Back to Basics: How to Grill the Perfect Rack of Pork Ribs
Introducing “Back to Basics”
A5 wagyu may shock and awe and whole hog may fetch you a lot of likes on social media. But admit it, what you really want to know when you fire it up is how to master the basics.
How to grill perfect steak, for example.
Or ribs that are smoky and tender.
A rotisserie chicken with crackling crisp skin and moist meat.
Fish fillets that don’t dry out and don’t stick to the grill grate.
Yeah, and how to smoke one of those briskets that make Texas pit masters look so cool.
We hear you loud and clear. That’s why we proudly announce the start of a new series on barbecuebible.com: Back to Basics. A series of monthly blogs that dive deep into the dishes you want to master and help you shine at when you serve them to your guests. The guiding principles. The essential techniques. The grill master secrets and watchpoints that enable you to nail it every time.
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How to Grill the Perfect Rack of Pork Ribs
There are several dishes every American grill master should know how to cook with confidence: an Instagram-worthy steak; a tender, juicy, beef brisket; a beer-can chicken; a perfect burger. Add to this the most essential thing of all—a succulent slab of pork ribs.
Nothing will establish your grilling/smoking reputation faster than ribs that launch everyone who eats them into a state of gustatory bliss.
What makes a perfect rib? The bark (crust) should be handsomely dark and caramelized, but not dried out. The bones themselves should be tender enough to pull apart with your fingers, but not so soft that the meat falls off the bone. As any barbecue competition-level cook will tell you, a clean—not shreddy—bite is what judges look for. Meat that falls off the bone is considered overcooked. The meat, although it should be fragrant with spice and smoke, should be the undisputed star—succulent and porky-tasting.
At the meat market or your local supermarket, you’ll likely have your choice of pork ribs:
Baby Back Ribs/Top Loin Ribs: Baby backs are indisputably America’s favorite ribs. High on the hog, these tender, well-marbled ribs are located just under the backbone. A full rack consists of at least 8 ribs, although most have 12. It typically weighs 2 to 2 1/2 pounds and will feed 2 normal appetites. To cook, smoke or grill indirectly until the meat pulls back from the bones by about 1/2 inch or until a toothpick inserted between the bones meets little resistance.
Spareribs/St. Louis Cut: Closer to the porcine belly are the spareribs, which are larger, meatier, and fattier than baby backs. They are often the rib of choice for competition cooks and true rib aficianados. A full rack usually has 13 ribs, and untrimmed, weighs 5 to 6 pounds. Trimmed of the cartilaginous tips, a tough flap of meat called the skirt or brisket on the bone side, and a smallish triangular end piece, a rack weighs 3 to 4 pounds and will feed 3 normal appetites. A rack trimmed in this fashion is called a “St. Louis Cut.” A rack that has been “squared off” in this fashion is typically more expensive per pound as it requires extra labor. However, it is easy to do the trimming yourself. (Be sure to save the trimmings; smoke alongside the rack—especially the rib tips, which can be enjoyed on their own—and use in baked bean or other dishes enhanced by smoked pork.) Smoke or grill indirectly as you would baby backs until the meat pulls back from the bones by about 1/2 inch or until a toothpick inserted between the bones meets little resistance.
Country-Style Ribs: The country-style rib is cut from the upper shoulder, or blade, end of the loin. If left whole, it has 3 to 6 bones. But usually, country ribs are cut apart and often deboned. The ribs are lean and meaty, weighing about 1/3 of a pound each. They are best with cooked directly, like a pork chop, or seared and then grilled indirectly until the internal temperature reaches 145 degrees.
Nine Essential Techniques for Prepping and Cooking Ribs
- Trim the Ribs: Baby backs often come pre-trimmed. If you see any large lumps of fat, sinews, or loose pieces of bone. Remove them with a sharp paring knife. Unless you purchase St. Louis-style spareribs, they will benefit from trimming. Remove the rib tips, then remove the shortest bones (the ones in a triangular array at one end of the rack). Finally, remove the tough flap of meat from the bone side.
