"Do not eat the meat raw or boiled in water, but roast it over a fire." Exodus 12:9
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Pork ribs are the holy grail. Mastering them marks the difference between the tyro, pyro, and pitmaster.
We're talking Southern ribs here, a style created by African slaves and as uniquely American as their other great contributions to our culture: Jazz and the blues.
The ribs that win championships are a melange of flavors: A complex spice rub, elegant hardwood smoke, tangy sweet sauce, all underpinned and held together by the distinct flavor of pork. They are juicy and tender and they tug cleanly off the bone but don't fall off the bone. Their scent clings to your fingers for hours. Click here for my complete definition of Amazing Ribs, what I look for when I judge barbecue competitions.
You can make it happen. With this recipe you will make ribs good enough to bring home a trophy in a cookoff. In fact, several readers have written to me that they have done exactly that with this recipe. There may be a few more steps in this process than you like, but it's not hard and we're talking restaurant grade meat here. Better. You don't need a special smoker, although it helps. You can cook killer ribs on most charcoal and gas grills once you understand the concepts.
Here's a short video that shows the whole process:
How to get meatier baby back ribs
The best advice I will ever give you: Develop a relationship with your butcher.
On baby back ribs are cut from the loin meat, the amount of meat on the baby backs is determined by your butcher.
Most grocers and butcher shops get their baby backs pre-cut in boxes, and the amount of meat on the ribs is determined by the price the store feels it can charge, and what the competition forces them to charge.
Even if they get their baby backs pre-cut, many butchers also get whole bone-in rib roasts.
If you ask nicely, your butcher may be willing to custom cut the baby back ribs off the rib roast leaving extra meat on them. Want baby backs with 1/2" of meat on top? No problem? Want a whole inch? No problem. Expect to pay more for these extra meaty ribs, but the result is worth it.
A better option: Just buy the whole bone-in rib roast and then ask the butcher to remove the baby backs leaving about 1/2" of meat on them. Then keep the de-boned loin meat for roasting separately. Yummmmmm!
If you boil ribs the terrorists win
A lot of folks boil their ribs before grilling them and slathering on the sauce. The concept comes from Eastern Europe where Poles and Czechs prepare ribs by simmering them in water with cabbage, potatoes, carrots, and caraway seed, making a very nice pork stew.
But water is a solvent. It pulls much of the flavor out of the meat, and it can make the meat mushy. When you boil meat and bones, you make a rich flavorful soup. All that color in the pot is flavor that you can never get back into the meat. Boil meat too much and water can even dry it out by causing the proteins to contract and squeeze the moisture out of the muscle fibers.
People talk wistfully about meat that falls off the bone, but if it does, it has probably been boiled and denuded of its best flavors. What they're really loving is the unctuous barbecue sauce. That's why McRibs are so popular. They're just ground pork swimming in sweetened ketchup mixed with liquid smoke and some other flavors. Classic Southern ribs have the same mouthfeel and bite as a tender juicy steak and most important, they taste like pork, not just sauce. They tug off the bone rather than fall off the bone.
If you are really really in a hurry, you are better off steaming or microwaving them and then finishing them on the grill or under the broiler.
Just don't boil 'em!
Know your ribs
The jargon butchers use to name different rib cuts can be confusing. Baby backs lie near the spine. Spareribs attach to them and run all the way down to the chest. St. Louis Cut ribs are spareribs that have had the rib tips removed. Country ribs are really not ribs at all, they are chops and should be cooked very differently. Click here for a complete description of all rib cuts.
Serve Last Meal Ribs with
- Creamy Deli Slaw or Sweet-Sour Slaw
- Kosher Dill Pickles
- Bourbon Baked Beans or Grannie's Texas Beans or Hoppin' John South Carolina Beans or Boston Baked Beans
- Bron's Cheesy Grits or Cornbread or Garlic bread or Grilled Corn on the Cob or Crack & Cheese
- Rosengarten's Real Home Made Lemonade or Southern Sweet Tea or Beer or Marvelous Mint Juleps
Last Meal Ribs Recipe
This recipe needed a name when I first published it, and Doug and Trudy Calvin of Palm Springs, CA provided it. He wrote "I fixed ribs yesterday by following your recipe. My girlfriend made me promise that for her last meal on this planet I would fix the same ribs."
