It’s strange when you think about it, but several of the most iconic national dishes arose from poverty, not abundance.
In many societies of times past, the economic pyramid rose to a pretty sharp point – rich people could afford choice cuts of meat, but there weren’t all that many wealthy folks around.
Some people believe, for instance, that sirloin steak was originally called “the Sir’s loin”, although this is probably apocryphal: sur-loin (above the loin, in French) makes much more sense.
The poorer classes survived on cheaper forms of protein, including offal, oxtail, and yes, ribs.
Cheap Meats, Abundant Flavor
Coq au vin, for example, is a peasant dish as far as its origins are concerned – a way to make an old rooster tender enough to enjoy.
Sausages are a delicacy today, but stuffing odd bits of meat, mixed with grains and other ingredients, into intestines was actually the medieval equivalent of clipping coupons.
Similarly, classic soups are often, so to speak, all about turning a pig’s ear into a silk purse. Even pizza, or at least the way it used to be served, was formerly made only with ingredients that were both cheap and common: wheat, milk, tomatoes, olive oil, and perhaps a few slices of preserved pork.
The reason for economical recipes now being prized isn’t difficult to understand. It would be pretty difficult to make an aristocratic dish – like filet mignon or beef Stroganoff – actually taste bad. Something like caviar is even easier: just spoon it out of the jar. If you have access to the best ingredients, everything becomes easy, but if you’re trying to use supposedly lesser cuts, some skill and finesse is required.
The History of Man and Ribs
Most people, when ribs are mentioned, think of pork ribs barbecued in the American Southern style.
That particular story begins with a man called Hernando de Soto, who brought thirteen pigs to Florida in 1539. As it turns out, pigs are much easier and cheaper to raise than cattle in this climate, and to this day some purists consider grilled beef ribs to be something other than “real” barbecue.
As is often the case with traditional food, the art of cooking, marinating, and smoking meat didn’t evolve overnight. Spanish, Central European, English, and Native American influences all combined to produce what are today called classic Southern ribs.
To give just two examples, the word “buccaneer” is probably derived from a word for smoking tents that were used in the Caribbean, while “barbacoa” comes from the now-extinct Taino language.
Over the decades and centuries, vinegar, spices, mustard, molasses, and other condiments all entered the mix. Smoking and basic grilling were to some extent supplanted by “low and slow” cooking techniques. Throughout, however, particularly on slave-owning plantations, butchering, cooking, and preserving meat tended to be menial work – although a skilled barbecue chef could achieve a special status, even if he was a slave.
The people charged with this task became experts in finding the best way of preparing ribs and other delicacies. Chitlins was one result; BBQ ribs are another.
Bone-in cuts of meat are almost always juicier and more flavorful; ribs are probably the single best example of that, and the poor and indigent learned ways of cooking them to perfection.
If you’ll permit me one more bit of etymological trivia, the phrase “living high on the hog” actually dates from the pre-Civil War era. The masters ate ham and pork tenderloin, while the slaves and the poor ate whatever was left. So, this is where modern ribs come from. It wasn’t always the beautiful dish you can order in steakhouses today. Rather, it used to be an example of making do with what you have, which simply adds to its charm.
Grilled Ribs Basics: It Starts at the Butcher
If you’re still buying your ribs at the supermarket (maybe even pre-marinated – gasp!), you’re doing yourself a disservice. Hitting up your neighborhood butcher is not only a way to support local small business, but has a number of other advantages.
This also means that they take care when it comes to the quality of their products. Their reputation depends on delighting their customers, and someone who looks at meat 6 days a week generally knows at a glance if something is Grade A or not.
They’re often willing to create something special for only a modest fee: whole boned chicken, lamb roll, stuffed chops, and more. This also means that you can ask them to trim your ribs just how you like them, instead of having to be satisfied with whatever comes pre-wrapped in plastic.
Most importantly, though, most butchers are avid carnivores themselves. This makes them a great source of cooking and barbecuing advice, which is always given enthusiastically and freely.
There are basically two kinds of pork ribs: spareribs and back ribs.
However, much of the hoopla surrounding the difference between them is nonsense: both back ribs and spareribs (and, in fact, beef ribs) can pretty much be cooked in the same way. You can expect to get two to four servings from a slab of spare ribs and half that from loin rack ribs – how large a serving actually is will obviously depend on who you’ve invited.
You will typically buy spare ribs untrimmed, meaning that the sternum and a strip of cartilage are still attached. Removing these (along with some meat, called the skirt) turns them into St. Louis style ribs, which resemble back ribs and look slightly more elegant.
Whole slabs are also sometimes cut in half or into portions, but this isn’t recommended. Cooking them whole results in a more consistent result, while cutting them up will also cause each piece to dry out somewhat.
What to Look for In (Raw) Ribs
What you’ll be most interested in is obviously the amount of meat.
