Perfect pork ribs are sweet and spicy with meat so tender it falls off the bone. So how do you get into the rib cooking hall of fame? Practice makes perfect, but let's get you started off on the right foot so you are cooking good BBQ ribs from the start!
Selecting the Ribs:
There are two basic cuts of ribs: baby back ribs and loin (spare) ribs. The baby back ribs are, as the name implies, close to the backbone, and the spare ribs are closer to the stomach area. The baby back ribs are a bit leaner and have a milder flavor, but spare ribs get my vote as being even tastier, and with a lower price tag. St. Louis style ribs are trimmed spare ribs removing the extra flap and the small end with no rib bones. These days, the big superstores all carry vacuum sealed rib cuts that are ready to cook. Always purchase ribs with no water or solutions added!
Preparing for the Fire:
Before you cook the ribs, flip them bone side up and with a sharp knife, score the membrane between each rib section. This will make them easy to separate after cooking. For extra tender ribs, remove the entire membrane. Competition cooks never skip this step, but it really is an optional step, unless you are trying to win a competition.
Be sure and spice up your ribs with a good BBQ rub. You can do this with a commercial BBQ rub or make your own secret recipe. The rub gives your ribs a distinct flavor, so do not expect to get Bubba's prize-winning BBQ rib rub recipe. The rub will give your ribs their spice and signature flavor, so experiment with a few different kinds. Take a store-bought rub and add a secret ingredient to create your own BBQ rub. The important part is the eating of the ribs, but the secrets kept between cooks are a big part of the fun of BBQ cooking!
Place the ribs bone side down on a preheated smoker. The fire will need to be somewhere between 200 to 250 degrees. This is important so watch the heat to keep the cooking temp right around 225 degrees if possible. You will have to learn the characteristics of your smoker, since the temperature gauge is not really measuring the temperature right at grill level. Even the outside temperature will affect the cooking time. There is some margin for the heat range, but keep the temperature inside the smoker as close to 225 degrees as you can.
Add some wood for smoking to the fire. Not too much, since you do not need extra heat; just enough smoke to polish the flavor of the meat. My preference is hickory since it is naturally spicy and adds to the spicy flavor from the rub, but any good hardwood will work well. The smoke from the wood chips during cooking should be steady, but only enough smoke to add flavor.
Check the ribs once or twice during cooking, but avoid too much peeking, since the heat will escape every time you lift the lid. Use indirect heat on one side of the grill and use foil as a buffer between the rib racks and the fire. A side fire-box helps to control heat and smoke without disturbing the main cooking area.
Once the ribs are cooked, they will pull back at the ends of the ribs. The time spent cooking is going to vary but around 3 to 4 hours is pretty typical for ribs. Do not cook too fast, but by all means keep cooking if they are not perfect and tender. If it takes 6 hours, the results are all that counts. Cook the ribs "dry" and add sauce, if you want sauce, 20 minutes before taking off the grill. The sauce will be lightly cooked but not blackened or burnt. Enjoy those ribs!