It was in Warrior, Alabama where I first discovered my love of BBQ. It wasn’t even the best barbecue (‘cue) I have ever had, but there was something about the nostalgic feel of that small-town restaurant that opened me up to what barbecue was really about.
In Italy, families crowd inside steamy kitchens while noodles boil in a pot and knives slice ripe, red tomatoes. In Alabama, watching a father plate perfectly cooked ribs, undoubtedly started sometime before the sun even came up that day, onto checkered butcher paper and pass it to his son to be served to me opened my eyes to what barbecue was all about: family and friends.
Independence Day is one of those rare days where the only goals are to take some time to remember what the day means and then celebrate it with family and friends. Combined with, usually, good weather it’s one of those unique days of the year where the conditions for gathering around the grill are perfect.
And even if your barbecue expertise is limited to hot dogs and hamburgers, it’s never too late to start expanding your foray into cooking. Here are some quick tips I learned through my BBQ journey for getting a good cook going your first time out. And to keep it simple, I am going to focus on the gold standard of ‘cue: ribs.
Prep for success:
Before you cook think about what kind of ribs you want. First off, in terms of the type of rib, and what you want your taste to ultimately turn out to be.
If you go to your local butcher or grocer, you’re usually going to find two types of cuts: Babyback and St. Louis Spare. Babybacks cook faster and are easier to prepare, but require more concentration during the cook and yield less meat. St. Louis Spares yield more meat but require more time for the cook and more prep beforehand.
But whichever style you choose, there’s four things to do to make sure your ribs are fire ready:
1.) Wash your ribs when you take them out of the package. Seems pretty straightforward but a lot of people forget to give them a little spritz of water when they open up their ribs.
2.) Cut the membrane, or silver skin and trim the fat. When you look at the ribs you’re going to see a layer of translucent film over the ribs. This “skin” prevents your rub and your seasoning to properly “soak” into the meat, so take the time to cut it off. Additionally, look for any excess amounts of fat on the meat and give it a quick trim.
3.) This may sound crazy, but you’re going to need to give your ribs a quick massage in either butter, or what I use, mustard, before you apply your seasonings.
Why mustard? First, the acidity of it helps to open up the meat and let the seasoning absorb in better. Finally, the “glue-like” texture helps to keep the rub in place so it can soak in better.
4.) Apply your rub and let it soak, usually about ten minutes on each side. Which rub you use is entirely up to you, but whatever you apply be sure to remember that it’s called rub for a reason. Meaning, apply your rub liberally but rub it in to cover your ribs, don’t just attempt to cover the entire rack of ribs with your rub or you’re in for an over-seasoned cook.
Now, let’s cook…
People are going to tell you that to cook ribs you’re going to have to do it “low and slow” and you’re going to have to buy some sort of smoker to make sure your temperature doesn’t rise above a certain point.
While it’s certainly true that you should cook your ribs at a lower temperature, and that cooking ribs is not just throwing them on top of a fire like a hot dog or a hamburger, fancy gadgets and expensive smokers aren’t necessary, either.
The key here is what people refer to as “indirect heat,” meaning your ribs aren’t directly on top of a fire. You can accomplish this with even the simplest of Weber-style grills simply by putting your coals on one side of the grill and your ribs on the other. You can even take it one step further by filling up an old pan (I use a bread or meatloaf pan) with water and putting it under your ribs. This helps keep the temperature steady and prevents any “flares” or sudden rises of temperature in your cook.
Once you have the ribs on the grill and the temperature steady (300-350 degrees). For Babyback ribs, you want to cook them for 40 minutes before rotating them and cooking for another 40-45 minutes. If you’re cooking St. Louis Spares change that time to at least an hour before turning.
Tip: If you’re applying sauce to your ribs, this is applied during the last twenty minutes of either cook.
When you get further into your barbecue journey you’re going to hear the phrase “if you looking, you ain’t cooking.” Meaning, if you’re constantly checking your meat then you’re not allowing the grill to do its job and the temperatures to remain constant.
Ignore that, for now. Be sure to give your ribs a check when you think you need to and let the trust of the process build over time. For now, though, your only concern is cooking a good rib and if you need to make sure the heat is right, the fire is burning, or the ribs aren’t under/over done then by all means open the lid and take a peek.
And after you checked your ribs and they look good, take them off the grill and let them sit for 30 minutes to cool. Then cut, serve, and enjoy.
But remember, whatever style of ribs you use, whatever rub you use, there is no more important ingredient to the cook than friends and family there with you.