Ribs 101: Pitmasters offer advice on cooking ribs


Spare ribs, baby back ribs, St. Louis-style ribs.

The Fourth of July holiday is coming up, and ribs are on the menu at many outdoor parties, barbecues and picnics. 

But you can’t just toss a slab on the grill, forget about it and then slather it with sauce before serving. 

That would just be wrong in so many ways. 

The good news is that ribs don’t require much to make them right, and some of metro Detroit’s top pitmasters have advice about how you can make them perfect every time.

Check out today’s rib recipe and the accompanying recipe barbecue sauce. It’s easy to toss together and comes from the late Free Press columnist Bob Talbert. 

More: Here’s how to buy and choose ribs

More: Celebrate Fourth of July with red-white-and-blue cake

Getting started

To prepare ribs for the grill, most experts recommend removing the membrane from the back side of the ribs. Work the membrane loose using a knife and then grab and pull it off. It may not come off in one piece.

Steve (Bubba) Coddington, pit boss at  Woodpile BBQ Shack in Clawson, turned his knack for barbecue into a career several years ago when he opened Woodpile. He advises getting ribs started by slathering them with mustard. 

“Cheap yellow mustard,” Coddington said. “It doesn’t add flavor, but what it does do is help create the bark and help the rub stay on.”

The mustard, Coddington said, does “really nothing for the cook except hold on more rub.” It also helps you apply a more even coat of the rub.

Ribs shouldn’t be fall-off-the-bone tender, he said. If the meat falls off the bone, it’s overcooked. It should have a little chew to it. On the other hand, if the meat doesn’t pull away from the bone, it’s undercooked.

What about the bark?

Bark is the term used to describe that outer crust that forms on meat. Bark has intense flavor as a result of seasonings and is sometimes chewy. It forms on ribs, but not as much as on a whole beef brisket or pork butt. It should not taste burned.

“Ribs should never be black,” Coddington said. “Rather they should be a dark red or mahogany, not black charry,” he said.

Controlling the heat

Pitmasters agree that ribs should be cooked over low heat (about 250 degrees) for several hours. They also recommend grilling over indirect heat. Direct heat should be used only for a final finish. 

Controlling the heat is easy if you’re using a gas grill, but how do you maintain constant heat with charcoal?

Coddington makes this suggestion: After lighting piles of charcoal, put the lid on the grill and mostly close the bottom vent. Leave just a sliver of an opening. If you don’t, you’ll cause the coals to burn too fast. Keep the top vent open.

Locking in moisture

Brian Perrone, co-founder of Slows Bar BQ in Corktown and Slows-To-Go in Midtown, said a common misconception is that you should boil ribs before cooking. 

Still, he thinks moisture is a good thing for ribs and suggests a method called the Texas Crutch. 

“It’s wrapping the meat or whatever you’re smoking in foil,” Perrone said. “Aluminum foil can be a real friend to the backyard griller.”

Allowing the ribs to finish inside foil means you’re almost braising them. “If you want fall-off-the-bone ribs, that’s the way to go,” Perrone said. 

Once you’ve cooked ribs low and slow for a few hours, wrap them in foil with sauce on them and place back on the grill.

“That way the sauce can penetrate the meat and the sauce doesn’t over-caramelize,” Perrone said. 

Once the ribs are done, remove from the foil and put them directly on the grill for a final finish, he advised. 

“The key is to let them (the ribs) take as long as it takes,” Perrone said. “Don’t rush it or you won’t get the doneness and consistency you want. “

His other piece of advice: Don’t approach the grill with perfection in mind. It’s supposed to be fun.

The rub on doneness

Kirk Churchill, Smokehouse chef at Holiday Market, favors St. Louis-style ribs sprinkled with a rub.

“With the St. Louis-style, there is more of fat-lean protein ratio,” Churchill said. “It stays moist and unlike the baby back, which is mostly the meat, it’s more marbled, more like a steak.”

Before cooking, Churchill sprinkles both sides of the ribs with a rub and refrigerates them overnight. He lets ribs come to room temperature before smoking them.

When it comes to wood, he prefers Michigan native hardwoods like apple, oak and maple. As for the rub, Churchill sticks with simple salt, pepper and garlic powder. 

“For pork, you can go a little sweeter with brown sugar, mixed with salt and pepper,” he said. 

 Churchill said it’s important to allow for plenty of cooking time because ribs need to cook low and slow. 

“You want a minimum of four hours before the party to cook the ribs,” he said. 

With St. Louis-style ribs, an average rack is 2½ pounds. Churchill said that’s a good size and will feed two or three hungry people.

To test for doneness, Churchill lifts the last two or three bones from the thicker end of the rack to determine whether the meat is giving away.

“if it’s snapping back, it’s not done, and the connective tissue is not broken down,” he said. 

You don’t want them completely falling apart, Churchill said. “With St. Louis-style, it needs a meatiness to it along with a tiny bit of chew. 

With ribs, Churchill goes with a straight rub during smoking and finishes them off with a sauce. At that point, he cooks them only enough to warm the sauce. 

