sugar
• ½ cup white cane sugar
• 1/3 cup paprika
• 1½ tsp. chili powder
• 1½ tsp. ground cumin
• ½ tsp. cayenne pepper
• ¼ cup garlic powder
• 2 tbsp. fresh finely ground black pepper
• 2 tsp. rosemary powder
• 2 tbsp. ginger powder
• 2 tbsp. onion powder
• 2½ to 3 pounds of St. Louis cut or baby back ribs
1. Rinse and pat dry your ribs. Square off the ends so each rack cooks evenly.
2. Remove the tough membrane on back of each rack. It’s unpleasant, hard to chew and blocks your rub and sauce from penetrating. Using a dull knife insert blade between bone and membrane. Work each rib loose. Now work an end section loose and grip it with a dry paper towel. Pull carefully and peel the membrane off.
3. Trim extra fat from both sides of your racks.
4. Salt each side. This is important. Salt, like with just about all foods, boosts flavor and helps tenderize meats. Salt also helps develop the rib bark. Try to give the salt at least one hour to penetrate the ribs.
5. Apply the rub, but first coat the meat with a little olive oil rubbing it into each slab. Oil helps the rub stick but also improves development of rib bark. Sprinkle the meat with the Memphis Rub to coat all surfaces, but don’t overdo it. For extra tender ribs, apply the rub, wrap in cellophane and place in the refrigerator overnight. No time for that? No worries. But in the future do try to let the rub sit on the ribs for at least a few hours.
6. Now prepare a two-zone fire. This is how the pros do it: hot coals or lit burners on one side, ribs on the other. This allows indirect heat, best for ribs and other tougher meats.
7. This takes time to get it right, and to produce the best ribs and meats. Optimum temp is 225 degrees with the lid closed.
8. Place a disposable pan with one or two cups of water under your ribs. This helps keep the heat moderate, catches all those drippings to help keep your grill clean and productive, and aids in keeping your meal tender.
9. Let your hot coals cool down trying your best to keep the temp around 225 degrees. The temp is very important and again: the pros that win the big bucks above cook low and slow. Have a digital thermometer? Use it. Most grills, even four- and five-figure grills, come with crummy gauges. If you plan on grilling a lot, buy a good digital thermometer. They last for many years and will give you better meals every time. The finger test, while useful when cooking high volume burgers and steaks, is useless on ribs, chicken, roasts, turkeys and sausage.
When using charcoal, adjust the air dampers at the bottom and top to control heat. Get the temp right. 225 degrees allows the ribs to cook slowly and evenly, and breaks down the meat’s proteins and melts fat. Keep your heat above 200 degrees and below 275.
10. Create that awesome smoke: Use apple, mesquite or hickory wood chunks, the same as most barbecue champs use, to give your ribs the winner’s edge. It also drives the neighbors crazy inducing food envy as they covet your delicious meal. Use about a four ounce chunk of wood to start. When using gas, place wood as close to the flame as possible. With charcoal grill, drop it right into the hot coals. Do not over-wood. Too much smoke will ruin your meal. You can always add more but as in overcooking, you can always add more but never less.
11. Now place your slabs meat side up on the indirect side of your grill.
12. Close the lid and relax.
13. As the smoke recedes, add another four ounce block, but no more
14. Halfway through the cooking, rotate the ribs. Move the ribs closest to the fire away from the fire, and Visa versa. Or other way around for those of you that use MasterCard or Amex.
15. Look for bark, because this one is silent. Staying around 225? Cook St. Louis Cut ribs for four to five hours and baby-back ribs for three to four hours. Times will vary depending on thickness of each rack and how consistent you’ve kept temperature. Most grill masters use the bend test for best bark. Pick up each rack with tongs and bounce them gently. If the surface cracks, the bark is ready, but don’t let it bite by over-cooking.
16. Have sauce? Sorry, really. It was just so perfect. If you like sauce now’s the time. Lather it on both sides. Place the racks directly over the hottest part of the grill. This will caramelize and crisp the sauce. Using charcoal, place the ribs directly over the coals. On gas grills, remove the water pan and crank up all the burners. Keep the lid open to avoid over-cooking. Watch this process closely because your sweet, possibly labor of love sauce can go from caramelized to carbonized in less than a minute! Lay it on thick but one coat is enough. You can always have more in a side bowl, warmed and ready for dipping.
17. Remove from grill and serve immediately making sure to pass the stacks of freshly grilled and glazed ribs under each guest’s nose.
This is tough. Barbecued ribs are smoky strong and often spicy. A good, strong, young red Zinfandel could pair well with lightly spiced ribs, but if you enjoy a sweet Riesling, go with one of those.
Me? I prefer a good to great beer, perhaps a hoppy crafty type that will not only hold up to the heat but quench your sticky thirst better than any vino can.
Question of the Month
What would your last-meal fantasy be? Submit your dream meal, be thorough, and we’ll let the readers decide.
Wayne Bagrowski has been grilling for 30 years, often 150 days annually. An Upstate N.Y. guy who isn’t afraid of rain, cold and snow, he can be found in foul-weather gear on his deck and patio, often shovel and hat in-hand, sending smoke signals to fellow enthusiasts. Long-term wine and spirits and restaurant careers round-out his food and drink passions.