There was the year that I demonstrated how to make ribs eight times on the same national morning show. Each time, I would remind them we did ribs the last time, and the producer would say, “I know but everyone loves ribs!” And that is true.
The bonus: They’re easy to make — and easy to smoke — at home. You don’t need a smoker to smoke ribs. All you need is a grill, some soaked wood chips and great meaty ribs.
If you are like most people, and only cook baby back ribs, up your rib game and try St. Louis ribs which are trimmed to remove the flap of meat on the underside of the breast bone and squared off to more easily fit on the grill. Spareribs are cut from the belly or side of the pig. They are longer and fattier than back ribs.
Once you decide on which rib to buy, there are a few things to remember. First, make sure that each slab weighs at least 3 pounds 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.
Second, buy the highest quality, freshest product available. If you have a local butcher who cuts the meat, frequent his or her shop. If you don’t have a local butcher, go to a high-volume grocery store that rotates with fresh product every day. Be sure to look at the expiration date on the label and give your purchases the old-fashioned smell test. If it smells off, it is probably old. I prefer buying ribs that are cryovac-ed as they are generally the freshest choice.
In this recipe, I am cooking these ribs at a more traditional smoking temperature of 250 F because every backyard griller wants to approximate the barbecue of the competition circuit at least once. But more often, I smoke the ribs at a higher temperature of 300-325 F. Both work well, but you get a crispier, more roasted flavor at the higher temperature as the fat renders out completely. It’s really a question of style and taste as both are good.
I use soaked wood chips regardless of the temperature or the fuel. Because the wood is the final flavoring element, it is as important as the quality of the meat and the rub. If you are using a gas grill, you can make a smoker box out of heavy-duty aluminum foil and fill it with wet wood chips as the gas grill preheats with all burners on high. The chips will start to smoke and smolder and will continue even as you reduce the heat to a medium-low indirect heat. Make sure to place the chips in the upper-left hand corner of the grill under the cooking grates. If you place the chips on the cooking grates, they are so far from the heat element that they won’t smoke.
Also, wet the chips so that they will smoke and not erupt into flames. On a charcoal grill, simply toss a handful of wet wood chips on both sides of the gray-ashed charcoal when you put the ribs on the grill.
And, don’t forget, ribs can only be smoked using indirect heat.
The final thing 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. You should be able to bend the rack without breaking it in pieces. The best ribs should be tender but have a little chew left.
GAS GRILL SMOKED RIBS
Start to finish: Four hours
Grilling Method: Indirect/Medium-Low Heat
4 racks St. Louis ribs, about 3 pounds per slab
1/2 cup apple-cider vinegar
1/4 cup St. Louis Rib Rub (see below) or favorite spice rub
Soaked wood chips, such as apple or hickory
Favorite barbecue sauce, optional
Beer or apple cider
Build a charcoal fire or preheat gas grill. Remove silver skin from back of ribs, if desired. Set up the grill for indirect heat and if using wood chips, place soaked chips directly on charcoal, or in smoking box of gas grill.
Blot the ribs dry with paper towels. Brush the ribs lightly with the apple-cider vinegar over both the front and back of ribs. Set aside for 5 minutes. Sprinkle ribs liberally on both sides with rib rub and let sit, covered lightly, 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. Grill covered (at about 250 F, if your grill has a thermometer) for about 3-31/2 hours or until meat is tender and the rack bends easily but doesn’t break.
Note: If you smoke at 250 F, only a little of the bone will pull back from the ends of the rib bones. If you cook the ribs at 300 F, much more of the ends of the bones will be exposed as more of the fat will be rendered from the ribs.
Leave ribs untended for the first 60 minutes_this means no peeking; very important when using wood chips. Check ribs after an hour and then every 30 minutes or so. 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.
Twenty minutes before serving, un-stack ribs, if necessary, and brush with barbecue sauce. You can also brush with a mixture of barbecue sauce and beer or apple cider_this becomes a “mop” which is thinner than traditional 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.
ST. LOUIS RIB 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
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
2 teaspoons dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
In a medium bowl, combine all the ingredients; mix well. For a smoother rub, grind 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
Nutrition information per serving: 434 calories; 306 calories from fat; 34 g fat (10 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 113 mg cholesterol; 1079 mg sodium; 9 g carbohydrate; 1 g fiber; 8 g sugar; 23 g protein.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Elizabeth Karmel is a barbecue and Southern foods expert. She is the chef and pitmaster at online retailer CarolinaCueToGo.com and author of three books, including “Taming the Flame.”