Choice of ribs:
I usually use baby back ribs, which are smaller than St. Louis ribs and therefore cook faster. St. Louis ribs are larger and meatier, but take more time to cook. Do not buy “country ribs” because they are not really ribs.
Cooking time is around 5-6 hours for St. Louis ribs and 3-4 hours for baby back ribs.
Preparing the ribs:
Run the ribs under cold water in the sink, then pat dry with paper towels.
Remove the membrane from the back side of the ribs, then trim any excess fat from both sides. To remove the membrane, you need to gently pry it loose with a butter or paring knife until you have enough to grasp. Use a paper towel to grab the membrane because the membrane is slippery. Once you have a good hold, pull firmly and it should come off. If it splits as you pull, get the rest before proceeding.
Note: if you do not remove the membrane, the ribs will come out a bit tougher than you want.
Turn the ribs so the back side is up, then coat with thin film of yellow mustard. I use Gouldon’s and run a stip down the middle of the back, then rub it across the backside to coat it evenly. The mustard helps the rub stick to the ribs, and helps to break down the meat, but you will not taste it after cooking. You can use vegetable oil instead.
Pick a rub you like. You can use the recipe below, or buy one in the store. Sprinkle a modest amount on the backside (1-2 tablespoons), then rub it in with your fingers. Let the ribs rest around 20-30 minutes with the rub on it before turning it over.
Once the backside is treated with rub and it has set a while, turn the ribs over and repeat the process. I use a bit more mustard and more rub on the top side (2-3 tablespoons). Let it stand again around 30 minutes. If you prefer, you can do the preparation the night before, cover the ribs with plastic wrap, and let them sit in the refrigerator overnight. Allowing more time for the mustard and rub to help break down the meat may be good, but it is not necessary; 30-60 minutes should be enough.
Cooking the ribs:
There are a few good methods for cooking ribs. I vary between them depending on how much time I have. I’ve only been cooking ribs for a couple of years and it still seems like a big experiment.
Traditionalists will advocate slow cooking the ribs in a smoker at 225 degrees. I have a Big Green Egg, which works well for this purpose, but I’ve also used a charcoal smoker. I also have had very good results using a conventional oven.
If you are using a smoker (Green Egg, Weber, etc.) get it started and adjust the vents to get the temperature to 225 degrees. I usually put a disposable aluminum pan partially filled with water under the grill rack to catch the drippings and avoid flare ups. I use the Green Egg charcoal, which is their brand of hardwood lump charcoal, but have also used The Cowboy Way hardwood lump charcoal. I am sure you can use regular briquettes as well, but avoid the self-starting kind because it may leave a chemical flavor. Some people like adding some hardwood (about half a pound of oak or hickory, chips or chunks) to the charcoal to add flavor. I often throw in some hickory briquettes instead of using hardwood. Depending on the type of smoker, you may need to add more charcoal during cooking to maintain the temperature, so be sure to have enough in hand to last 4-6 hours.
Even if you have a thermometer on the smoker, it may well be unreliable. To ensure you are cooking at the right temperature, you should use a good digital thermometer.
If you are using an oven, I usually start at a higher temperature (350 degrees), then turn it down to 225 degrees after 10 minutes. Doing so helps to sear the outside of the ribs and seal in the juices. You will do fine, however, if you leave it at 225 degrees throughout.
If you are cooking only a couple of racks of ribs, you can lay them, meaty side up, on the grill. If you have more than that, they will not fit, so you will need a rib rack. The rib rack is v-shaped, with slots to place the ribs vertically. If you are cooking in an oven, put them on a wire rack in a shallow baking pan, or you can use a disposable aluminum pan. If you don’t have a wire rack or it doesn’t fit in your pan, you can roll aluminum foil into a long, tubular shape, put 2 or 3 of these rolls in the bottom of the pan, and lay the ribs on the rolls. This technique works well if you are using a rib rack in a pan as well. I prefer to keep a little distance between the ribs and the grill or pan. Note that if you are cooking St. Louis style ribs, they are wider than baby backs, and will sit higher if they are vertical in a rib rack, so make sure they will fit in your smoker before starting.
You do not need to turn the ribs. Just let them smoke, or bake, for 1.5 to 2 hours. At that point, I spray them with a 50-50 mixture of apple juice and apple cider vinegar. I bought a small spray bottle that I keep in the refrigerator for this purpose. Spraying the ribs helps keep them moist, and the vinegar helps to break down the meat. Do not overdo it, though; you just want to moisten them a bit without making the rub mushy. I repeat this process at hourly intervals.
Another technique I have used is to wrap the ribs in foil after they have cooked for 1.5 to 2 hours, after spraying them. Cooking them wrapped in foil for another 1.5 to 2 hours will steam the meat and help break it down. It is not necessary to do this, and I am not that sure it makes a big difference. If I am cooking in the oven, I just cover the pan with a foil sheet (much like you would do in tenting a turkey) and leave it for 1.5 to 2 hours. I always remove the foil for the last hour or more to ensure that the rub is not too moist when the ribs are done.
I allow about 4 to 4.5 hours for baby back ribs, and another 1.5 to 2 hours for St. Louis style ribs. If you are using a rib rack and have the ribs close together, you may need more time. Also, with a rib rack, the ribs on the outside may cook faster than the ones in the middle, so you may want to pull them out sooner.
Relying on time alone is a problem, though, because there are so many variables that affect when the ribs are done. One way to assess whether the ribs are done is the “bounce” or “bend” test. Hold the rack of ribs on one end with tongs and gently bounce them up and down. If the surface of the meat bends and cracks, the ribs are done. If the rib is still rigid and you get only a slight crack, you need more time. Another way to test is to cut the rack in half and eat one of the inner ribs, but if it is not done, you would have to repeat the process, leaving fewer ribs at the end, but a happy chef!
I do not use BBQ sauce on my ribs, but some people prefer brushing the ribs with sauce about 30-60 minutes before the end. If you like a thicker coat of sauce, you can brush them twice.
When you think the ribs are done, let them rest under foil for about 10 minutes, then slice them between the bones on a cutting board. You may notice that there is a pink layer near the surface of the meat. Do not worry, the meat is cooked. This is known as the “smoke ring” and is a sign you have done well.
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Choice of ribs: