The Rib Bible: Everything You Need to Know to Make the Perfect Ribs
Barbecue is not the same as grilling — remember that the next time you strike up a conversation with a seasoned pitmaster, and don’t try to compare the cookout you had last weekend to their slow-cooked whole hog that that took 24 painstaking hours of smoking and cooking to produce. Barbecuing is a method of smoking food slowly using indirect heat with flavor derived from the wood being used and from the rubs or marinades applied to the meat; grilling is done quickly over an intense flame to produce a char, but not necessarily a smoky taste.
“Low and slow” is name of the game when it comes to barbecue. Smoky temperatures that range from 225 degrees F to 275 degrees F transform even the toughest and most sinewy cuts of meat over many, many hours. Connective tissue breaks down, fat softens, and meat becomes fall-off-the-bone, melt-in-your-mouth tender, infused with rustic, smoky flavors.
Barbecue is part of the canonical gospel of Southern cuisine. And while dry rubs, marinades, cuts of meat, and sauces all vary by location, there is one consistent offering you will find on almost every true barbecue menu whether it is the local specialty or not: ribs.
Locals in each barbecue region fiercely defend their styles and specialties under the greater barbecue umbrella, from North Carolina’s vinegary sauces slathered onto buns filled with chopped pork and coleslaw to Kansas City’s tomato-based sauce and burnt ends. However, for the purposes of this article, we are only concerned with ribs: baby backs, beef ribs, St. Louis-style, and spareribs.
While most people prefer either beef or pork ribs, an experienced pit-master might try lamb riblets or even goat for a gamier-tasting product. Pork ribs are the most common and are the easiest to cook, but the large beef rib, sometimes referred to as a dinosaur rib, is well-marbled and fatty, and consequently very flavorful.
We’ve broken down barbecuing ribs into a four-step process, which includes the major points of differentiation between rib-styles, starting with the cut of meat, continuing to how the meat is seasoned, moving on to the type of smoke used to cook and flavor the ribs, and finishing with the sauce served alongside them.
The two most common rib styles are spareribs and baby back ribs, both always pork. Baby back ribs come from the top of the ribcage adjacent to the tenderloin, and tend to be smaller than the spareribs (when trimmed these are referred to as St. Louis-style), which come from the bottom of the ribcage, near the belly.
No matter which cut you select, you want a well-marbled rib with fat running throughout.
Wet rub or dry rub — that is the question. In the barbecue mecca of Memphis you will find both styles of ribs. For a dry rub, stick with an intense blend of spices, such as paprika, black pepper, and cayenne. Overly sweet sauces have no place in this type of barbecue, sweetened — if at all — with just a pinch or two of brown sugar added to the dry rub. Build layers of flavor by adding the rub the night before, letting it soak into the meat, and then showering your ribs with more rub toward the end of the cooking process. The sugars will caramelize while the fat melts and mingles with the hot peppers. Keep your dry-rubbed ribs moist with a blend of salt water and apple cider vinegar that you can apply with a soaked rag while your ribs smoke. This is typically referred to as a mop.
For a wet rub, make a paste-like rub using vinegar, oil, beer, or some combination of the three, accompanied by peppers (like black pepper, cayenne, and/or paprika) and brown sugar for sweetness. Then, smother your ribs in the rub, wrap tightly in plastic, and allow them to marinate in the fridge for at least an hour before smoking.
The smoke is just as important as the rubs when it comes to producing that barbecue flavor. The smoke flavor permeates the meat, creating that distinction between grilled chicken slathered in barbecue sauce and real barbecue. In 2016, we asked Chris Grove, grilling pro and blogger at Nibble Me This, his advice for cooking the perfect ribs. He says when it comes to pork ribs he adds fruity woodchips (like cherry or apple wood) to his smoker.
Finally, when it’s time to build that fire, Grove suggests keeping the heat low, at 275 degrees F, for the duration of cooking. Remember, low-and-slow is the secret to tender, fall-off-the-bone ribs.
Barbecuing expert John Rivers, founder and owner of 4 Rivers Smokehouse, which has multiple locations in Florida, adds that you always want to smoke your ribs meat side up, and look for the meat to pull back from the bone about a half-inch to indicate that your ribs are done.
Once your ribs are finished cooking, they are ready to serve with the sauce of your choosing. Rivers adds that if you wish to sauce your ribs while they are cooking, wait until the last 30 minutes of cooking or flash them briefly on the grill after smoking to prevent the sugars in the sauce from burning. If you are looking for the perfect sauce to add to your ribs, check out the best store-bought sauces to try or use these classic barbecue sauce recipes. You can also learn more about the regional differences in barbecue sauces by reading on here.
Additional reporting by Angela Carlos and Kristie Collado.