Try to find ribs with a thick, even coating of flesh. Racks with exposed bones should be rejected, as this doesn’t look appealing and may cause the slab to fall apart during cooking. You’ll want some fat for additional flavor, which becomes especially important if your gas grill has heat tents or a flavorizer bar. However, large areas of surface fat should be avoided, or at least trimmed off before cooking.
Some liquid in the packaging, as well as an unpleasant smell when you first open it, is actually nothing to worry about. However, any discoloration along the edges, a large amount of fluid discharge or a putrid odor are bad signs. It’s unlikely that you’ll encounter meat that is actually spoiled or freezer-burned, but you certainly don’t want to take any chances here.
Finally, I implore you not to buy pre-marinated or enhanced meats. This is done for the benefit of supermarkets, not consumers – inferior products are disguised in this way, weight is boosted artificially, and shelf life is extended.
Buy your ribs in their natural form instead, preferably without having been frozen.
Once you get your ribs home, it will usually be necessary to trim them. This is more of an art than a science, but there are plenty of YouTube videos available to help you out. Here’s a good one:
In general, though, you’re doing a good job if you:
- Take off excessive fat without removing too much meat,
- Trim them into a shape your guests will fall in love with, meaning get them reasonably square, remove any dangling pieces which would otherwise burn, and (optionally) scrape clean any protruding bone,
- And remove the membrane on the bone side – ignore the other two points if you want, but not this. This silvery sheet is tough to chew and prevents flavors from infusing the meat.
Mostly, you will simply lay a sharp knife flat on your ribs and gently cut away what you don’t need. You will have to pull away discarded scraps with your fingers while doing this, so consider using a cut-proof glove if you’re not too experienced in the kitchen. Don’t worry about the scraps, any well designed garbage disposal can deal with it.
Like many cooks, I believe that treating your meat ingredients with respect is almost a moral obligation; if an animal has died for your dinner, it deserves to be treated right after death.
With the exception of mutton, all ribs can be improved 100% by taking some care with flavorings; even lamb ribs benefit from soaking overnight in a mixture of olive oil and lemon juice.
This article won’t tell you how to mix a marinade or dry rub. If you’re interested, there are plenty of recipes available on the internet, ranging from the good to the bad to the weird.
You may think that you “love” your favorite store-bought brand, but this can only mean that you haven’t yet allowed your own creativity free rein. Mixing your own spices and other seasonings allows you to get exactly the flavor you yourself prefer, change things up for variety when you want or adjust your favorite recipe to complement different kinds of ribs. All this requires is a little practice, but some basic knowledge also helps.
Designing Your Own Marinade
The following is a list of the most common marinade ingredients and what each does:
- Oil: Adding a little fat (which may also mean something like yogurt or coconut milk) to your mix makes meat seem more juicy. More importantly, though, it balances out sharp flavor notes and acts as a transport medium for fat-soluble flavors. If you don’t add oil to your marinade, it just won’t season properly.
- Acids: Vinegar or citrus in a marinade helps soften connective tissue and allows flavors to penetrate deeper into the meat. It also helps cut through greasiness and, importantly, acts as an antioxidant that neutralizes the free radicals in grilled meat.
- Salt: Salt, or a seasoning like soy sauce, makes everything taste better in mild quantities, bringing out flavors without necessarily adding another layer of complexity. It also has a mild tenderizing effect.
- Sugar: Whether in the form of honey, molasses, agave nectar, or anything else, sweetness is a natural complement to pork. During low-and-slow cooking, sugar also caramelizes, leading to a broader flavor and lovely color.
- Aromatics: Onion, garlic, chili, herbs, lemon zest…whatever you choose to put in, additional flavorings can complement your ribs, but shouldn’t overpower the basic meaty taste.
You probably knew much of the above already, but thinking in terms of the function of each component really helps to create a perfect marinade. The same is true of typical dry rub ingredients.
What to Put In a Dry Rub
- Pepper: ‘Nuff said.
- Cinnamon: Not something you want to overdo, but a perfect complement to sweet ingredients.
- Allspice: Somewhat like cloves, but with a wider flavor range.
- Cardamom: Warm and highly aromatic, this works best in conjunction with other spices.
- Chili: Don’t bother with “chili powder”, which usually contains other ingredients and even some cornmeal. However, the goal is usually not to have hot ribs, but provide a little kick that supports other flavors.
- Paprika: Slightly hot (depending on which you buy), this spice is a little sweet and adds a vibrant color.
- Chinese Five-Spice: This classic mixture combines all of the five principle flavors in Chinese cuisine, which makes it a nice hack if you don’t have the skill to mix spices yourself.
- Coriander: Somewhat light but also earthy, this is often a major flavor component in home-made barbecue sauces.
- Cumin: Sweetish but not offensively so, this can be added by the tablespoon.
