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, too. 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 (7 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 back ribs generally weigh 1 to 1 1/2 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 selecting your meat. First, make sure each slab weighs at least 2 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, and there is a wide range of product in the marketplace. If you have a local butcher who cuts the meat, frequent his or her shop. He'll give you tips on cooking, can cut meat to order, and can special order meat.
If you don't have a local butcher, go to a grocer that has high traffic and keeps the meat case rotated with fresh product every day. Beyond that, be sure to 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. I prefer buying ribs that are vacuum sealed, as they generally are the freshest choice.
The next decision 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 it is cooked. It is very crispy when done, looks a little like parchment paper and is slightly translucent. Many people consider it a delicacy and enjoy eating it. Many more don't even know it is removable.
A few cooks say 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. I think it is mostly a cosmetic issue and a little-known one at that. But be forewarned, if your rack of ribs has any "bone shine," the membrane will keep the rack intact, and if you remove it, your rack will likely fall apart.
The final thing you need to know is the best way to test for doneness is to make sure the meat has receded from the ends of the bones and that you can bend the rack without breaking it in pieces. And remember the only way the meat will fall off the bone is if you par-boil them first (just say no!) or if you way over-cook them. The best ribs should be tender, but have a little chew left.
This is my version of the ribs that won a Memphis in May barbecue contest a few years back. The guys who made them took me under their wings and taught me everything they knew – or so they said – about barbecuing baby backs. Their secret was marinating the ribs in lemon juice before seasoning them with a commercial spice rub. I've streamlined their process with cut lemons and a homemade rub.
Memphis-Style Baby Back Ribs
Start to finish: 2 hours 45 minutes
(30 minutes active)
6 pounds baby back ribs
3 cups barbecue woodchips, soaked in water for 1 hour
2 lemons, halved
1/4 cup barbecue rub (see recipe below)
16-ounce bottle barbecue sauce
Prepare a grill for medium-low (about 325 degrees F.) indirect cooking. In a charcoal grill, this means banking the hot coals to one side of the grill and cooking the ribs on the cooler side. In a gas grill, this means heating the grill with all burners on, but turning off the burners on one side just before putting the food on that side.
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 5 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 1/2 to 2 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 2- to 3-rib portions.
If desired, additional barbecue sauce can be warmed and served alongside the ribs.
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 Barbecue Rub
Start to finish: 5 minutes
Makes 1 1/2 cups
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 tablespoons smoked paprika
2 tablespoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons packed dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon garlic powder
2 teaspoons chili powder
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
In a medium bowl, combine all ingredients. Mix well. For a smoother rub, process the ingredients in a spice grinder until well combined and finely ground. The rub can be stored in an airtight container for up to 6 months.
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.
• Elizabeth Karmel is a grilling and Southern foods expert and executive chef at Hill Country Barbecue Market restaurants in New York and Washington, as well as Hill Country Chicken in New York. She is the author of three cookbooks, including "Pizza on the Grill."