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Ribs 101: Four methods for cooking
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Ribs 101: Four methods for cooking

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“Ribs” should never be a four-letter word.

They represent everything that is great about meat: They have an amazing, instantly recognizable flavor that is hearty yet mild at the same time. They are tender, but also have just the right amount of chew. They taste wonderful on their own, but they also pair spectacularly well with any number of sauces.

And they are practically impossible to cook badly.

And yet, a lot of people find them daunting, or too much work. Ribs are something they only order at a restaurant, preferably a barbecue joint.

But it’s not hard to turn your home into your own personal barbecue joint. Ribs are not difficult to cook at all, and the best part is that when you are done, you have ribs.

I made ribs — we are talking here about pork ribs — four different ways, with different results.

First, I made them the traditional way, by smoking them at a low temperature for several hours. These turned out the best by far, tender and juicy with the exquisite flavor and aroma of smoke running all the way through. If you have the time and you have a smoker or a grill you can use for smoking, this is unquestionably the way to go for the true rib experience.

Next, I tried a method I had always abhorred: I boiled the ribs before grilling them. Some restaurants love to parboil their ribs because it makes them extra-tender and especially because it saves them time.

Not everyone agrees. Grillmeister Steven Raichlan says, “in my barbecue religion, that’s heresy.”

Boiling ribs does help to render out some fat, but at the same time it also renders out some flavor. But what I hadn’t guessed was just how much other flavor is added by grilling the meat over direct heat. Ten minutes is all it takes to finish off the nearly cooked ribs with a mouth-watering taste of flame and smoke.

Cooking ribs in a slow cooker takes more time than any other method, but it’s time that you can spend away from the kitchen, if you like. You just rub the ribs with spices, plop them in the slow cooker and forget about them — until the enticing aroma reminds you that dinner is almost done.

They come out tender, but with just enough resistance to your bite, and have a delectable flavor, meaty and full. They are awfully good, but they lack the smokiness that, for a lot of people, defines the taste of ribs.

I don’t particularly recommend the fourth method of cooking ribs, roasting them in the oven, unless you don’t have a smoker, a grill or a slow cooker.

What oven-roasted ribs have is the proper texture, and you can enjoy the fact that you are eating ribs. But the flavor is minimal and, frankly, kind of insipid.

Still, the end result is ribs. And that is better than not having ribs.

What are the different cuts of ribs?

The most popular ribs are baby back ribs, which come from the top part of the ribcage. They have the most meat of all the rib cuts, and are also the quickest and easiest to cook.

Spareribs are cut just below the baby back ribs. They have more marbling between the bones, and thus more flavor, but they also are not as tender as the baby backs.

St. Louis-style ribs are essentially spareribs, but are cut shorter so they don’t have the rib tips on the bottom. Rib tips are the toughest part of the ribs.

What about country-style ribs?

Country-style ribs are not ribs (you can tell because they are not attached to a bone). They are actually cut from the pork butt, which is to say the shoulder. They are sometimes inaccurately lumped in with ribs because they, like ribs, have to be cooked at a low temperature for a relatively long time.

What is the skin, and does it have to be removed?

What people call the “skin” is actually a membrane, the pleura. When cooked, it becomes tough and chewy, and most people find it unpleasant to eat — however, it is edible (and some like it). It is usually best to remove it, although we left it on while cooking ribs in a slow cooker because it helps hold the rack together when using that method.

To remove it, simply slide a thin, sharp knife between the bone side of the ribs and skin to loosen enough of it to be able to grab it. Hold it with a clean towel or paper towels and pull the skin off the ribs. It comes off baby back ribs very easily; it takes more effort with spareribs and St. Louis ribs.

If you are smoking ribs, what wood should you use?

Hickory is a good place to start; it produces perhaps the most familiar smoke flavor. But go easy on the chips, because too much hickory smoke can add a bitter note to your meat.

Fruit woods such as apple (which won’t impart as much flavor) and cherry are mild, and are good to mix with other woods. Mesquite is delicious and unmistakable, but it can easily become harsh so be sure to use it sparingly.

Oak is not traditionally used with pork, unless you’re from East Texas, where post oak grows like a weed and is used to barbecue everything. I used to live in East Texas, so for this story I used a combination of post oak and hickory.

When should I put on the sauce?

Most barbecue sauces have sugars in them (the vinegar-based sauce of North Carolina is a significant exception). Sugars burn quickly, ruining your barbecue. If you are cooking at a low temperature, such as in the smoker, oven or slow cooker, do not apply your sauce until the last 20 to 30 minutes of cooking. If you are cooking at a high temperature, such as finishing it under the broiler or on a grill over direct heat, do not add the sauce until the last three to five minutes.

Some experts don’t even put a sauce on at all while the ribs are cooking. They serve the sauce on the side. A few purists disdain the thought of sauce entirely and don’t believe in using it, but I do not see any reason for such extremism.

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