- Star Anise: Definitely on the sweet side, this spice balances out savory flavors and elevates the whole mix.
The above list barely scratches the surface; once you start experimenting with making your own dry rubs, you’ll never stop.
If you buy your spices powdered and at the supermarket, you can really do better. Getting them whole from an Asian or Middle Eastern market is much cheaper, and whole spices have a significantly stronger, more rounded flavor. Grinding them by hand with a mortar and pestle is very satisfying, although you can use an electric spice grinder too. This is just a coffee grinder by another name, but don’t try using the same device for both.
Oil or mustard are probably not ingredients you’d think of as part of a dry rub, but very important none the less. Before adding the dry mix, just coat the outside of your ribs with either of these to make everything stick together and help transfer flavors to the meat. In spite of the name, you shouldn’t actually rub the spices into the meat; simply pat them down gently or you might be left with uneven coverage.
Incredibly, there are still some people who think that they can simply slap some ribs on a gas grill and later douse it in barbecue sauce to correct its many failings. This is nothing short of heresy, and may in fact be illegal in Kentucky.
The alternatives are really easy – and highly rewarding. Personally, I prefer using a dry rub and using a basting sauce only in the last few minutes of cooking, but any kind of home-made seasoning can take your grilled ribs from “meh” to amazing. Once you’ve done this, you’re entitled to wear this shirt.
Wet or Dry?
Whether you use a dry rub or marinade (or both) depends on the kind of meat you’re barbecuing and your own tastes. Personally, I think that marinating beef ribs is important, pork much less so, but a rib grilled without a rub is never going to reach its full potential (unless it’s lamb or mutton). However, this point is going to be subject to discussion until the day we all become vegetarians.
If using a dry rub, don’t be shy. You can probably apply a lot more than you think before throwing the flavor balance out of whack. Also, as opposed to marinades, in which you can literally leave your ribs for days, letting your meat infuse for a long time makes little difference – half an hour or so is fine.
Whichever method you use, using Ziploc bags is the best way to keep from making a mess in the fridge while also locking in flavor, ensuring even coverage and using less marinade for the same amount of meat. Do, however, use only high-quality bags. While the jury is still out, more and more people are concerned over chemicals found in plastics leaching into food, particularly where heat or acids are involved. However, it’s generally thought that genuine polyethylene, BPA-free bags are safe when used as directed.
Most people never realize this, but one of the things that distinguishes home cooking from that done in restaurants is the care with which side dishes are selected and prepared.
As a general rule, the main event (ribs in this case) should dominate about half the plate, with supporting dishes making up the rest of the total taste experience. These should support the main dish, not fight with it. If something is bitter, serve it with something salty. If your main dish is tender, cook up something crunchy.
You probably get the idea – some flavors are simply delightful when paired with similar ones, but others need contrast to shine. At the same time, you can use side dishes to engage several senses, starting with visual appeal.
Ribs tend to be greasy, robust in flavor, and full of umami. This means that the side dishes should be sunny, more playful, and not too heavy.
Barbecued vegetables are one of my favorite foods – infinitely variable, impossible to screw up, and a good thing to have in case any vegans show up.
Simply slice some eggplant, zucchini, carrots, potatoes, turnips – any hard vegetables should work. Put them in a large Tupperware container with some olive oil, salt, and perhaps some seasonings, and shake it. I’m not sure this step is strictly necessary, but it does coat everything evenly, and the oil gives a crispy skin that’s simply lovely.
Another great side dish for ribs is salad.
Let me explain: tossing lettuce, tomato, and cucumber in a bowl is not making a salad.
Real salads are surprising, interesting, and well thought out. They are also unbelievably easy to make. Simply add a couple of toasted cashews, or perhaps some pickled vegetables. Instead of using iceberg lettuce (possibly the most useless ingredient known to man) as a filler, consider chopping in some spinach, beet leaves, or dandelion greens. A bitter undertone, like rocket leaves or olives, is also great with most rib recipes.
Have you ever switched from one type of charcoal to another? The results are usually unexpected, and sometimes little short of disastrous. This is one reason why gas grills are so convenient: you can control the amount of heat from moment to moment, simply by twisting a dial. You can even monitor the temperature inside without opening the lid, if it comes with a thermometer.
If you like, you can use some wood chips to get a more traditional and fuller barbecue flavor – one area where staunch traditionalists look down on gas grills.
Maple, cherry, mesquite, and hickory are all good choices when it comes to ribs. You’ll need to soak them in water beforehand and put them into a cheap smoker box, although making a container out of foil works as well. Some gas grills have an integral smoke box with its own burner, which is a really nice feature to look for.
275°F is a good temperature for grilling ribs; your gas grill should be able to reach this in no time at all. Two good ideas at this point are to:
- Place them on the grill at a diagonal – this produces some nice-looking grill marks and prevents bits from falling through.
