Memphis Ribs 101
Who doesn’t love ribs? If they are done correctly, I don’t know anyone who can turn down a bone or two or three!
My rib-awakening happened at the world’s largest barbecue contest a.k.a., Memphis in May. Talk about a culinary epiphany. All it took was that first bite of a grill-smoked rib for me to realize that real barbecued ribs very rarely come out of a restaurant kitchen. They are usually much better made and devoured in your own backyard. There is nothing like home-made ribs. And here is the dirty little secret! They don’t take near as long as the competition guys would like you to think [they do], and they are much simpler to prepare than legend has it!
The most popular ribs to cook are back ribs, but spareribs and St-Louis style ribs are gaining traction. Back ribs are cut from high up on the rib near the spinal column. Back ribs are meaty, leaner than spareribs and very flavorful—this is the area of the pig that “produces” the tenderloin. Back ribs are usually sold in either full slabs (13-ribs) or half slabs (7-ribs), and are the most expensive cut of rib. When they come from a pig that is less than a year old, they are referred to as “baby” back ribs. True baby back ribs generally weigh around 1-to-1 ½ pounds each which makes them difficult to cook on the grill because they have so little meat on their bones!
Spareribs are cut from the belly or side of the pig. Spareribs are longer and fatter than back ribs. While they have less meat, many parts of the country prefer them and the St. Louis-style cut is gaining in popularity with restaurants, backyard barbecuers and the barbecue circuit. The St-Louis cut is a sparerib trimmed to remove the flap of meat on the underside of the breast bone and squared off to more easily fit on the grill.
Once you decide on which rib to buy, there are a few things to remember when purchasing your meat. Number one: Make sure that each slab weighs at least 2 pounds each and that the ribs have a nice layer of meat covering the bone. Slabs of ribs that are factory-cut often have “bone shine” or areas of the rack where the blade hit the bone and cut off all the meat exposing the bone.
And, it goes without saying that you need to buy the best quality, freshest product available. This is especially true with meat and there is a wide range of product in the marketplace. If you have a local butcher who cuts the meat, frequent his or her shop. He’ll give you tips on cooking, can cut meat to order, and can special order meat as well.
If you don’t have a local butcher, go to a grocery store that has high traffic and keeps the meat case rotated with fresh product every day. Beyond that, be sure to look at the expiration date on the label and give your purchases the old-fashioned smell test. If it smells “off” or a little funny, then it is probably old. I prefer buying ribs that are cryovac-ed as they are generally the freshest choice.
The next decision that you have to make is whether or not to remove the silver skin. Along the back (non-meaty) side of a slab of ribs there is a smooth covering or membrane that holds the ribs together. It is often referred to as the silver skin. Some people recommend removing it but it is purely optional whether you take it off or not. If you leave it on, it is a good indicator of when the ribs are done because it lifts away from the meat when the meat is cooked. It is very crispy when done and looks a little like parchment paper and is slightly translucent. Many people consider it a delicacy and really like eating it, and many more don’t even know it is removable.
A few cooks say that leaving the membrane intact prevents the seasoning from penetrating the meat and stops the rendering of the fat. I have never found this to be true, I think that it is mostly a cosmetic issue and a little known one at that. But be forewarned, if your rack of ribs has any “bone shine,” the membrane will keep the rack intact and if you remove it, your rack will likely fall apart.
One final thing that you need to know is that the best way to test for doneness is to make sure that the meat has receded from the end of the bones and that you can bend the rack without breaking it in pieces. And, remember that the only way that the meat will fall off the bone, is if you par-boil them first (just say no!) or if you way over-cook them. The best ribs should be tender but have a little “chew” left.
Memphis Ribs 101
This recipe is my version of ribs that won a Memphis in May barbecue contest a few years back. These guys took me under their wing and taught me everything they knew—or so they said—about barbecuing baby backs. Their secret was marinating the ribs in lemon juice before seasoning with a commercial spice rub. I’ve streamlined their process with cut lemons and a homemade rub.
Grilling Method: Indirect/Medium-Low Heat
4 racks St. Louis ribs, about 2-3 pounds per slab
2 lemons, cut in half¼ cup Classic Barbecue Rub (see below) or favorite spice rub
Soaked wood chips, if desired Favorite barbecue sauce
Preheat your Memphis Wood Fire Grill to 255 F. ( You will raise the temperature at the end of the cooking time to 300 F)
Remove silver skin from back of ribs, if desired. Rub the cut lemons over front and back of ribs squeezing to release as much juice as possible. Remove any lemon pits and discard. Set aside for 5 minutes. Sprinkle ribs liberally with spice rub and let sit, covered, for 15 minutes.
Place ribs (bone side down) in the center of the cooking grate or in a rib holder/rack, making sure they are not over a direct flame. Smoke with the lid down for about 2-2 ½ hours (depending on the size of your ribs) or until meat is tender and is almost done. Increase the heat to 300 F to finish the cooking time (45-60 more minutes) and make sure that all the fat has rendered out, and the meat has pulled back from the ends of the rib bones.Leave ribs untended for the first 30 minutes—this means no peeking. If the ribs start to burn on the edges, stack them on top of one another in the very center of the grill and lower your fire/heat slightly.
If saucing the ribs: twenty minutes before serving, un-stack ribs, if necessary, and brush with barbecue sauce. Remove ribs from grill and let rest 10 minutes before cutting into individual or 2-3 rib portions.
Warm remaining sauce in a saucepan and serve on the side, if desired.
Classic BBQ Rub
3 tablespoons white granulated sugar
2 tablespoons smoked paprika
2 tablespoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon freshly ground Worcestershire black pepper
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon garlic powder
2 teaspoons chili powder
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
In a medium bowl, combine all the ingredients; mix well. For a smoother rub, process the ingredients in a spice grinder until well combined and all the pieces are uniform (the rub will be become a very fine powder and tan in color).
(The rub can be stored in an airtight container for up to 6 months.)
Makes about 1 ½ cups
2017 Elizabeth A Karmel