Pork ribs are purchased in SLABS, consisting of about 15 bones in each slab. A RACK is a SLAB cut in half (6-8 bones). Ribs come in four categories, defined by the location on the hogs rib cage they are cut from:
COUNTRY STYLE…these are more like pork chops and not considered a true rib…pork chop shaped bone. At opposite end of loin backs. Sold in pieces.
LOIN BACK….this is the cut closest to the spine..where the tenderloin is located.. Short and very curved bones. Sold in slabs or half-slabs (racks) and usually weigh 2 and down (1.75 – 2 pounds a slab). (The BABY BACK is simply a loin back off a baby hog..or hog under 85# when dressed Babyback slabs usually weigh 1 3/4 and down. Sold in slabs, it is a Gourmet cut of meat….)
SPARE….more of the middle and lower section of the ribcage. Spares have flat oval bones. Largest of the rib categories..and usually have an extra piece of meat on the underside of the rib, called the Brisket, or tip, which is trimmed off prior to cooking. Usually weighs 3 and down. For BBQ’ing, spares are trimmed somewhat similar the shape of the State of Tennessee..flat on left, angled on right..and straight even on top and bottom, with brisket removed (and cooked separate, if desired, known as the ‘trash ribs’) ST. LOUIS CUT…this is a cut of ribs that is the border area between the loin and the spare…in essence..it is a flat oval shaped bone slab, similar to the spare, but from the top it looks like a loin back. Great for outdoor BBQ’ing for friends, and a must for Texas Style competitions.
Which is best to cook? Well…I guess it depends on how much room you have on your grill, and what is the occasion. Spares are for feeding the masses..and the loin backs are better for small dinners or picnics, on smaller grills. Figure on providing a full slab for heavy eaters and a rack for normal appetites.
The best place to buy Loin back Ribs now in small quantities is Sam’s Club. They come 3 slabs to the cryrovac package. I know lots of professional BBQ cookers who get their championship ribs from Sam’s.
You should never pay more than: $6-7 a slab for loins, $6 for spares, and $6-7 a slab for St. Louis.
The two most critical points of cooking any type of BBQ is….time and temperature….both low and slow! This is how I prepare Ribs for Competition:
I choose Loin back’s 2 and down…and keep them iced down (not Frozen) before time to cook. While I start my fire and get the grill up to a warm temp. of about 180 F, I take the ribs out and set them on a table to come close room temp. (as you should with ALL meats you grill or BBQ). I take a slab and remove the back membrane by twisting and bending the slab like an accordion, and then placing the slab on a flat surface and running a small Phillips head screwdriver down a bone in the MIDDLE of the slab, CAREFULLY separating the bone from the membrane (also known as the tallow). Working the blade of the screwdriver slowly sideways on one end of the slab, until a space big enough for my index finger to enter the pocket created between the bone and the membrane. I then CAREFULLY work to the opposite end of the slab..until two, then three fingers are to the other side….then I lift STRAIGHT UP AND AWAY FROM THE middle of the slab…this pulls the membrane away from the middle of the slab and slowly releases from the slab…until it is joined only at the tips….just lift this membrane off and discard it. REMEMBER to take your time for the first one..and it gets easier to do as you go along. Just work the membrane off slowly and try to remove it as one piece, if some of it tears and stays on the slab, don’t worry..just leave it. You do not have to do this part..but it is worth the effort! REMOVE MEMBRANES ON LOIN BACK’S ONLY!!! Spares are darned near impossible to totally remove!
Next..I trim the two end bones off each tip…leaving a 12 bone slab. I do this because it looks better, cooks better, and sometimes there are bone fragments in the tips, no fun for judges to bite into! Then…while the fire is still heating, I squirt some Italian Dressing on both sides of the ribs. This adds a unique flavor and gives the dry rub something to stick to while the ribs are smoking. I then sprinkle a dry rub on both sides of the slab. Try OLD BAY seasoning, found in the seafood section of Kroger by the meat case. All that Rendezvous Seasoning utilizes is Old bay with some cracked white peppercorns!! You can make you own dry rub from scratch, make it spicy or mild. This is the fun part of ribs..the experimentation with the rub. You don’t have to rub the spice, just sprinkle over the top, bottom (if you get the membranes off) ends and sides of the slab. A good rule of thumb is to make sure there is no unspiced red meat exposed anywhere! WARNING: Stay away from large amounts of salt in your rub, it draws moisture out of this delicate cut of meat, and will dry it out! SUGAR in the rub will caramelize during cooking and will blacken your ribs unnecessarily. Leave the rub on about 10 minutes before putting the slabs on the grill.