- Remove the Membrane: Unless it’s already been removed by the vendor, most racks of ribs come with a tough, papery membrane on the bone side of the rack. It is inedible and impedes the absorption of spice and smoke flavors. Many grill masters have their own tricks for removing this membrane. We use a butter knife or a screwdriver to loosen the membrane. (Start over one of the middle bones and prise the membrane up with your preferred tool.) Grab the membrane with a paper towel and pull the membrane off. You might need a couple of tries. Note: There is a second, thinner membrane under the first. Do not remove it as it connects the ribs in the rack.
- Season the Ribs with a Rub, Slather, or Marinade: Seasoning can be as simple as salt and pepper—they let the meat shine through. But most pit masters opt for the more complex flavors of a rub—a commercial rub or a proprietary rub—which typically contains spices, salt, herbs, and sometimes, a sweetener. Often, a simple slather (a “moisturizer,” if you will) is applied to the ribs—mustard, mayonnaise, Worcestershire sauce, etc. Some pit masters dust the finished ribs lightly with more rub.
- Add Flavor with Smoke: Most rib lovers expect at least a hint of smoke in their bones, and will look for the telltale pink smoke ring that forms under the exterior of the meat. If you are cooking on a charcoal grill, set up your grill for indirect grilling and place a handful of smoking wood chips (previously soaked in water for 30 minutes, then drained) or a couple of wood chunks. (If using a pellet grill or smoker, follow the manufacturer’s instructions.) If using a gas grill, set up for indirect grilling. Place soaked wood chips in the grill’s smoker box. If it doesn’t have one, enclose smoking chips or wood pellets in a foil packet; poke holes in the packet with a knife or fork to allow the smoke to escape. Position it over the flame and replenish as needed. Note: It is not necessary to apply smoke during the entire cook. Over-smoking will give the ribs an acrid flavor.
- Mop the Ribs: Direct and indirect grilling and smoking are inherently dry cooking methods. In addition to or in lieu of a slather (see above), you can mop the ribs with a mop sauce free of sugar or sweeteners. Start applying them after the first 45 minutes of cooking. Use a barbecue mop or basting brush. Or, pour the mop sauce into a food-safe spray bottle and mist it on the ribs. (You can even shake a bottle of beer or soda pop, place your thumb over the mouth of the bottle, leaving it partially uncovered, and point it toward the ribs.)
- Wrap the Ribs (or Not): If it appears the ribs are beginning to dry out before they’re tender, there’s an easy solution. Called “the Texas Crutch,” you can wrap the ribs tightly in aluminum foil. (Add a few spoonfuls of a flavorful liquid if you want to create a very moist environment.) Wrapping seals in moisture; the steam captured will help tenderize the ribs. Be careful when you unwrap the ribs as the escaping steam can burn you.
- Sauce the Ribs (or Not): Purists will argue that a great rib doesn’t need sauce. Nonetheless, most people expect at least a light coating of barbecue sauce. Steven’s M.O. is to grill the ribs indirectly until they reach the desired tenderness, then bastes them with the sauce. Finally, he moves the ribs directly over the fire to sizzle the sauce into the ribs. This will take only a few minutes, so watch carefully. Serve additional sauce on the side, if desired.
- Learn to Recognize When the Ribs are Cooked: Look for an exterior that’s darkly browned and crusty; meat that has shrunk back about 1/2 inch from the ends of the bones; meat that’s tender enough to tear apart with your fingers. You can also lift the ribs off the grill positioning tongs in the middle of the rack. The meat will begin to shred between the center bones.
- Cut the Ribs Apart: Let the ribs rest for 5 minutes. Turn them over (meat side down), and using a sharp knife, cut between the bones. (For the most appealing turn-in boxes, competition cooks select the best bones, then maximize the meat by slicing close to the bones on either side of the chosen ones. This sacrifices several bones, of course. Although they’re still great to gnaw on—cook’s privilege!)
For a recipe that incorporates the above techniques, try one of our most popular recipes, the aptly named First-Timer’s Ribs.
For even more recipes check out Steven’s book: Best Ribs Ever!
More Blogs on Ribs!
- Ribs in a Hurry: 5 Great Techniques
- Ribs Take Wing
- 10 Best Ribs Recipes for the Grill and Smoker from Across America
Do you have a basic recipe you’ll like to know more about? Contact us at Steven@barbecuebible.com
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