by Steven Raichlen
From Raichlen on Ribs, Ribs, Outrageous Ribs
Ribs are easy to cook, but there's more to the process than simply throwing them on the grill. A proper rack needs to be trimmed and peeled, seasoned or marinated, and mopped and sauced at the right intervals. You also have to know when they're done. Here's an eight-point game plan.
Trim the ribs
Spareribs, on the other hand, often come with the rib tips (cartilaginous ends) and point (a triangle of small bones and sinewy meat at the loin end of the rack) attached. Using a sharp knife and following the line of fat at the base of the ribs, cut off the rib tips. Then cut off the pointed end of the rack of ribs. This will give the rack a neat, rectangular appearance (the point and the rib tips can be cooked separately). And, if the rack has one, remove the tough flap of meat (the skirt or flap) from the bone side. You can use it to flavor baked beans or for making stock. The more evenly you shape the rectangle of the rack, the more evenly the ribs will cook.
|Remove the membrane|
Most racks of ribs come with a papery membrane on the bone side. I recommend removing this for a couple of reasons. It impedes the absorption of spice and smoke flavors, and it's tougher than the rest of the rib meat. Two good tools to help you get under the membrane so you can pull it off are a butter knife or the tip of a meat thermometer. You'll find detailed instructions for removing the membrane in each recipe.
Season the ribs with a rub or marinade
A marinade is a wet seasoning, comprised of flavorful liquids, like wine, soy sauce, fruit juice, or olive oil, to name a few, plus spices and aromatic vegetables, like garlic, ginger, or chiles. Marinades are often used to make Asian-style ribs, but they're also frequently used by pit masters in North America. I like disposable heavy aluminum foil drip pans or large resealable plastic bags for marinating.
Always keep meats in the refrigerator as they marinate. Avoid reactive metal containers—unlined aluminum, for example, or cast iron—for marinating, especially with such acidic ingredients as tomatoes, citrus juice, or vinegar. And, never reuse a marinade that's been in contact with raw meat as a baste or as a sauce unless you boil it briskly for three minutes to kill any bacteria. Strain the boiled marinade before using.
A wet rub features the best of both; it's a seasoning paste that's thicker than a normal marinade and wetter than a rub.
|Use a rib rack|
Only two racks of ribs will fit flat on most kettle grills, but there's an easy way to double the capacity (and the number of people you can feed): Cook the ribs upright in a rib rack.
|Mop the ribs|
Direct and indirect grilling and smoking are inherently dry cooking methods. One option for keeping ribs moist is to mop them with a mop sauce. Mop sauces contain little or no sugar, so you can apply them throughout the cooking process without them burning. Use a barbecue mop or basting brush for applying mop sauces. Or, you can pour the mop sauce into a spray bottle and squirt it on the ribs.
|Wrap the ribs, if necessary|
Depending on the size and weight of the ribs, the heat of your grill, and the intensity of the smoke, among other factors, ribs may start to dry out before they've reached the optimal tenderness. Don't worry if this happens—there's an easy solution: Wrap them tightly in aluminum foil and continue grilling. Wrapping seals in moisture because the steam captured will help tenderize the ribs. Be careful when you unwrap the ribs; the escaping steam can burn your fingers.
|Sauce the ribs—or not|
Purists will argue that a great rib doesn't need sauce. Nonetheless, most people prefer their ribs with at least a light basting of barbecue sauce. What I often do is grill the ribs indirectly until they reach the desired tenderness, then lightly baste them with sauce and move them directly over the fire to sizzle the sauce into the meat. The idea is to use the sauce as a sort of light varnish for the ribs, rather than a thick gloppy coating that camouflages the meat.
Learn to recognize when the ribs are cooked
In addition, if you're smoking ribs, when you cut into one you'll see a layer of reddish pink just beneath the surface. This is called the smoke ring, and it occurs naturally when you expose meat to wood smoke for an extended period of time. I call it the "red badge of honor" of barbecue: If your ribs have one, you've done them right. Display the smoke ring proudly to your guests, taking full advantage of your bragging rights.