Makes. 1 slab, enough for 2 adult servings
Preparation time. 15 minutes minimum. 10 minutes to skin 'n' trim, 5 minutes to rub, 1 to 2 hours dry brining is optional.
Cooking time. 3 hours minimum. We will be cooking low and slow at about 225°F, so allow 5 to 6 hours for St. Louis Cut (SLC) ribs and 3 to 4 hours for baby back ribs. Thicker, meatier slabs take longer, and if you use rib holders so they are crammed close to each other, add another hour. Country ribs are really not ribs, they are chops and should be cooked very differently. Begin by learning how to set up your grill by reading my article on 2-zone or Indirect cooking. That means that one side is hot and the other is not. This is the single most important technique a pitmaster must learn. Then set up your grill for a meatless trial run so you can learn how to tweak the dials and vents to get it to 225°F. If you have a gas grill, use only one burner as described in my article setup for a gas grill. Put a disposable aluminum pan with water on top of the hot burner(s). Moisture and combustion gases in a propane grill combine to create a seductive, bacon-like flavor in the meat. If it has only one burner, put the water pan between the meat and the burner. If you have a Weber kettle, put about half a chimney of unlit coals in the grill and put about half a chimney of fully lit coals on top to get to 225°F. I recommend you use a water pan. All this is described in detail in my article on the best setup for a charcoal grill. If you have an offset firebox smoker, follow my instructions for setting up an offset smoker. If you have a bullet smoker like the Weber Smokey Mountain, read my article bullet smoker setup.
Total time. 3 to 4 hours for baby backs, 5 to 6 hours for spare ribs and St. Louis Cut ribs.
1 grill with a cover. You can use a dedicated smoker or any charcoal grill or gas grill as long as it has a cover. A tight fitting cover with adjustable vents like those on the Weber Kettle is best.
1 (18 pound) bag of charcoal for charcoal grills or smokers. You won't use all that charcoal, but because you will need more on cold, windy, or wet days than on sunny and warm days, have a full bag on hand. I prefer briquets (read my article on charcoal to see why). Absolutely do not use the instant igniting stuff that has solvent in it. Chimney starters are by far the best way to start charcoal, especially for long slow cooking where the smell of the solvent in charcoal starter fluid can ruin the taste of the meat. Read my article on how to start a charcoal fire.
1 tank of propane for gas cookers. You won't need it all, but, until you get the hang of this technique, don't risk running out by starting with a partial tank.
8 ounces by weight of hardwood chunks, chips, or pellets. It doesn't matter how many slabs you are cooking, 8 ounces should be enough. You don't have to be precise, just measure it in some fashion so you have a baseline for your next cook. Then you can add or subtract if you wish. I prefer chunks of apple, oak, or hickory for pork. Never use any kind of pine unless you want meat that tastes like turpentine. Never use construction lumber because it is often treated with poisonous chemicals to discourage rot and termites. You do not need to soak the wood because wood does not absorb much water. That's why they make boats with it. Click the link to read more about wood and the myth of soaking wood.
1 pair of long handled tongs
1 sauce brush, preferably one of those newfangled silicon jobs
1 good digital oven thermometer
1 six pack of beer (for the cook, not the meat)
1 slab of fresh St. Louis Cut (SLC) ribs. That's 1/2 slab per adult. If you use baby back ribs, get a whole slab per adult. You'll probably have leftovers, but what's wrong with that? SLCs are the meatiest and most flavorful ribs. They are spareribs with the tips removed so they form a nice rectangular rack. You can use baby back ribs if you prefer. They are smaller and cook faster. Country ribs come from the shoulder and are not really ribs, so don't use them for this recipe. Get fresh, not frozen meat if possible. Fresh meat has the best pork flavor and the most moisture. Ever notice the pink liquid when you defrost meat? You can't get that back into the meat, so buy fresh meat whenever possible. Ask the butcher to remove the membrane on the back side.
