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Everything But the Meat

An Introduction to Cooking Ribs

An Introduction to Cooking Ribs

Spare Ribs vs. Baby Back Ribs – The Basics

Baby back ribs, sometimes referred to as “loin back ribs” are from the top of the pig’s rib cage, cut from the loin section.  Since they come from the loin section, baby back ribs are leaner and more tender compared to spareribs.  The smaller size and tender meat makes baby backs a popular choice for cooking at home.

On the belly side of the pig’s rib cage below the back ribs is where spareribs are taken.  The spareribs are bigger, tougher, and meatier than baby back ribs, meaning that spares will generally need to be cooked longer than baby back ribs to become tender.

Trimming Your Ribs

Baby back ribs need less trimming than spare ribs. Whichever type of rib you choose to cook, you will want to trim off any major fat deposits, especially areas of thick, hard fat.  Fat is flavor, so do not try to over trim your meat, just trim down any large areas.  Other than removing the membrane (more on that later) most baby backs are ready to go out of the package.

Spareribs take a little more effort to trim. Most pit masters will trim the full rack by doing a “St. Louis cut.” The problem with a whole rack of spareribs is that the breastbone section has lots of tough pieces of cartilage in it, which end up as hard-to-chew bits.  The St. Louis cut is trimmed of this cartilage-laden portion, as well as some excess flap-meat at the end of the rack. The end result is a rack of ribs that is more uniform in shape, smaller, and easier to eat.  Again, similar to loin back ribs you want to trim any major fat deposits and hard fat you find.

These trimmings, called “rib tips” make a great snack for the cook or an appetizer.  Cover them in rub and throw them on the smoker for a few hours.  You may have to work for it, but there is some great meat on there.

Insane in the Membrane

Each slab has a meat side and a bone side. The meat side curves towards you, and the bone side curves away from you.  The membrane covering the bone side is leathery and almost inedible when cooked, and can prevent flavorings and smoke from penetrating into the meat.  Some cooks and restaurants choose to leave the membrane, but the general consensus is to remove it. 

To remove the membrane, grip one end with a paper towel and remove from your meat.  It will often pull off in one or two pieces.  If you have issues use a fork to get under the membrane to get a better grip. One helpful hint, a partially frozen or chilled rib makes it easier to remove the membrane.  After a little practice, you will be removing membranes like a pro!

Marinades and Rubs

In our earlier classes for turkey, chicken, and pork butt, we thoroughly covered injecting the meat.  This time we don’t have to! Ribs are thin cuts of meat that do not need injection. To impart more flavor in the ribs, many pit masters will rub their ribs the night before. This is called a dry marinade. The salt in the rub will pull moisture to the surface, “melting” the rub and pulling flavor into the meat.

Some pit masters chose to use a wet marinade. Marinades, as a general rule, do not have the ability to soak deep into the meat.  They are only a surface flavoring, which you will get from the dry marinade.  I once knew of a BBQ team that would marinate their ribs overnight in pineapple and apple cider vinegar to help set them apart from other BBQ teams.  The choice is yours to experiment with and make, but for ease, cleanliness and flavor, we prefer the dry marinade process.  

Either way you choose to marinate your ribs, remove them from the refrigerator or cooler about an hour before putting them in your smoker.  During this time the ribs will start warming to room temperature and give you a chance to add a new layer of dry rub.  In our pulled pork class, we discussed using mustard to help adhere the rub to the meat. You can use that same method on ribs if you want, and may cooks do; however, for ribs we prefer not to. Coat your ribs with a generous layer of dry rub on both sides, and set the ribs aside until you are ready to put them on the smoker.

The 3-2-1 Method

No, I’m not counting down for my 2 year old. The 3-2-1 method is 3 hours smoked, 2 hours wrapped in aluminum foil, and 1 hour in the smoker unwrapped and glazed. Some pit masters use their own variations of this method, but this is the basic principle for cooking baby back ribs.

When your smoker reaches 225°F to 250°F and you have a good amount of smoke from your wood of choice, you are ready to add your ribs.  For the first three hours of the cook, make sure the meat receives a constant supply of smoke.  Most cooks look for “thin blue smoke.” You do not want rolling heavy smoke coming out your smoke stack, but rather a thin wisp of smoke continuously for the first three hours. Make sure your smoker has plenty of time to come to temperature and your wood is putting out the ideal amount of smoke.

The type of wood you use is entirely up to you. I like to use a mixture of hardwoods, fruit woods (apple, peach, or pear), and cherry. Hardwoods like hickory will give meat the classic smoky flavor, but too much hickory can be overpowering. Fruit woods like apple, peach, or pear will help mellow out the hickory flavor and give the meat a slightly sweet, fruity flavor. Cherry is great to add a red sheen to your meat and help produce a distinct dark red smoke ring.

If you choose to baste your ribs, try to do so only once per hour. As they say, “if you’re lookin’, you ain’t cookin’.”  A smoker can take up to 30 minutes to recover lost temperature, so only open when necessary.  If you choose to do so, commercial bastes like Wickers or Victory Lane Baste & Marinade are excellent, or spritz using a mixture of apple juice and apple cider vinegar. 

After the first three hours, remove the ribs from the smoker and wrap them with a double layer of aluminum foil. This method, also called the “Texas crutch,” helps speed up the cooking process and adds a moist cooking environment for the meat. Purists will tell you that wrapping in foil is not necessary, but virtually all competition BBQ teams will wrap their ribs.  Place your ribs on the foil bone side up and wrap in such a way to form a foil boat so you can add additional flavors and moisture to your ribs. Many cooks will add apple juice, honey or brown sugar to help sweeten their ribs, and butter to increase richness.  As with all stages of smoking meat, there is no set recipe.  Experiment with different flavors until you discover the flavor profile you are looking for.

After you wrap your ribs, you will no longer need to add wood to your fire for smoke.  Hold your temperature between 225°F and 250°F by adjusting the air intake.

After two hours in foil, check the ribs for their level of doneness. Carefully pickup your ribs with tongs.  If they bend to the point of almost breaking, you are ready to unwrap. If the ribs still feel stiff and do not bend, put them back in the foil and let them cook for another thirty minutes to an hour before checking their tenderness again.

If your ribs are ready, carefully remove them from the foil and sauce both sides with the rib glaze of your choice. Place the ribs back on the grill for the last hour, allowing the ribs to firm up slightly.  This time will also allow your glaze to caramelize and set on the ribs, giving you the perfect color. If you like a dry rib, do not sauce the ribs when you put them back on the grill. If you like a REALLY wet rib, sauce the ribs again after thirty minutes.

Remember, these times are only guides.  You may find that 2-2-1 or 3-2-2 suits you best.  It all depends on your ribs, your smoker, the weather, etc.  Experiment and you will find what works best for you!

Resting and Cutting

As with all meats, allow the ribs to rest for 10 to 15 minutes before you cut into them. If you have cooked your ribs early, you can wrap them in foil and place them in an empty clean cooler to stay warm for a couple of hours.

The easiest way to slice ribs is to stand them on their side and use your knife to cut along the bones into two or three bone sections.