Baby Back Ribs

Ribs

Baby backs are one of my favorite cuts of meat to barbecue. While not as meaty as their spare rib cousins, baby backs still offer a substantial bit of flavorful meat and don’t require nearly as much time or attention to prepare successfully.

I don’t really have a rib recipe per se. It’s more a series of steps designed to add layers of flavor and turn what is otherwise can be a tough piece of meat into a tender, almost falling-off-the-bone, comfort food.

I like to buy my ribs fresh and try to avoid both the Cryovac packs and the previously frozen versions. Since the cooking surface on my large Big Green Egg is only 18 inches, I try to find shorter, thicker slabs that will fit better. Slabs generally run around two pounds or so and I figure 1 to 2 servings per slab.

The night before the cook I lay the ribs out out on a jellyroll pan and remove the membrane on the back side of the ribs. It’s pretty easy to do if you work a finger under the membrane on one of the middle ribs and then lift up and gently pull it all off. Removing the membrane lets the seasoning get into the back sides of the ribs. At this point I’ll also trim any large amounts of fat or stray flaps of meat.

Ribs

After the membrane is removed, I slather both sides of the ribs with a thin coating of yellow ballpark-style mustard. This acts as a marinade. The vinegar in the mustard helps make the ribs moist and tender, and it gives the rub something to hold on to.

Then I give the ribs a good dusting of whatever rub I’m in the mood for. The rub adds not only a whole medley of flavors, but helps to form a nice crust. For commercial rubs, I like the Dizzy Pig products. They’re low on salt and big on flavor. If I’ve got the time to make up a batch of rub myself, I usually follow Dr. BBQ’s Big Time Rub recipe (more or less) and it does a fine job. I start on the back side and apply a medium-heavy coating, actually working it into the ribs with my fingers. Turning the ribs over, I put a heavier coating on the top side, but don’t generally work it in.

In order for the rub and mustard to do its magic, they need time. I wrap the slabs in plastic wrap and store them overnight in the fridge. By morning the mustard will have almost disappeared, melting into the rub and forming a kind of glaze on the ribs.

The next day I fire up the Big Green Egg for an indirect cook that will burn for at least 5 hours at between 225 to 275°F. With the BGE, this means filling the the firebox with unlit lump charcoal (no briquettes allowed), lighting a section in the center with a torch or starter cube, and then inserting an inverted plate setter and a water pan.

Once the cooker temperature gets to 300°F, I add one fist-sized chunk each of hickory and guava or apple wood right on top of the coals, then fill the water pan, close the lid, and adjust the vents to bring the temperature down to between 225 and 250°F.

Now it’s time for the meat to meet the heat. I use rib racks or cut the slabs in half if I need more space. For the first hour I do nothing – no peaking, no looking, no touching, no nothing. The more often the lid gets opened the less actual cooking is going on the, and longer it will take the bigs to get done and the greater the chance is that they’ll dry out.

After the ribs had been in the Egg for 1 hour, I flip the slabs end for end and spray or mop them with a mix of equal parts cider vinegar, Blues Hog Tennessee Red sauce, and bourbon. This adds a nice tang to the ribs and helps keep the ribs moist. I repeat this process at 2, 3, and 4 hours. Again – no peeking in between.

Once the ribs have been on about 4 hours total, I start checking for doneness. You want a full slab to “break.” This is the point when you can pick it up at one end with a pair of tongs and it almost folds in half. Now it’s time to sauce.

Purists will skip this step, but I like a little sweetness added at to the ribs at the end of the cook. I think it helps to balance the flavors and seal the crust. I like Bone Suckin’ BBQ sauce, sometimes with a touch of honey, or butter, or both. I will usual warm the sauce in a little pan on the BGE before applying it. First I sauce both sides with a light coating. After about 15 minutes, I’ll sauce them again just on top.

Leave the slabs on for another 30 minutes and check for doneness again. Ribs are done when the meat has pulled back from the bone and a tug on the bones shows that they will come apart easily. I use a thermo-pen to check the meat between the ribs and it should read about 190°F at this point. Expect around 5 1/2 total cooking time.

Ribs

The end result should be a tasty blend of all of the flavor layers. The tang of the vinegar and the heat in the rub should be mellowed by the sweetness of the sauce and the meat. The meat itself should have a good crust and be moist and tender meat enough that comes off the bone without a fight. And it all should be wrapped with a smoky ring.

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