Nothing beats a perfectly smoked rack of ribs but the thought of preparing them at home can be a little overwhelming to many backyard cooks.
To get you started on the road to rib perfection, we've got five simple tips from the winningest woman in competition BBQ and owner of Memphis Barbecue Co., Melissa Cookston, as well as a competition style babyback rib recipe from her new cookbook Smokin' in the Boys Room.
Step One: Relax Many people ask me about cooking ribs - What type of rib is best, how much smoke should be used, what seasonings are the best, etc. My advice to them is usually pretty simple and it all begins by relaxing and having fun. In BBQ competitions, we have to cook to the perfect tenderness, have exceptional flavor, and be done at exactly the right time to turn in to a judge. At home, however, the whole time constraint is removed, as is worry about pleasing some finicky judges with over-the-top flavor profiles. At home, you can concentrate on flavors you love and not stress about them being done at an arbitrary time. If they take a little longer to get done simply enjoy another beverage and some quality family time!
Step Two: Spare or Babyback Ribs When it comes to deciding what type of ribs to cook, there are basically two choices - spare ribs and babyback ribs. Now I was raised on babyback ribs so I tend to make them my ribs of choice as they are generally leaner and have a more delicate flavor. Spare ribs (or "St. Louis ribs" if the spares have been trimmed of the cartilage) are cut closer to the bacon area of the hog and have a richer flavor, but typically have a higher fat content. Both are delicious, but if you are new to cooking ribs then spare ribs or St. Louis ribs might be the way to go as their higher fat content makes them slightly more forgiving should you overcook them.
Step Three: The Equipment When it comes to cooking equipment, you absolutely do not have to have an expensive smoker to turn out good ribs. In fact, I have done plenty with a gas grill that were quite delicious. Don't let your smoker, or lack thereof, be the reason that you shy away from cooking ribs. Ribs benefit from slow cooking to help break down collagen and render the fats (this process turns tough ribs into tender morsels of juicy goodness!), and even gas grills are capable of setting up an indirect heat section for this. Simply turn off the center burners, place the ribs on the cool section, and allow them to cook low-and-slow just as you would with a traditional smoker.
Step Four: The Smoke If you go around and taste the top Pitmasters' ribs, you will notice that while they all have a smoke component, it doesn't overpower the meat. Ribs benefit from lighter smoke flavors such as fruitwoods versus hickory or mesquite that tend to be overpowering. My choice wood for ribs is peach, apple or pecan. These woods are lighter and allow a subtle flavor of smoke without killing the pork flavor.
Step Five: Seasoning and Sauces There are plenty of high quality sauces and seasonings available on the market today to give you that competition flavor profile including my own Memphis Barbecue Co. product line. Making your own, however, is much easier than you might think, plus you have much more control over the flavors you want to accent. Whichever route you go, ribs benefit from a bit of marination time. I typically rub ribs the night before I cook them in order to let some of the flavor work its way into the meat. Sauce however, should be reserved for the very last ten minutes of cooking, otherwise it will over caramelize and yield a burnt flavor to your product.
So, those are my five steps for getting ready to cook ribs, but by far the most important is number one -- Relax, its BBQ! Try these tips out for yourself and post pictures of everything you are barbecuing and grilling this summer to Twitter, Facebook and other social media channels with the hashtag #123BBQ.
Pork Spareribs (Serves 2 to 4)
Outside of Memphis, where baby backs are predominate, spareribs are usually served in most restaurants. Spareribs are cut from the area closer to the belly (bacon) and as such have a richer, more "porky" flavor than baby backs. We serve St. Louis cut ribs, or spareribs with the breastbone area trimmed off, as they cook more consistently.
Ingredients 2 slabs St. Louis spareribs, about 3 pounds each ¾ cup Ultimate BBQ Rub (see below) ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons yellow mustard 1 cup Italian salad dressing 1 cup packed light brown sugar ½ cup honey 1 tablespoon Pickapeppa Sauce (see notes) ½ cup BBQ Mother Sauce (see below) ½ cup Ultimate BBQ Rub in a shaker with very small holes (see Notes)
Instructions Rinse the ribs and remove the membrane from the back. Trim any excess fat from the tops of the slabs. Starting on the backs, sprinkle the ribs with approximately 1 tablespoon of rub each, then spread on 1½ teaspoons mustard each and massage into the meat. Flip the ribs over and repeat. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 8 to 12 hours.
