For many of us, there is no real barbecue “season”, since it lasts all year. But with Memorial Day right around the corner, we’re close to the start of what’s widely considered “official” barbecue season. That brings us to an age-old question: what’s the best food for barbecue?
To prevent any suspense-related stress, we’ll answer that right now. It’s ribs. Hands down, indisputable, no question, without a doubt, or whatever other idiom you want to throw at the problem.
Okay, not everyone is a fan of ribs. We get that. And if you prefer chicken, steak, seafood, or even veggies, that’s just fine. But from where we sit, nothing beats biting into a rich, tender, sticky-sweet rib. It’s primal, it’s traditional, and it’s just plain darned delicious.
Here, we’d come back with “there’s the rub”, but that’s later. The thing is that if you ask around, you’ll find as many opinions about ribs as there are rib eaters. Tender vs. chew? Sweet vs. tangy? How much smoke?
Thankfully, there are no right or wrong answers—it’s all about what you like. Ultimately, though, everything comes down to three key decisions:
- Sauce: There is a wide, wide world of sauces out there, but the primary choices can be grouped into vinegar-based (“North Carolina”), molasses or sugar-based (“Kansas City”), or mustard-based (“South Carolina”).
- Cooking method: What? The only real choice is cooked low and slow over hot coals, right? Actually, no. There are also some really great options for cooking ribs in the oven, and hybrid methods that use both the oven and the grill. Not to mention hot and fast methods.
- Texture: We hear things like “fork-tender”, “falling off the bone”, etc. But many believe that ribs should have a bit of chew to them. Think Chinese spareribs, for example. They aren’t normally “falling off the bone”, but are quite delicious nonetheless.
These two concepts are tied together, because the cooking method determines the texture. However, they have a few steps in common:
- Remove the silver skin from the back of the ribs. This video shows you how.
- Apply a dry rub (or marinade; we prefer a rub).
- Apply a sauce during (often towards the end) of cooking.
If you want the falling apart, fall-off-the-bone ribs, the simplest method we’ve seen is the 3-2-1 method. For this, you will need a charcoal grill or smoker where you can tightly control the cooking temperature.
- Cook the ribs at 225° for three hours, bone side down.
- Wrap the ribs in foil and seal well. Cook another two hours.
- Unwrap and cook bone side down for one more hour, applying sauce with about 15 minutes to go.
- The ribs are done when the bone twists easily within the meat.
Note that if you don’t have a grill where you can cook low and slow, try this method of cooking them in the oven.
However, we prefer ribs with some chew to them, as they seem to have more flavor (not to mention the satisfying carnivorness). To cook ribs correctly with the proper chew, simply cook them, unwrapped and bone side down, for 5-6 hours at 225°. Whether on the grill or in the oven, you’ll get a very satisfying combination of crisp, flavorful bark and tender meat with some chew.
This article explains how to tell when your ribs are done.
To mop or not? Many pit masters swear by “mop” sauces, which are thinner sauces that are applied as the ribs cook. Some simply spray the ribs occasionally with apple juice, cider, or some combination thereof. When cooking hot and fast, these techniques may aid slightly in browning in adding flavor. However, with low and slow cooking, there is no added benefit to spritzing, though using a mop can still add some flavor.
Dry rub is a combination of seasonings that’s applied to the meat before grilling. If the rub contains salt, you’re going to want to apply it several hours (like 8-12) before you start cooking, to allow the salt to penetrate the meat. Otherwise, you can apply it just before cooking, as the other flavors won’t be absorbed into the meat no matter how long you let it sit.
Of course, the rub needs something to stick to. Many pit masters like to use mustard because by the time all is said and done, the mustard flavor will have cooked off. Well, if we’re not worried about flavor, why not use good old cooking oil? Since many of the spices in typical rubs are fat-soluble, this will perhaps enhance those flavors (though if you have salt in your rub, this could inhibit the osmotic process that moves the salt into the meat).
There are more dry rub recipes that there are grains of rice in the world, so we won’t try to tell you which one(s) to use. We do have a few good choices here, however:
Memphis Style Rub (Note that this has an entire recipe for Memphis ribs, which we would encourage you to try)
Here’s where we run into the source of most barbecue feuds, as everyone has their own preferences. We prefer a vinegar-based sauce, because the whole process of rubbing, curing, smoking, and slow-cooking imparts a delicate flavor on ribs that an overly-sweet sauce can cover up. For molasses- or sugar-based sauces, we would recommend using a very light touch on the ribs themselves and serving additional sauce on the side.
We’d love to provide a long list of barbecue sauces here, but the fact is that the guys at amazing ribs already have an impressive collection. One note: while some in the South, particularly Alabama, are passionate about their “white barbecue sauce”, we personally don’t believe mayonnaise and ribs belong in the same dish—the closest we’ll come to mixing the two is the cole slaw on the side.