It was one of those culinary epiphanies. I realized you rarely get great barbecued ribs from a restaurant. They have to come from backyards.
My rib-awakening came during the world’s largest barbecue contest, Memphis in May. All it took was that first bite of a grill-smoked rib for me to recognize the real deal. There is nothing like homemade ribs.
And here is the dirty little secret: They don’t take nearly as long as the competition guys would like you to think they do. And they are much simpler to prepare than legend has it.
The most popular ribs to cook are back ribs, but spareribs and St. Louis-style ribs are gaining traction, too. Back ribs are cut from high up on the rib near the spine. Back ribs are meaty, leaner than spareribs and very flavorful. This is the area of the pig from which the tenderloin is cut.
Back ribs usually are sold in either full slabs (13 ribs) or half slabs (7 ribs), and are the most expensive cut of rib. When they come from a pig that was less than a year old, they are referred to as “baby” back ribs. True baby back ribs generally weigh 1 to 1 1/2 pounds each, which makes them difficult to cook on the grill because they have so little meat.
Spareribs are cut from the belly or side of the pig. Spareribs are longer and fatter than back ribs. While they have less meat, many parts of the country prefer them and the St. Louis-style cut is gaining in popularity. The St. Louis cut is a sparerib trimmed to remove the flap of meat on the underside of the breast bone and squared off to more easily fit on the grill.
Once you decide which type of rib to buy, there are a few things to remember when purchasing your meat. First, make sure each slab weighs at least 2 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.
Second, buy the best quality, freshest product available. This is especially true with meat and there is a wide range of product in the marketplace. If you have a local butcher who cuts the meat, frequent his or her shop. He’ll give you tips on cooking, can cut meat to order, and can special order meat.
If you don’t have a local butcher, go to a grocer that has high traffic and keeps the meat case rotated with fresh product every day. Beyond that, be sure to look at the expiration date on the label and give your purchases the old-fashioned smell test. If it smells “off” or a little funny, then it is probably old. I prefer buying ribs that are vacuum sealed, as they generally are the freshest choice.
The next decision that you have to make is whether or not to remove the silver skin. Along the back (non-meaty) side of a slab of ribs there is a smooth covering or membrane that holds the ribs together. It is often referred to as the silver skin. Some people recommend removing it, but it is purely optional.
If you leave it on, it is a good indicator of when the ribs are done because it lifts away from the meat when the meat is cooked. It is very crispy when done, looks a little like parchment paper and is slightly translucent. Many people consider it a delicacy and enjoy eating it. Many more don’t even know it is removable.
A few cooks say that leaving the membrane intact prevents the seasonings from penetrating the meat and stops the rendering of the fat. I have never found this to be true. I think it is mostly a cosmetic issue and a little-known one at that. But be forewarned, if your rack of ribs has any “bone shine,” the membrane will keep the rack intact and if you remove it, your rack will likely fall apart.
The final thing that you need to know is that the best way to test for doneness is to make sure that the meat has receded from the ends of the bones and that you can bend the rack without breaking it in pieces. And remember that the only way the meat will fall off the bone is if you parboil them first (just say no!) or if you way over-cook them. The best ribs should be tender, but have a little “chew” left.