Here’s a little somethin’ to enhance my essay, which should be called Cooking Authentic Memphis Style BBQ Spare Ribs At Home 101. Hit the play button (my favorite is at 2:30 mark) and read on.
Bought me some spare ribs last weekend. It was the first time this summer for me and my Memphis style of BBQ ribs. It’s getting hard to find fresh trimmed spare ribs these days. Most grocery stores now stock processed ribs that are injected with a pre-brine and packed in vacuum sealed cryo-paks by food processing factories. Avoid these as they can be too salty and not too fresh. They have a long shelf life, which is why mega grocers like to stock them.
Spare ribs are my choice because there is ample meat and marbled fat unlike the lean and un-meaty baby back ribs. Spare ribs are a large manly rib. Spare ribs are the traditional southern pork ribs with lots of meat on and around the entire bone and most often used in the Memphis-style BBQ that I prefer by far over all others.
I will now humbly attempt to debunk the many myths about home cooking low and slow BBQ ribs.
Myth: The meat should fall off the bone when eating.
Truth. Traditionally, tender, juicy BBQ ribs on the bone MUST be gnawed, much like an animal would.
Myth: Baby back ribs are the best.
Truth. Of the many cuts of ribs, spare ribs are much meatier and cheaper when compared to back ribs. St. Louis style ribs are nothing more than spare ribs that have been trimmed, leaving about 3-4” slabs of fine meat. I have no issues with St.Louis style spare ribs. But you will pay $1 more per pound to have the unionized butcher run a spare rib slab through a band saw to trim off the tips. The cast off is not included in the package but sold separately as rib tips, highly prized by inner-city pork enthusiasts and for good reason. They are delightful, but also take some work while eating. To me, it’s well worth the effort. Let’s just say that St.Louis ribs are for girly-men. Not that there is anything wrong with that.
Big food processors and restaurant marketing efforts have convinced white Americans that they want their baby back baby back baby back ribs. Problem is that baby back ribs are costly due to low supply and high demand caused by restaurants and food marketers. Expect to pay well over $3. per pound for a lot of bone and very little meat. This is similar to what restaurants and marketing has done to another once cast-off product known as chicken wings.
For years I BBQ’ d nothing but back ribs. For years try as I would to make them juicy and tender many of my attempts ended up in failure due to lack of fat and meat. The result was often a dry spicy meat encrusted bone product. At times these expensive slabs had paper thin meat and when holding them up outdoors the sunlight would shine through. Bare bones usually show on both sides with a thin layer of lean meat acting as a connective membrane holding them all together. They are very difficult to BBQ without drying them out and burning what little meat is on them. Not good.
Myth: Par-boiling the ribs before grilling makes them more tender.
Truth: Some folks par-boil their ribs, grill them for a while but to me that in itself is a crime against BBQ. This often leaves a swiney flavor that’s hard to disguise even with a very thick spicy sauce. Never, ever par-boil ribs. The exception would be braising pork roasts such as when making carnitas.
Myth: You get what you pay for.
Truth. The slab of spare ribs I found this week went for $1.65/lb.
These were fresh and shrink wrapped on a styro tray by the local butcher and bore the sticker that said “A Product Of The USA”. Did you know that more than half of all back ribs sold in the USA are imported from Denmark? Look it up. “A Product Of The USA” means local and fresh.
Lately, most cryo-vac spare rib slabs come from domestic mass producers such as Cargill, Smithfield and Hormel. Check the price then check the label. Unlike lean cuts such as pork chops, spare ribs need no pre-brining if cooked properly. You could pay more but why?
Note that the butcher cut the rib tip portion away from the slab and packaged it up with the spares. Look for this when buying spare ribs. While others grab for the big bones at the table I tend to focus on a smaller slab of tasty tips. Sure, there’s some gristle and bone but the meat is so sweet to gnaw at. Hawww!
Myth: Remove the skin from the backside of the slab.
Truth: Not necessary. The membrane acts to keep juices in the meat. Begin the BBQ by placing the membrane side down for a more tender slab. If you wish a spicier slab remove the membrane so that the rub contacts the meat on the underside. It’s up to the individual pit master.
Myth: Rub the ribs with a spice mixture the night before.
