Here’s your chance to cook with the cast! Make the featured recipe with us and comment on your experience below—we’d love to hear how it goes. Our cooks will answer any questions you may have, too.
Contest extended for one more week! For a chance to win an entire Season 10 4-DVD set of America’s Test Kitchen TV autographed by host Christopher Kimball, make this week’s recipe and email a photo of your completed dish to firstname.lastname@example.org by noon EST, Thursday, Sept. 15. Bridget will pick her favorite snapshot and name the winner on Friday, Sept. 16. Good luck!
Why don’t you go ahead and sit down, put your feet up, and rest a spell, ‘cause I’m about to get on my soapbox. Ahem….
Barbecue rib meat should NOT—I repeat, NOT—fall off the bone. If you’re eating ribs and the meat drops away, those ribs are overcooked, my friend. Now of course, you can tell me to pound sand and that you prefer super-tender meat that needs very little (if any) mastication, but I happen to like my teeth, and as they say, “Use ‘em or lose ‘em.”
This lecture was brought to you by the wonderful city of Memphis, Tenn., where ribs, along with the blues, are elevated to a religion. And rightfully so—order a rack of ribs from just about any joint and you’ll see the difference. These ribs aren’t buried under a blanket of sweet and sticky sauce. Rather, like toddlers or United States congressmen, they’re unapologetically naked, having only been dusted with a dry spice rub (the ribs, not the politicians) that caramelizes into a bronzed crust. Grab a rib and tear it away from the rack and it will fight back just a bit, as if it knows its impending fate.
A pit master is in charge of the whole operation, feeding the fire with hickory logs for hours and basting the ribs with a tart liquid called “the mop.” And while they don’t fall off the bone, no one can say that these ribs are tough. Nope—the meat is tender and permeated with smoke. The bright pink smoke ring around the meat is a badge of honor.
Now that we’ve established my love of these ribs, I’d hoped that I wouldn’t have to move to Memphis. And the test kitchen was kind enough to provide me with a killer recipe that wouldn’t take all day and were every bit as chewy, smoky, and tender—right from my own backyard grill.
But before we delve into the details, let’s talk pork ribs. We’re using spareribs; they’re meatier than baby backs, which can dry out quickly. At the market there are racks of plain old spareribs that are huge and have a bit of cartilage, gristle, and belly meat intact. But it’s pretty hard to fit these Flintstonian racks on the grill. You remember the rack that made Fred’s car tip over?
The better option is the St. Louis-style sparerib, which is trimmed of any extraneous gristle and all of the belly meat. Plus, there’s virtually no prep; the ribs are fine as is. You don’t even need to remove the papery membrane from the bone side as we sometimes do—that membrane will keep the racks intact.
OK, got a couple racks of the ribs? Let’s get to grilling.
Just mix a bowl of the spice rub, which in this case is a combo of paprika, chili powder, salt, pepper, garlic and onion powders, and dried thyme. We also put a little brown sugar in there to help with the browning of the crust, and a good 1½ teaspoons of cayenne pepper to make that Kimball guy weep. Simply rub and massage that mix all over the ribs—back and front. Wash your hands, please, and then head out to heat the grill.
Our grill is used to both cook and smoke the meat. For a charcoal grill, we need to open both the top and bottom vents to produce a smoky jet stream under the lid. Pork spareribs have quite a bit of marbling running through the meat, but to tenderize, we need more than just heat—we need moist heat. So we place a pan of water on one side of the grill, right beside a layer of briquettes on the other side. We light more coals (the recipe says “about” 33—I find that funny), dump them on the unlit coals, and sprinkle the top with soaked wood chips. Believe me, they are way easier to handle than hickory logs. When it’s all hot, we scrape the grate to get rid of anything that’s still stuck on (like last week’s salmon—yuck).
The ribs go on with the bones up, right over the water pan. After about 45 minutes we flip them over. Now comes the real Memphis trick: mopping the ribs with apple juice and cider vinegar. The fruit sugar really helps create a crisp crust on the outside of the meat. We just brush some on (save more for later) and cook the ribs for another 45 minutes.
So, after 90 minutes of smoking, the ribs are deep pink and ready to be removed from the grill. But that doesn’t mean that they’re done. No way sir-ee—they are still as tough as heck at this point. But since manning the grill all day wasn’t our goal, and the ribs are suitable smoked, we move this operation indoors. The ribs go on a wire rack set over a water-filled baking sheet. They’re mopped again, roasted for an hour, mopped, and then roasted until tender. That’s one or two hours of mostly hands-off work from the comfort of your climate-controlled home.
Now how do you know how that the ribs are “Memphis-tender” and not falling off the bone? Pick up one of the racks from its short end (use tongs, please) and see if it bends. Ribs that aren’t ready won’t bend at all, ribs that are overcooked will fall apart, and ribs that bend but don’t break are “just right.” You and Goldilocks will love them.
You want to let these ribs rest for about 15 minutes—that way all the juices will stay inside the meat instead of exploding onto your shirt. Then all you have to do is take a knife and cut between the ribs to separate them. Go ahead and pick up a rib. Chew it, tug away the meat, and then suck that caramelized mix of toasty dry rub and mop right off your fingers. Add a little T. Bone Walker, and you’re in rib heaven.