If ribs epitomize barbecue for most Americans, the baby back epitomizes ribs.
Cut from high on the hog, just next to the spine, baby backs have tender meat—more so than spareribs—abundant fat, and a convenient shape and size that makes one rack perfect for feeding two people if side dishes are served. (A rack contains 8 ribs at a minimum and 13 at a maximum.)
You’ve heard the phrase “fall-off-the-bone tender.” Never, in my opinion, have five words done more harm to the notion of what constitutes good eating. Show me ribs that are “fall-off-the-bone tender,” and I’ll show you ribs that are overcooked with a soft, mushy texture and diminished flavor. Competition pit masters, such as those worthy of Memphis in May or the upcoming American Royal in Kansas City, know they’ll never “walk” (aka place in the contest and walk for a ribbon or trophy) with shreddy ribs. Instead, they aim for ribs with a bit of chew, ribs that retain bite marks without being tough. (And this is what trained barbecue judges look for, too.)
Just in time for the weekend, here are tips for righteous ribs and three of my favorite recipes for baby backs. (And none require much labor. Just a bit of patience.)
If possible, buy ribs from heritage breeds, preferably from local farms that raise their animals humanely. Where your meat comes from is as important as how you cook it. Buy racks that have 8 or more ribs (butcher’s call smaller racks “cheaters”).
Remove the membrane
Place the ribs on a rimmed baking sheet or in a hotel pan to contain any mess.
Ribs have a papery membrane (the pleura) on the concave side of the rack. I like to remove it not only for aesthetic reasons, but because it impedes the absorption of smoke and spices. This is easily done with a butter knife or similar implement. Slide the blade under the membrane—I like to start near the middle bones—and lift up to pry it away from the bones. Then grab it with a clean dishtowel or paper towel and gently pull it off the ribs. Note: Sometimes, packaged baby backs have already had the pleura removed. (Do not remove the connective tissue that holds the ribs together.)
Add layers of flavor
If desired, slather the ribs on both sides with your favorite mustard (many people use common yellow mustard; I prefer Dijon). Then apply your favorite rub. Alternatively, generously apply the rub directly to the raw meat. If you are preparing several racks, I recommend a rib rack which can multiply your grate space by a factor of four.
Grill ’em up
Ribs can be barbecued one of several ways, and because of their intrinsic tenderness, baby backs can be adapted to any of them. They can be smoked low and slow at temperatures between 225 and 250 degrees; indirect grilled at higher temperatures, 275 to 325 degrees; or rotisseried. In Planet Barbecue you’ll even find recipes from Asian for ribs that have been direct grilled—or gasp!—boiled first, then grilled. (Small grills engineered for food efficiency are common there, which gave rise to different strategies than the ones Americans usually employ.)
Maintain a moist environment
Place a heatproof bowl of hot water in your grill before you cook the ribs. Or prepare a mop sauce—a thin, flavorful liquid—before grilling. Use a mixture of apple cider and vinegar, broth, beer, melted butter, or even coffee. (For recipes, see Sauces, Rubs, and Marinades.)
Add wood smoke
Ideally, you’ll be working over a wood fire. But you can also add wood chunks or soaked, drained wood chips to the coals to generate flavorful smoke. (Pellet grills produce tender, smoke-kissed ribs, too.) To avoid over-smoking your ribs, add chunks or chips only for the first couple of hours.
Wrap for tender ribs
Some competition barbecuers wrap their ribs in double layers of heavy-duty aluminum foil halfway through the cook along with apple juice, honey, and pats of butter. This method produces very tender ribs, but with a kind of stewed quality.
To sauce, or not to sauce
As with brisket, it’s sometimes nice to taste the meat on its own without the distraction of a sauce. But if you prefer your ribs sauced, apply it during the last few minutes of cooking. Sizzle the ribs over direct heat, watching carefully so the sugars in the sauce don’t scorch. You can, of course, also offer sauce at the table.
For more rib tips and inspiration, see Best Ribs Ever.