Truth. Definitely use a rub spice mixture. A few hours is fine, overnight is unnecessary but do it if you must. Using a store bought rub mix is expensive but works fine if you are pressed for time. Note: if you are pressed for time forget the ribs and grill a hot dog. After years of testing many rubs I have found that Emeril’s Rustic Rub is my favorite and I mix it myself saving even more money. When I do I make a large batch and seal in an air-tight container. Here it is if you wish to give it a try.
There’s no need for brown or any type of sugar in the rub and it’s not in this recipe. Sugar burns.
Rub ribs, wrap slab(s) in foil and refrigerate for about two hours. Overnight is overkill. After that let the slab sit on the counter to gain room temp for an hour or so before BBQing.
Myth: Use a special grill brush to remove crust from the previous cookout. Wipe hot grill with oil using a paper towels before adding meat.
Truth: I prefer a cheap industrial wire brush found at any Ace hardware store or Home Despot. They cost about two bucks and last for years if you keep them out of the elements. Go ahead and pay ten or more bucks for a special grill brush with a long plastic handle that will last one season or two.
As far as wiping the grill with oil that’s fine for seafood. Most meats need no lube. But if Bobby Flay told you to use oil then go right ahead and do it.
Myth: For true BBQ flavor you need a specialized cooking device.
Truth: In a word, NO. Here’s my plain old Weber kettle grill set up. On the lower rack, keep the fire on one side, foil on the other. Ribs go over the foil. Set the leg with no wheel into the wind, the legs with wheels go downwind. This promotes a smoky flow of low heat caressing your bones of paradise.
Myth: Soak the wood in water for an hour or so before adding to the grill.
Truth: Forget about soaking the wood in water. Waterlogged wood promotes creosote buildup that will add a bitter off flavor. Trust me, soaking the wood is a myth. I prefer hickory or sassafras wood (my favorite but hard to find).
Myth: Add wood to the fire often.
Truth: Adding wood for smoky flavor happens during the first 1-2 hours. After that adding more wood makes for a slab that is way too smoky for most folks. BBQ contest judges are not my customers and I have learned that any pork that is too smoky turns most folks off, myself included. Be careful not to let the smoke overpower the meat flavor. I prefer large chunks to small chips. My slab will get no more than two chunks of wood added to the fire. It's best to keep the lid closed as long as possible.
Myth: Build a small fire for low and slow BBQ.
Truth: To me, a hot fire with one big wood chunk at the beginning is best. It almost sears the outside of the slab and lets enough smoky goodness permeate the slab. In my set-up above that is all the coals I use the entire time.
Myth: Hardwood chunks are better than briquettes.
Truth: Hardwood chunks burn very hot and burn out fast. This is fine for grilling steaks and burgers and weenies but the fact is, briquettes burn almost as hot and burn much longer than hardwood chunks.
Myth: Add BBQ sauce for the final 30 minutes.
Truth: Go ahead if you must but this is unnecessary. I prefer using a mustard and vinegar mop sauce. The total time for cooking this slab was 3 hours. I baste with the mop sauce for the last hour and baste it well at least three times. After two hours the collagen in the slab has begun to melt and the mop sauce hastens the process. This is the secret to rib tenderness.
My mop sauce formula is one cup cider vinegar, one tablespoon table salt and ¼ cup cheap yellow mustard. Whisk until well blended. The mop tool is best but if you don’t have one a large spoon works fine. Use copious amounts.
Do not add any BBQ sauce to the ribs while cooking. After three hours has passed wrap slab and tips in foil and place in a 175 degree oven for ½ to one hour. Add BBQ sauce after removing ribs from the oven if you wish or just dip ribs in sauce when eating.
My own homemade BBQ sauce is outstanding. I also like Bullseye Hot & Spicy but my favorite is Sweet Baby Ray’s Hot & Spicy. So good.
Lightly dusting the final product with leftover spice rub before basting with BBQ sauce is encouraged if you desire an extra kick.
The ribs last weekend were nothing short of heavenly. No photos of the end result were snapped. The light was too low and I was too busy eating the best ribs ever. Trust me. If Bobby Flay ever showed his pasty white face in my backyard and issued a BBQ rib throwdown he would lose.
So get it on already. BBQ some spare ribs using my way and let me know if they are not the very best.