If brisket is the bread and butter of barbecue, then ribs are the piece de resistance. Finding your favorite, whether it's Texas-style, Southern or Oriental, is one of life's pleasant challenges.
Ribs have a certain mystique. Although messy and not on anyone's list of most healthful foods, ribs nevertheless draw a fervent following.
The experts say good ribs are simply a matter of seasoning -- usually a dry rub from a secret formula -- smoke and time. And the cut. That's very important.
Most rib-meisters use what they call the St. Louis cut or the "three-and-down," a trimmed rack of pork spareribs from the shoulder weighing 3 pounds or less. The skirt of brisket meat and the cartilage are removed.
It's the same thing as a sparerib, but the trimming leaves only the choicest part. The St. Louis cut is hard to find at typical meat counters. Home cooks can order from custom butchers or use baby-back ribs, which also may require calling ahead.
The St. Louis cut yields eight to 10 ribs per pound, while spareribs yield about four ribs per pound. Because they're from the front part of the rib, the St. Louis cut ribs are meatier.
Baby-back ribs are smaller ribs from the loin. A rack weighs about 1 1/2 pounds and has about a dozen ribs.
With spareribs, allow about a pound of ribs per serving, one-half to three-quarters pound with St. Louis cut or baby-backs.
Smoking times and cooking techniques vary among rib restaurants, and professional techniques and equipment don't translate well to home kitchens. Few backyard barbecuers have the kind of smokers used by the pros. But a water smoker will do or even a kettle grill. Place the coals to one side of the cooker and a pan of water on the other. Grill ribs over the tray so they aren't directly over the heat. That smokes the ribs without burning.
For home rib cooks looking for a fail-safe method, this is an easy recipe that can produce Oriental or traditionally sauced ribs:
Home-style baby-back pork ribs
Makes 4 servings.
1 cup sake, sherry or blush wine
1/2 cup soy sauce
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh chili paste, or red pepper sauce to taste
3 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
4 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons minced fresh garlic
1/2 cup olive oil
3 pounds baby-back pork ribs (3 or 4 sides)
favorite barbecue sauce (optional)
Combine all ingredients except ribs and barbecue sauce in a small bowl; mix well. Pour marinade over pork in a non-corrosive flat pan or dish. Cover and refrigerate several hours or overnight, turning occasionally or basting during marinating time.
Heat oven to 300 degrees. Drain off marinade, reserving half. Place ribs in a flat baking pan large enough to lay rib racks side by side, or use two pans. Pour the reserved marinade over ribs; bake 2 hours, turning every half-hour. (May be done ahead to this point and refrigerated, tightly wrapped.) To finish, prepare charcoal or heat gas grill. Fire should be hot. Bring ribs to room temperature for an hour before grilling.
For a traditional flavor: Lightly brush ribs with barbecue sauce, then grill over hot coals for 3 to 4 minutes or until glazed and heated through.
For an Oriental flavor: Grill ribs without basting. Serve with hot Chinese mustard or hoisin sauce, an Oriental barbecue sauce.
Dotty Griffith is food editor of the Dallas Morning News.