Prepare a smoker to cook at 250°F with cherry and pecan wood. Remove the ribs from the refrigerator, unwrap, and repeat the rub and mustard procedure, massaging them in. Don't get it too thick or paste-like, as this will give you a dark appearance when cooked. Place the ribs in the smoker meat side up and cook for 2½ hours, using a barbecue mop to lightly baste the tops of the ribs with Italian dressing every 30 minutes. Remove the ribs from the smoker and increase the temperature to 275°F.
Apply rub and mustard to both sides of the ribs as before. Tear off a large sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil for each slab of ribs and sprinkle half of the brown sugar in the area where you will put the ribs, then drizzle half of the honey and half of the Pickapeppa Sauce over the sugar on each slab of ribs. Place the ribs meat side down directly into the sugar mix, then close the foil over the ribs, but don't crimp the edges; you want steam to escape.
Return to the smoker for 2 hours. Open the foil and check for tenderness. The ribs should be tender but still have texture. Remove from the smoker, open the foil, and drain, then remove from the foil. Sauce the back sides of the ribs, then flip over and sauce the top sides. Carefully return to the smoker for 15 minutes to tighten up the glaze, then remove and allow to rest for 5 to 10 minutes. Slice the ribs into serving portions, lightly dust with Ultimate BBQ Rub, and serve.
Notes: If you can't find Pickapeppa Sauce, just sprinkle an additional ½ tablespoon of rub over the sugar.
When cooking for competition, you really have to make your product stand out in only one bite. I always keep some of my rub in a shaker with very small holes on top. After the meat is done cooking, lightly shake your rub over the ribs. The fine holes will let only a light dusting come through, so you will get added flavor without changing the appearance.
Ultimate BBQ Rub (Makes about 6 ½ cups)
Ingredients 1 cup turbinado sugar 5 cups Basic BBQ Rub (see below) ¼ cup light chili powder ¼ cup granulated garlic 1 teaspoon cayenne
Instructions Place the turbinado sugar in a clean coffee grinder and pulse until lightly powdered. Transfer to a large mixing bowl. (You may have to work in batches.) Add the rub, chili powder, granulated garlic, and cayenne and stir until well incorporated. Store in an airtight container for up to 2 months.
Basic BBQ Rub (Makes about 1 ¾ cups) This is my all-purpose grilling seasoning, as I like the saltier overtones for the grill. It's great on steaks, pork chops, and grilled chicken.
Ingredients ½ cup freshly cracked black pepper 1 tablespoon dried onion flakes 1 tablespoon coriander seeds 1 tablespoon dill seeds 1 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes 1 cup kosher salt 2 tablespoons granulated garlic 1 teaspoon light chili powder 1 teaspoon ground cumin
Instructions Place the cracked black pepper, onion flakes, coriander seeds, dill seeds, and hot red pepper flakes in a coffee grinder and pulse until reduced in size but not pulverized. Transfer to a small mixing bowl, add the salt, granulated garlic, chili powder, and cumin, and stir until well incorporated. Store in an airtight container for up to 1 month.
BBQ Mother Sauce (Makes about 6 cups) This recipe has always been our "mother" competition sauce--the base we use to make the sauces we serve for competition judges. It is very forgiving of tweaking, so use it as a palette with which to add your favorite flavors. One of my favorite variations is to add a cup of peach or mango puree to 2 cups of the sauce for a fresh taste. When cooking competition chicken, I leave out the diced onion and substitute 1 tablespoon of onion powder, as I like a smoother finish on chicken.
Ingredients ¼ cup canola oil ¾ cup finely diced sweet or yellow onion 2 tablespoons minced garlic 1½ cups ketchup ½ cup honey 2 tablespoons tomato paste ¼ cup white vinegar ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons packed dark brown sugar ¼ cup Worcestershire sauce 2 teaspoons dry mustard 1 teaspoon cayenne 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper ½ cup water, or as needed ½ cup Basic BBQ Rub (see above) or Ultimate BBQ Rub (see above), or to taste
Instructions In a medium saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes. Turn the heat to low if the onion is cooking too fast--you don't want it caramelized or browned. As the onion is getting close, add the garlic and cook until lightly golden, about 2 minutes longer. Add the ketchup, honey, tomato paste, vinegar, brown sugar, Worcestershire, dry mustard, cayenne, and black pepper and stir well. Slowly add water until the sauce reaches the consistency you like. A slightly thick consistency is best. Add about 3 tablespoons of the rub, stir well, and taste. The sauce should have a good, well-rounded flavor. Add more rub in 1-tablespoon increments until your desired flavor is achieved. Cool and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 10 days.
Adapted From Smokin' in the Boys' Room: Southern Recipes from the Winningest Woman in Barbecue by Melissa Cookston / Andrews McMeel Publishing, LCC 2014