4 tablespoons of Meathead's Memphis Dust
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt per pound of meat
About the salt. Remember, kosher salt is half the concentration of table salt so if you use table salt, use half as much. Click here to read more about salt and how it works.
1) Rinse. Rinse the ribs in cool water to remove any bone bits from the butchering and any bacterial film that grew in the package (don't worry, cooking will sterilize the meat).
2) Skin 'n' trim. If the butcher has not removed the membrane from the under side, do it yourself. It gets leathery and hard to chew, it keeps fat in, and it keeps sauce out. Insert a butter knife under the membrane, then your fingers, work a section loose, grip it with a paper towel, and peel it off. Finally, trim the excess fat from both sides. If you can't get the skin off, with a sharp knife, cut slashes through it every inch so some of the fat will render out during the cooking. Click here to see more photos of how to skin 'n' trim.
3) Salt. Salt is important. It penetrates deep and amplifies flavor. It helps proteins retain moisture. And it helps with bark, the desired crust on the top formation. Click here to read more about how salt works. It is truly the magic rock. If you can, give the salt 1 to 2 hours to be absorbed. The process of salting in advance is called dry brining. The rule of thumb is 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt per pound of meat, but ribs are about 50% meat, so use about 1/4 teaspoon per pound. You can simply eyeball it by sprinkling on the same amount of salt you would sprinkle on the ribs if they were served to you unsalted.
If you are watching your salt intake, let's do some math. We recommend about 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt per pound of meat. That's equivalent to 1/4 teaspoon of table salt. Table salt weights 5.69 grams per teaspoon. But most of us don't eat a whole pound of meat. Say you eat 1/2 pound, that's 1/8 teaspoon of table salt or 0.711 grams or 711 milligrams, or less than 1/3 of your recommended daily intake.
Beware of double salt jeopardy! Rubs and spice blends are a great way to add flavor to meat. Commercial rubs almost always contain salt because salt amps up flavor and helps form a crust. Brines are also a great way to add flavor as well as moisture (click here to read about The Science of Brines). Meat that is labeled "enhanced" or "flavor enhanced" or "self-basting" or "basted" has been injected with a brine at the packing plant. Kosher meat has also been treated with salt at the plant. You can use a rub on brined or kosher meats, but beware of double salt jeopardy. A salty rub on top of brined or kosher meat can make it unbearably salty. If you use brined or kosher meat and then a rub, you should make your own rub and leave the salt out of the blend. Also, be aware that the drippings from a brined meat or a meat rubbed with a salty spice blend will probably not need salting, so if you make a gravy from drippings, be sure to taste before you add salt. Remember, you can always add salt, but you can't take it away
4) Rub. Some folks insist on putting the rub on the night before, but it isn't necessary. The molecules in spices are too large to penetrate more than a tiny fraction of an inch. Anytime before cooking time, just coat the meat with a thin layer of water. The water helps dissolve the spices. A lot of cooks like to use mustard under the rub as a form of glue. Mustard is water, vinegar, and maybe white wine (all mostly water) with mustard powder mixed in. The amount of mustard powder is so small that by the time the water steams off and drips away, the mustard powder remaining is miniscule. My experience is that using a mustard slather makes little or no difference in the final outcome. If you want a mustard flavor, you will do much better by simply sprinkling it on the meat. Sprinkle enough Meathead's Memphis Dust to coat all surfaces but not so much that the meat doesn't show through. That is about 2 tablespoons per side depending on the size of the slab. Spread the Memphis Dust on the meat and rub it in.
5) Set up your cooker for 2-zone or indirect cooking.
6) Adjust the temp. Preheat your cooker to about 225°F and try to keep it there throughout the cook. This is crucial: You can absolutely positively noway nohow rely on bi-metal dial thermometers. Even if you spent a fortune on your grill they mount unreliable thermometers on them. If you are not monitoring your cooker with a good digital oven thermometer, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. Using a dial thermometer is like trying to send email with a typewriter. Click here to read my buyer's guide to thermometers.
