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All About Ribs

 

All About Ribs

A whole section just on ribs?  Darn right!  Simple fact is that for all the wonderful things people put in their smokers, or on their grills, we use more ribs than anything other than burgers and dogs.  And why not?   There is very little one can imagine that is more tender, juicy and succulent than properly prepared ribs.  There are books written, songs sung and websites created that are devoted to ribs.  In barbecue country fabulous ribs become the stuff of legend.   Pitmasters guard their recipes as though they were worth there weight in gold, and maybe they are!  So sit back and let's take the tour and when we're done I guarantee you'll never think of them as "just ribs" again.

Types of Ribs

First of all understand that when Big Daddy talks about ribs he means pork ribs.  They do put up some delicious beef ribs down Texas way but I suspect that most backyard Pitmasters and grillers go for pork, so that's what we'll be talking about.  When you go to the market you'll almost always find one of the following types of pork ribs and sometimes all three.  Spare ribs; baby back ribs; and country style ribs. Let's take a look at each type.

Hog Parts

Spare ribs are the traditional slab of ribs. They come from the belly of the hog along the side and behind the shoulder. They include 11 to 13 long bones. There is a covering of meat on top of the bones, and between them, and they are the least expensive cut of ribs. You may have heard of  St. Louis style ribs and Kansas City style ribs.  These are merely variations on spare ribs, and refer to the way the slabs are trimmed. St. Louis style has the brisket bone removed, while Kansas City style are trimmed even more having the hard bone removed.  Once spare ribs have been trimmed for resale they are sometimes referred to by aficionados as "three and a half and down."  This refers to the fact that properly trimmed slabs rarely exceed 3-1/2 pounds, hence "3-1/2 and down."

Baby back ribs, sometimes called loin ribs, are cut from the loin section. They have a covering of meat over the bones, and also between them. They are shorter, smaller, leaner and considerably more expensive than spareribs.

Country style ribs are actually not ribs at all, but are cut from the blade end of the loin, right behind the upper portion of the shoulder butt, and before the baby backs. They are more like fatty pork chops than ribs. While they have more fat per pound than any of the other styles of ribs, the fat is in layers and the meat between those layers is leaner and less marbled than most other ribs. They are the meatiest of all the ribs.

What Type is Best for Grilling and Barbecuing (smoking)?

The answer depends on a number of things, so lets discuss some of the differences.  Spare ribs are by far the most economical, and they are the best suited for smoking.  They have a higher percentage of fat content than babybacks, which explains both of the attributes.  The higher fat content makes them less appealing to those consumers unacquainted with the joys of barbecuing (smoking), while at the same time makes them perfect for cooking low and slow.   Barbecuing over low heat will render the fat while keeping the ribs moist.

Babybacks have the advantage of having superior flavor and less fat, and this makes babybacks more suited for grilling. They will cook faster and don't require long, slow cooking because their is so little fat.   Having drawn these distinctions you should feel free to experiment.  I have grilled spare ribs that were very tasty, and smoked babybacks that melted in your mouth, so remember, we're talking preferences, not absolutes!

Most serious barbecuers don't work with the country style ribs, preferring bone-in ribs.  But because they have a higher fat content than pork chops I sometimes substitute them for chops when grilling.  Prepare them the same way you would prepare chops for the grill, and I think you'll be so pleased you'll always want to use country style ribs instead of the leaner chops which can easily be overcooked, making them dry and tough.  The country style ribs will be much more forgiving.

Selecting Your Spare Ribs

Babyback ribs are easier to select than spare ribs because they don't require as much trimming to begin with, and you mostly need to ensure that you select slabs of a uniform size and fattiness so that they all cook in about the same way, and amount of time.  Spare ribs, however, need a bit more fussing over.  First of all understand that the brisket bone is trimmed from the slab to make St. Louis or Kansas City style ribs for a reason.  Unfortunately most supermarkets package the bone back in even after having trimmed to begin with (usually hidden out of sight under the slab.)  This is mainly due to the economics of supermarket price margins, and they count on uneducated consumers settling for less.

You can always talk to the butcher at your supermarket to see if you can choose your slab before it's been packaged, but unless you are on a first name basis don't expect too much success.  Supermarkets expect to sell those brisket bones and can't package them separately because no one would buy them.   If there is a butcher shop in your area you can go there to get the slabs trimmed just the way you want them, but expect to pay a lot more as well.  The best place I've found to get excellent St. Louis style spareribs is from one of the shopping clubs like Sam's Club, BJs or Costco.  You have to buy them 8-10 pounds at a time but the cuts are of excellent quality, free of the brisket bone, and if it's too much simply freeze half of them for your next cookout.

Preparing the Ribs

Having picked a slab that is nice and thick, and has a little marbling on the meat side, the ribs need to be trimmed a bit more and properly seasoned.  Depending on how well the slab has been trimmed you may find that there is a side bone that runs length-wise near one end of the slab.  If so take a knife, hold the flap up with one hand, and cut about 1/4 inch deep all the way across it to remove the skin. With bone side up, and slab placed flat on cutting board so that bones are running in a vertical position, take a good sharp knife and make vertical cuts in the flap about every 1/2 inch. Cut from the top of the flap down to where it connects to the main body of the rib and trim off the skin running along the top of the flap on the bone side. This step, like all the others, may be skipped of course but if not removed the flap will take longer to cook than the rest of the ribs and it will be harder to cut the ribs before serving.

One battle that rages all the time is what to do with the membrane that covers the "bone side" of the slab.  Aficionados will tell you that removing this membrane is necessary to allow the seasonings to properly penetrate the meat.   It also is necessary if you are in competition.  But my experience, and the experience of friends, is that you really don't notice the difference after the ribs have spent 4+ hours in the smoker, and ignoring it saves a time consuming step.  Given that, if you want to be a purist here's what you do:  take a strong blunt instrument (a Phillips head screwdriver works well) and begin the separation process. Once you can get your fingers/thumb between the membrane and meat, you can then dispense with the tool and begin to pry the two apart.  Once the membrane begins to peel it should come off fairly easily.

Next remove any additional hunks of fat that the butcher missed.  Remember that the fat is important for juicy, tender ribs especially if they are to be barbecued.  In fact, the most common mistake novices make is to select ribs that are too lean.   Select ribs that have a fair amount of fatty marbling.  The undesirable fat will cook away after hours in the smoker but are necessary for flavor and moisture.   So remove only extraneous pieces of fat, leaving the natural fat located "between the ribs".  What we are looking to accomplish is to remove the 'larger' pieces that lie on the outside of the meat.  Now the ribs are ready for seasoning, marinating for a period of time, and then cooked to perfection.  For perfect ribs every time check out my favorite BBQ recipes for instructions, rubs and sauces.

 

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