- Once they’re on, press the ends together slightly so they bunch up. This will result in a fleshier, juicier texture.
And Now, We Wait
Unfortunately, putting whole racks of ribs on a smaller gas grill at an angle severely limits the number you can cook at one time.
If all goes well, every one of your guests will be asking for seconds and thirds, so you might want to invest in a rib rack, which ironically is not the same as a rack of ribs. Alternatively, you can loosely roll up your ribs, stabilize them with a bamboo skewer that has been soaked in water, and lay them down end-on.
Once they’re on the grill, leave them alone!
One of the easiest ways to ruin meat is to fuss it to death. Simply close the lid (and we’re assuming your gas grill has one – all our top rated grills except the Blackstone have one), check the temperature from time to time, but don’t allow it to drop by looking in on your ribs every two minutes.
Experienced grill chefs can tell whether they’re ready by picking them up with tongs and observing how they bend. If they’re not quite there yet, it’s time to have another beer and give them a little more time.
Once you’ve reached this stage, your ribs will be perfectly edible. You can do a little more for even better results, though.
Adding Even More Flavor
One technique is to briefly turn the gas grill to high to get a nice char on both sides (with the above method, you don’t turn the ribs at all, just leaving the bone side towards the burners). This helps to produce that classic BBQ flavor, and you can glaze them with a sauce of your choosing beforehand.
This sauce can be pretty much the same thing as the basting sauce described below and adds color and a little bit of a flavor kick. If your gas grill has a side burner, it’s better to heat your glaze before you brush it on, although you can use it cold, too.
Afterwards, put them back on the grill for 15 minutes covered and at low heat, or a much shorter time, turning halfway, if you crank up the burner. The ribs’ internal temperature should get above 180°F, which is an indication of doneness rather than a safety issue.
What makes your ribs even better, though, is a method called “wrapping”, which is exactly what it sounds like. Take your ribs off the grill for a moment, place them on some heavy-duty aluminum foil, and pour over a basting sauce.
This basting sauce is very much like a marinade, but with a greater emphasis on sweet-sour notes rather than flavor (to avoid cross-contamination, you might not want to use marinade that raw meat has been sitting in for this purpose). Citrus or apple juice, honey, molasses, additional dry rub, vinegar, oil or butter – you can really follow your nose here. Fold the foil to swaddle your delicious ribs in their flavor bath and put them back onto the grill for as long as an hour.
After this, they should be nothing short of delectable.
Reverse Sear With a Twist
The above technique is pretty standard, and is basically how most decent steakhouses prepare their ribs (although they will also take shortcuts wherever they can).
Of all the ways you can prepare ribs on a gas grill, this one takes the longest. It’s 100% worth it, though; if your dinner guests don’t go “Oooh!”, “Aaah!” and “Nom-nom-nom”, you might not have followed the instructions all that faithfully. If you’ve ever seen, in a restaurant or TV, ribs where you can literally pull out the bones cleanly with your fingers, it was probably prepared in the following way.
Before someone yells at me, I should also mention that how tender ribs should be is a personal preference – the majority of barbecue artists and competition judges like them to still have a little resistance. Specifically, the “bite test” requires that the meat come cleanly off the bone when bitten into, not be mushy, and leave behind a clear bite mark. Pork and beef ribs are enormously versatile, though, so you might as well add this trick to your arsenal.
The basic idea is this: collagen and other connective tissue require a temperature above 160°F to dissolve, which makes meat more tender. However, if you cook it at much more than that, the muscle fibers start to shrink and your meat starts to dry out, which has the opposite effect – catch-22.
What really produces the perfect ribs, though, is to have a gas grill with a lid on your patio. Some can be set to maintain a given temperature, although more affordable models will require a bit of tweaking.
With the Weber Genesis II that we reviewed here, for instance, you can just turn on one of the four burners and check the thermometer every now and then. You will be trying to cook with indirect heat here, so place your ribs away from the flame.
Opinions vary as to how long you should cook them. Some people leave them to stew in their own juices for 8 hours or more. In either case, the idea is to maintain a constant temperature of around 225 degrees (the internal temperature of your ribs will be somewhat lower than that). After that, it’s time to turn up the heat and get some sizzle going.
In this case, one advantage of throwing ribs on a gas grill is that it gets hot almost instantly. With this dish, you don’t have to guess when to light the fire so the meal will be ready exactly when the guests are. Simply take the ribs out, let your grill get hot, and sear them for maximum flavor.
The goal here is not to cook the ribs: they’ll already be done, even at that low temperature. All you’ll need to do is get the outside crispy, caramalized, and even a little burnt, which should take mere minutes if your gas grill packs some power.
One note of caution, though: the ribs will literally be falling apart, so you’ll need a grate they can’t drop through as you turn them.