On a charcoal grill, adjust the air intake dampers at the bottom to control heat on charcoal grills. Intake dampers are more effective than exhaust dampers for controlling the temp because they reduce the supply of oxygen to the coals. Take your time getting the temp right. Cooking at 225°F will allow the meat to roast low and slow, liquefying the collagen in connective tissues and melting fats without getting the proteins knotted in a bunch. It's a magic temp that creates silky texture, adds moisture, and keeps the meat tender. If you can't hit 225°F, get as close as you can. Don't go under 200°F and try not to go over 250°F. Click here for more about how to calibrate your grill. To learn more about what happens inside the meat when it is cooking read my article on meat science. Read my article on the thermodynamics of cooking to learn how different grills cook differently.
7) Smoke. For charcoal or gas cookers, add 4 ounces of wood at this time. On a gas grill, put the wood as close to the flame as possible. On a charcoal grill, put it right on the hot coals. Resist the temptation to add more wood. Nothing will ruin a meal faster and waste money better than oversmoked meat. You can always add more the next time you cook, but you cannot take it away if you oversmoke.
8) Relax. Put the slabs in the cooker on the indirect side of the grill, meaty side up. Close the lid and go drink a beer, read a book, or make love.
9) More smoke. When the smoke dwindles after 20 to 30 minutes, add another 4 ounces of wood. That's it. Stop adding wood. If you have more than one slab on, halfway through the cook you will need to move the ribs closest to the fire away from the heat, and the slabs farthest from the flame in closer. Leave the meat side up. There is no need to flip the slabs. You can peek if you must, but don't leave the lid open for long.
10) The Texas Crutch. This trick involves wrapping the slab in foil with about an ounce of water for up to an hour to speed cooking and tenderize a bit. Almost all competition cooks use the crutch to get an edge. But the improvement is really slight and I never bother for backyard cooking. If you crutch too long you can turn the meat to mush and time in foil can soften the bark and remove a lot of rub. I recommend it only for competition when the tiniest improvement can mean thousands of dollars. Skip it and you'll still have killer ribs. But if you've seen it on TV and must try it, click here to learn more about The Texas Crutch.
11) The bend test. Although I insist that you buy a good digital meat thermometer for grilling, this is one of the few meats on which you cannot use a thermometer because the bones have an impact on the meat temp and because the meat is so thin. Allow 5 to 6 hours for St. Louis Cut ribs and spare ribs, or 3 to 4 hours for baby back ribs. The exact time will depend on how thick the slabs are and how steady you have kept the temp. If you use rib holders so they are crammed close to each other, add another hour. Then check to see if they are ready. I use the bend test (a.k.a. the bounce test). Pick up the slab with tongs and bounce it gently. If the surface cracks like in the picture above, it is ready. Here are some other tricks to tell when ribs are ready.
12) Sauce. Now paint both sides with your favorite home made barbecue sauce or store-bought sauce and put it directly over the hottest part of the grill in order to caramelize and crisp the sauce. On a charcoal grill, just move the slab over the coals. On a gas grill, remove the water pan and crank up all the burners. On a water smoker, remove the water pan and move the meat close to the coals. On an offset smoker, put a grate over the coals in the firebox and put the meat there. With the lid open so you don't roast the meat from above, sizzle the sauce on one side and then the other. Stand by your grill and watch because sweet sauce can go from caramelized to carbonized in less than a minute! One coat of a thick sauce should be enough, but if you need two, go ahead, but no more! Don't hide all the fabulous flavors under too much sauce. If you think you'll want more sauce, put some in a bowl on the table.
If you've done all this right, you will notice that there is a thin pink layer beneath the surface of the meat. This does not mean it is undercooked! It is the highly prized smoke ring caused by the combustion gases and the smoke. It is a sign of Amazing Ribs. Now be ready to take a bow when the applause swells from the audience.