Barbecuing ribs is a simple, sinful pleasure. It might seem contradictory to slap rules on such primal behavior, but life is full of contradictions, and good ribs are worth a few hours of unquestioning obedience.
Here, culled from talks with local and national barbecue barons, are the 10 Commandments of Cooking Ribs in the Back Yard.
The 1st Commandment: Cook low and slow. We are talking hours here, not minutes. Count on a slab of ribs cooking for at least three hours over a low heat, 250 degrees tops.
The 2nd Commandment: Good barbecue comes from good meat. Selecting a slab of pork rib is like buying a car: You need to pick the right size. Spareribs are sized by numbers, which roughly refer to how many pounds the slab weighs. The full-size model, referred to by butchers as "3 1/2 to 5's" (3 1/2 to 5 pounds a slab), are the big-bone ribs. But these big guys also tote more waste than smaller models.
The four-door sedan, best-selling slab is called "the 3 1/2 and down." Baby-back ribs are the sports car of ribs: smaller, leaner, pricey but considered by some to be too lightweight for anything other than an appetizer. The new rib in the model line is the loin-back: bigger than the baby-back, smaller than the 3 1/2 and down. A slab usually weighs 1 3/4 pounds to 2 1/4 pounds. Your butcher can help you determine how much meat to buy.
The 3rd Commandment: Buy American pork. American pigs taste better than pork from across the ocean. Just ask J. R. Roach of De Witt, Ark., and Rodney Cheshire of Memphis, two of the big Bubbas of the national barbecue circuit. Last month they taught a one-day barbecue school at Andy Nelson's Southern Pit Barbecue in Cockeysville. Their ribs, which had been rubbed with spices and smoked, were wolfed down by their 45 or so students. But the profs weren't pleased. The ribs, Mr. Roach said, had come from Denmark (they couldn't find locals) and had a foreign flavor. I thought they tasted too salty. "Fish-fed pigs," sniffed Mr. Cheshire. The lesson: Always ask your butcher where he gets his pigs.
The 4th Commandment: Skin your ribs. Using a knife, peel off the membrane that coats the bone side of the ribs. This trick, taught by Mr. Roach and Mr. Cheshire, helps smoke and spices penetrate the meat.
The 5th Commandment: Avoid flames. The ribs and the fire should be kept apart. Champion barbecuers take several steps to control the contact between heat and meat. They let their wood logs burn down to coals. They put water in their cookers. Backyard cooks can imitate the champs by using an indirect cooking method. Put the ribs on one side of the grill, put the coals nearby, but not directly under the ribs. Gas grills do the job, but are seriously lacking in soul.
The 6th Commandment: Know the temperature. Backyard cookers now come with thermometers in their lids. A less accurate but more colorful way to measure the heat of a fire is to hold your hand over the coals and count "one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi," etc., until the heat forces you to pull your hand away. Ribs do best over a three-to-four Mississippi fire.
The 7th Commandment: Dunk or rub according to your beliefs. There are two schools of thought -- the dunkers and the rubbers -- on what to do with ribs before you put them over the fire. The dunkers immerse the pork in vinegar-based marinades, producing a "wet rib." The rubbers massage the rack with a dry mix of spices, yielding a "dry rib." Combining the two methods is regarded as heresy.
The 8th Commandment: Never boil ribs. "The only reason you put meat in water is to make soup," says Rick Catalano, proprietor of Cafe Tattoo in Northeast Baltimore. "It takes the juices and flavor out of the ribs," says Jerry Railey of the Bar-B-Q Pit in the Cross Street Market.
People boil ribs because they are in a hurry, a sin against the first commandment. But for the ribs cook who gets caught by a thunderstorm, a better, if not sanctioned, way to proceed is to bake the ribs in a 250-degree oven until the meat can be pulled from the bone.
The 9th Commandment: Use tricks to keep them warm. When the ribs easily pull apart, they are done. If the ribs are ready before the eaters are, keep the ribs warm by stacking racks of them on top of each other, and basting the top rack with a watered-down version of your favorite sauce. If the wait will be especially long, wrap ribs in aluminum foil. Put two ice cubes in the bottom of the foil packet, then seal it. Set packet on the grill. As ice melts, it will keep ribs moist.
The 10th Commandment: Don't forget the finish. The sauce that is served with the cooked ribs when they hit the table is called the finish sauce. Tomato-based sauces tend to burn if applied to ribs that are on the fire. But they make good finish sauces. Finish sauces can be hot or sweet. Hot means peppers. Sweet means brown sugar, molasses or honey. Applying a honey-based finish sauce also gives the ribs a beatific glow.