Black Pepper Baby Backs with Whiskey Vanilla Glaze

Serves: 4 to 8 / Prep time: 30 minutes / Total time: 4 hours

Wood chips or chunks, optional

RIBS AND RUB

4 racks baby back ribs (each 2 to 2 ½ pounds, membranes removed)

3 tablespoons cracked black peppercorns

3 tablespoons smoked or sweet paprika

3 tablespoons coarse salt (sea or kosher)

3 tablespoons packed brown sugar, dark or light

1 teaspoon celery seed

GLAZE

½ cup rye, bourbon or other whiskey

½ cup packed brown sugar, dark or light

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Vegetable oil for oiling the grill grate.

Have a rib rack ready to help fit the ribs on the grill if it’s not big enough.
Place the ribs on a sheet pan. Remove back-side membrane. In a small bowl, combine the peppercorns, paprika, salt, brown sugar and celery seed, making sure there are no brown sugar lumps. Sprinkle the rub on the ribs on both sides (about 3 tablespoons per rack), rubbing it into the meat with your fingertips. Store any leftover rub in a sealed jar away from heat and light.

Make the glaze: Combine the whiskey, brown sugar, butter, and vanilla in a saucepan and boil until syrupy, 4 to 6 minutes, whisking to mix. Set the glaze aside.

Set up your grill for indirect grilling and set heat to medium-low. Brush or scrape the grill grate clean and oil it well. Add half the wood chunks or chips to the coals. Arrange the ribs on the grate, bone side down, away from the heat. Lower the lid. Smoke-roast the ribs until they’re sizzling, browned and tender. When ready, the meat will have shrunk back from the ends of the bones by about ½ inch and the ribs will be tender enough to pull apart with your fingers. Replenish the wood and charcoal as needed. Total cooking time will be about 3 to 3½ hours, depending on size of ribs. During the last 30 minutes of cooking, baste the ribs with the glaze. Baste twice more before serving. Pour any remaining glaze over the ribs and serve. Notes: For sizzling crusty ribs, brush the racks on both sides with glaze and move them directly over one of the fire zones for the last few minutes of cooking. Direct grill for a couple of minutes per side. From “Project Fire: Cutting-edge Techniques and Sizzling Recipes from the Caveman Porterhouse to Salt Slab Brownie S’Mores” by Steven Raichlen (Workman Publishing, $22.95).

Carolina Eastern-Style Barbecue Sauce

Makes: about 4 cups / Prep time: 15 minutes / Total time: 15 minutes

3 tablespoons crushed red pepper

3 tablespoons freshly ground pepper

3 tablespoons of salt

¼ cup molasses

4 cloves of garlic, minced

1 quart of white vinegar

In large bowl, mash together crushed red pepper, ground black pepper, salt, molasses and garlic. Stir in the vinegar and mix. Allow to stand for several hours. Use as a marinade or basting sauce for pork.

From Detroit Free Press archives. Tested by Susan Selasky for the Free Press Test Kitchen at Great Lakes Culinary Center in Southfield. Nutrition information not available.

Barbecued Spareribs with Apple Cider Mop

Serves: 4 / Prep time: 15 minutes (plus standing time) / Total time: 4 hours 30 minutes

These ribs require low and slow grilling that produces a tender rib with a smoky flavor.

RUB

1 tablespoon kosher salt, or less to taste

2 teaspoons pure chile power

2 teaspoons granulated garlic

2 teaspoons paprika

1 teaspoon dried oregano

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

RIBS

2 racks pork spareribs, 3 to 4 pounds each

MOP

1 cup apple cider

¼ cup cider vinegar

¼ cup Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon favorite hot red pepper sauce

In a small bowl, mix together all the rub ingredients.

Put the spareribs, meaty side up, on a cutting board. Follow the line of fat that separates the meaty ribs from the much tougher tips at the base of each rack, and cut off the tips.

Turn each rack over. Cut off the flap of meat attached in the center of each rack. Also cut off the flap of meat that hangs below the shorter end of the ribs. The flaps and tips may be grilled separately, but they will not be as tender as the ribs.

Remove the thin membrane from the back of each rack of ribs. If you are using a rib rack, cut the racks in half crosswise. Allow the ribs to stand at room temperature for 20 to 30 minutes before grilling. Season the ribs all over with the rub.

Place the ribs in the rib rack and grill them over indirect low heat for 1 hour. The grill temperature should be about 300 degrees.

Meanwhile, make the mop. In a medium saucepan over high heat, whisk together all the mop ingredients and bring them to a boil. Remove the pan from the heat.

After the spareribs have been grilling for 1 hour, baste them with the mop and continue to baste them every 30 minutes until the meat has shrunk back from the rib bones about 1/2 inch and the meat is tender enough to tear with your fingers. The total grilling time will be 2½ to 3 hours.

Transfer the ribs to a baking sheet, lightly brush them with some of the remaining mop and tightly cover them with foil. Let the ribs rest for 30 minutes before serving.

Cook’s Note: To remove the thin membrane from the back of the ribs, start out by using a paring knife or slot screwdriver to loosen the membrane.

From “Weber’s Real Grilling” by Jamie Purviance Weber-Stephen Products Co. and Sunset Books, $24.95).

Tested by Susan Selasky for the Free Press Test Kitchen. 913 calories (68% from fat), 69 grams fat (25 grams sat. fat), 3 grams carbohydrates, 66 grams protein, 791 mg sodium, 274 mg cholesterol, 115 mg calcium, 1 gram fiber.

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