St. Louis spare ribs
For the first entry on ilovemeat.com I knew I wanted a real softball of a dish. Loft it up and hit it out of the park. Something barbecued was the obvious choice. In my spare time I travel around the region and compete in BBQ competitions with my team Bourbon Barrel BBQ. I think those who know me would be shocked if the first entry weren’t something smoked, given my penchant for the grilled arts. The first thing that pops into my head when I hear the word “BBQ” is ribs, specifically pork ribs. Friends, let’s get one thing straight. I love ribs but they aren’t my absolute favorite cut in the BBQ hierarchy. For some reason though, ribs have been filed away in my brain under the keyword search “BBQ.” It must be how I’m wired. There is something so primal about gnawing on a bone that’s been cooked with fire. I guess it’s a caveman thing. I could sit here and wax poetic about the history of ribs, BBQ cuts and the anatomy of the pig but I’ll save that for another day. So why exactly is this the 3rd entry on the blog and not the first? Well turns out I’m pretty picky and a bit of a BBQ perfectionist and the post just flat out took longer to write than the other two.
I do have a bit of a disclaimer before I go any further. There are very few, if any rules in BBQ. Despite what every self-proclaimed expert in your neighborhood, family, or the Internet has told you, there is no singular “best” way to cook BBQ. In the realm of food I doubt anyone can find a topic that can elicit such a strong and emotional outpouring of assertions as BBQ. There are many way’s to get great BBQ in my opinion. I’m going to show you one of those methods to cook great ribs. The only “rule” that I follow when cooking ribs is “DO NOT BOIL YOUR RIBS!” I don’t care what grandma did. Boiling ribs should be illegal. The only time you should boil meat is if you are making a stock or blanching something for a recipe when you are purposefully trying to remove flavor from the meat because that’s exactly what you are doing when you boil ribs. Sure, boiling ribs can make them tender but you’ve also pulled out every bit of flavor and left it sitting in the pot along with the water. Now then, I’ll step back down off my soapbox and start cooking.
Today I’m going to be cooking St. Louis spare ribs. We normally use this cut in competitions so that’s what I’ve decided to prepare. It also helps that I already had some in my fridge. I’ll eventually get around to some of the others such as baby backs or country style but today it’s spares.
When you visit your butcher or supermarket you may find they already have St. Louis style ribs already trimmed up ready for the smoker. If they just have a full slabs fear not. I’ll show you have to trim them up yourself. As an added benefit they are probably cheaper if you trim them yourself.
Here we have a full rack of spares. One of the first decisions we have to make is whether or not to remove the membrane. Remember earlier when I said there are lots of assertions in BBQ? This is the first “rule” that’s commonly debated when cooking ribs. The membrane that’s attached to the back of the slab can become tough and chewy if you leave it on. Some people just choose to score it with a knife and hope it shrinks up enough not to get stuck in your teeth. This method is practiced in many restaurants simply because of the time involved stripping the membrane off hundreds of slabs of ribs. Me personally, I always remove the membrane at home and especially at competitions. It’s not hard once you get the hang of it.
Simply take a butter knife and work it under the edge of rib between the bone and the membrane.
Use a paper towel to grip the piece of the membrane that’s been pried up and simply peel it off the back of the ribs. If you’re a fisherman a pair of catfish skinners work well here.
Now that we have the membrane off the back it’s time to trim the rack into the St. Louis cut. Using your fingers find the longest bone in the rack. Using a large butcher or chef knife make a long cut perpendicular to this bone for the entire length of the rack. You should now be left with a rectangle shaped rack of ribs.
Other than presentation the reason we trimmed the piece off the top is it’s full of cartilage and connective tissue. It’s still a perfectly useful piece of meat. Cook it along side your St. Louis style rack for some rib tips or use chunks to season a batch of beans.
After you’ve trimmed up the spares it’s time to coat them in a dry rub. At home I usually use a concoction of whatever I have laying around or use this Classic BBQ Rub as a starting point. I also have lots of left over rub from competitions that I can use if I’m short on time and feeling lazy. If you are looking for an easy button here are a few of the more popular commercial rubs used in competitions that compliment ribs very well.
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Whatever you decide to use, just make sure the rub does not have high sugar content as that can cause the ribs to over darken and imparts a burnt flavor. If you like a sweet rib use the sauce to establish the sweetness. Use the rub to impart the savory, salty, and spicy layer of flavor.
After you’ve rubbed your rack down we can go ahead and fire up our grill or smoker to 275. OMG, 275! Yes 275. I know low and slow for hours and hours has been drilled into your head but you simply don’t have to wait that long for a great rib. I don’t know about you but I want to eat ASAP.
There are lots of variables to take into consideration when cooking BBQ on your particular setup. I’ll go over all the different types of cookers and pits in the future but for now we are just going to assume that you are able to get indirect heat from your grill or smoker which basically means the meat it is protected from direct flame. That can be an offset smoke box, 2 zone setup on a gas grill where only a portion of the burners are lit or perhaps a heat deflector like I have here on this Big Green Egg. Just be sure that your ribs are not sitting over a direct flame and the cooking chamber is at 275.
For this cook I’ll be using natural lump charcoal as my heat source and a chunk of apple wood for my smoke flavor. I’m lucky enough that my family owns an orchard and I have an unlimited supply of apple or peach wood at my disposal. I’ll go into detail about the characteristics of each type of wood at a later date but I would recommend, apple, peach, cherry, pecan, or hickory to start with. I would not recommend mesquite for ribs as it can impart a bitter flavor and generally only pairs well with beef or wild game.
After the two hours are up, it’s time to wrap the ribs in aluminum foil. (Aka The Texas Crutch)
Place 3-4 tablespoons of butter or margarine in the foil along with the ribs. This adds moisture and another layer of flavor. The wrapped ribs go back in the cooker for another 1.5 hours.
After the 1.5 hours are up take the ribs out of the foil and brush your favorite BBQ sauce to the top of the ribs. Place them back in the cooker without foil for 30 minutes to let the sauce set up on the rib.
I use this Sweet molasses sauce at home. It’s sweet with a hint of heat. If you need that easy button there are plenty of great sauces out there. Find one you like and slather away.
A few of the more popular sauces at competitions include:
Blues Hog Tennessee Red Sauce (A mix 50/50 Original and Tennesee Red is common)
Head Country Bar-B-Q Sauce
Some of the more popular commercial sauces are Sweet Baby Rays, KC Masterpiece, and Kraft. I don’t judge. I usually have a bottle of Sweet Baby Rays in my fridge. There’s no shame in using something ready made.
- Heat your cooker to 275 and have it setup for indirect heat (meat protected from direct flames.)
- Remove membrane from the back of the rack of ribs using a butter knife and paper towel.
- Trim the rack into the St. Louis cut
- Rub both sides of the rib using the Classic BBQ rub or dry rub of your choice.
- Place the ribs on the cooker for 2 hours.
- After the two hours are up wrap ribs in foil meat side down with 3-4 TBS of butter or margarine.
- Place the ribs back in the cooker for 1.5 hours meat side down.
- After the 1.5 hours are up, remove from foil and mop the top of the ribs with your favorite sauce. This Sweet Molasses BBQ sauce works well with ribs.
- Place the ribs back in the cooker meat side up for 30 minutes.
- Remove ribs from the cooker slice and serve.