Set the table, pass the napkins, and dig into one of the most satiating and soul-satisfying meals of summer. There are hundreds of regional variations, but all you need is one recipe to ensure perfect ribs. All the cooking takes place largely unattended, with very little prep work -- and even less fuss.
The Shopping List
Perfect ribs require the right ingredients, but there's no need to go out of your way to find the requisite components.
The Proper Cut
Saint Louis-style pork ribs, available at most supermarkets, have a rich taste, and a robust texture. The ribs' generous amount of meat is enhanced -- but not overwhelmed -- by barbecue rubs and sauces. Unlike baby back or spare ribs, this rack is trimmed to a neat rectangle with uniform, not tapered, ends that ensure even cooking.
Spice and Sauce
Nothing fancy here. Common ingredients, such as mustard powder and brown sugar, can create rubs and sauces to envy.
All your equipment needs can be fulfilled at a hardware store, where entire aisles are devoted to kettle grills, chimney starters, drip pans, tongs, thermometers, lump charcoal, and smoking chips.
Barbecued Pork Ribs
If you don't have a chimney starter, pile the charcoal briquettes in a pyramid around a wad of newspaper in the center of the bottom grill rack. Ignite newspaper, carefully moving briquettes occasionally with tongs or a grilling spatula to heat evenly.
If your charcoal grill doesn't have a built-in thermometer, monitor its temperature by inserting a candy or deep-frying dial thermometer into one of the kettle's top vents.
Ribs for a Crowd
Barbecued ribs are ideal party fare, requiring very little effort and no utensils. Here, a few strategies that can make things even simpler.
Prepping in Advance
Refrigerating the sauce overnight -- or up to two weeks -- saves time and ensures the ingredients meld and develop complexity. Refrigerating the spice-rubbed ribs overnight lets the spices deeply flavor the meat.
Juggling Less at the Last Minute
When you don't want to tend to both grill and guests, cook the ribs the night before, and let cool completely. Wrap in parchment and then in foil, and refrigerate overnight. Reheat, uncovered, in an oven heated to 350 degrees for 20 minutes.
Feeding the Multitudes
Most grills fit only two racks of ribs. To cook up to four racks at a time, you'll need a stainless steel rib rack (available at hardware stores), which holds ribs vertically. Coat metal rib rack with vegetable oil, and center it on grill rack over drip pan. Place one rack of ribs into each of the slots. The cooking time will remain the same. Be sure to double the spice rub and sauce.
Rubs vs. Sauces
Barbecue-rib masters, whether presiding over emporiums in Memphis or holding court in backyards, engage in the great debate: rubs versus sauces. But both play crucial, interdependent roles in barbecuing a better rib.
Rubs are the foundation on which flavors are built. Patted onto ribs, these magic mixes layer a holy trinity: a jolt of heat, a dose of sweetness, and a whisper of vegetal overtones. After being massaged with a rub and left to their own devices in the refrigerator for a couple of hours or, preferably, overnight, uncooked ribs undergo something akin to alchemy. The rub penetrates the meat, forever changing its flavor and texture.
Each sauce hound has what amounts to his own private label. But no matter how secret the ingredients, certain elements always insinuate themselves, such as the musky heat of pepper, the bite of vinegar, and the inimitable scratch of bourbon. Lazily mopped on toward the end of cooking, the right sauce turns ribs a deep, sleek mahogany and lends the bright smack of acidic flavors as a counterpoint to the complex nature of a rub.
Perhaps the best rib recipe is unfailingly democratic, pulling inspiration from points across America's barbecue belt. Wherever your predilection or allegiance lies, one thing's for certain: Barbecuing ribs is one of cooking's most satisfying, and messy, acts. Have plenty of family, and napkins, close by to sop up all the pleasure.
Text by David Leite, the creator of the James Beard Award-winning website leitesculinaria.com