NEVER put the ribs on the cooker meat side down, always put the slab BONE SIDE to the fire, You should rotate your slabs if the fire is hotter on one side of the grill than the other…or rotate the slabs 180 degrees, but don’t move them from their starting spots, etc. Point is, don’t expose meats to a hot spot on the grill for very long, but keep them rotated, so that all the pieces get some of the hot spot!
If you are cooking on a gas grill, it is imperative you do the following:
Cook at as low a temp. as you can without your burner flaming out. Cook as far away from the flame as you can, if a double burner, put meat over the unlit side, for example. AVOID FLAIRUPS!! Remember..time and temperatureYou MUST introduce smoke to the meat, or it will not be BBQ. Period. Use some hardwood pellets or moistened Chips of hickory or mesquite combo applied to your lava rocks. Oak is fine. NEVER USE RESINOUS WOOD, such as cedar or pine..the resin can impart toxins to the meat and make everyone sick. Smoke flavor is imparted to meats only within the first 2 hours and at below temps of 200F. Excessive smoking can only serve to blacken the meat, or overpower the flavor with smoke. After two hours the meat ‘seals’ and nothing else can penetrate the meat…that is why the low temps are so critical to imparting the BBQ spices and smoke deeper into the meat early on in the process. If you can not impart smoke to the meat, there is one other alternative…marinate the ribs in large ziplock freezer bags with each two slabs getting one cup of Worcestershire Sauce, one half cup of Wicker’s marinade, and one tablespoon of Liquid Smoke, which is a product found in the same section as the Wicker’s. Marinade overnight..or for at least 8 hours before applying dry rub. It gives a false flavor, but it is better than no smoke flavor at all.
It should take about 6 hours at 200 degrees (get an oven thermometer and place it on the grill close to the meat…this is the thermometer to pay attention to!), or 5 hours at 225, or 4 hours at 250. NEVER COOK HIGHER THAN 250F!! All you are doing at that temp. is grilling, and you cannot successfully grill any cut of rib, except for Country Style Ribs.
Apply Smoke for first 2 hours. After one hour, baste ribs with anything! Beer, wine, Wickers, Gramma’s favorite pork baste, whatever…just don’t let the ribs tryout!
After two hours of smoking, wrap EACH SLAB in HEAVY DUTY aluminum foil. Be careful not to punch holes in foil. This is the STEAMING process, which is the secret part that makes the ribs so tender. To further tenderize the meat, pour a 1/3 cup of marinade, or Citric liquid (OJ or pineapple juice works best) into the foil over the meat, before carefully sealing the top of the foil. Wrap tight BUT WATCH FOR HOLES IN THE FOIL. Double or triple wrap, if necessary! That is why the extra heavy-duty foil is so important. Cook in foil another 2 hours, at the lower temps and 1.5 hours if cooking at 250.
NOTE: at the end of the foil process, when you open the foil of one slab to inspect, look for bones shining at you…this means they are steaming too fast and remove from grill immediately! If there is still mostly meat over the top of the slab, you are ok. After 1.5 to 2 hours in the foil, take one slab off the grill and open the foil. Watch for hot steam! When you see this small amount of BLACK LIQUID (rendered fat) at the bottom of the foil, that is the signal to remove the slabs from the foil. This Black stuff is the so called “pig taste” that good rib cooks replace with pure BBQ flavoring. If you are not careful, the black liquid will literally be reabsorbed into the meat, making them a little more ‘porky’ in flavor. I sometimes stack my slabs on their side…like dominos to allow the Fat to slow off the slabs into the bottom of the foil. Again, watch out for pinholes in the foil!
At the appropriate time, remove the foil and place the slabs back on the grill….this will finish the cooking and firm up the ribs if they have gotten too tender. About 30 minutes before serving…paintbrush on a mixture of:
8 parts BBQ Sauce (Cattleman’s, Kraft or your own recipe will do) 2 parts honey some rub (to your taste)
NOT TOO MUCH if you prefer a dry rib…SWAB IT ON if you want a wet rib.
When the ribs are done, take off grill and let cool for about 10 minutes (as again, you should do with ALL grilled foods) before serving. Just before serving, lightly dust the slabs with your dry rub. Cut into 3 or 4 bone sections, and ENJOY! Make sure you have plenty of Moist Towlettes or warm strips of cloth soaked in lemon juice, to fix up the sticky fingers. Serve with French Bread or Texas Toast, BBQ Beans and Potato Salad, with the sauce on the side for those who prefer.
Ribs can be frozen after cooking. Wrap in clear film or foil and place in the freezer. Leave in foil off the grill if you plan on freezing and cooking later. That required last hour of grilling/finishing will be achieved in the warming oven at a later date.
To cook frozen ribs, remove from freezer and let thaw for two hours. Wrapped foil, and put in an oven at 220 for 45 minutes, they are almost as good as hot off the grill! Don’t forget the sauce!