Here's the cruddy thing about ribs: you can spend hours upon hours lovingly seasoning, basting and smoking a rack to melting, knee-knocking perfection, and at least one of your guests is going to be sitting there thinking, "Well, if I had been manning the grill, I would have..."
Fine. They get to host next time. Meanwhile, rest assured that there are as many ways to prepare ribs are there are meat-loving lunatics with nothing better to do than to spend four or more hours slaving over a hot grill. You're not going to please everyone, but if you follow these basic guidelines (and add your own touches along the way), there's an awfully good chance you'll at least please yourself.
Depending on where you call home, there will likely be a few different options: beef, pork or (if you're lucky) lamb, and they'll probably either be labeled as spareribs or baby back ribs. There are no bad choices here; spareribs have more fat and meat, but are often less tender than babybacks, which are leaner, but often thought to have more flavor.
If you've got the cash, opt for a rack of each ("slab" and "rack," by the way, are often used interchangeably and just mean a row of ribs that are still connected) and see which you like better. Otherwise, point and choose one. The barbecue deities will not strike you down. If you're serving lots of sides, a full rack can serve 3-4 people. If the ribs are the star, figure a rack for each pair.
Step two: Silverskin pick-off - or not
Once you've locked in your ribs and brought them home, blot them dry with a paper towel. At this point, you can decide how fussy you're going to get. Many rib fetishists will get in there and slice out the meat and expose the bone tips for a St. Louis-style rack. That's lovely, but not at all mandatory.
Neither is removing the membrane that coats the bone side of the slab. Debate rages as to whether or not the step is actually necessary: some argue that silverskin helps a rack maintain its shape and adds a pleasantly chewy texture, while others insist that it keeps rubs from effectively seasoning the meat and that its texture is unpleasant.
Some split the difference and score along both sides of each bone without removing the membrane, but to remove it completely, work a butter knife or a clean screwdriver tip under the skin until you have enough give to grasp it with your fingers. Peel, and repeat the process until the whole rack is freed. A butcher will usually undertake this process for you if you ask nicely, but again - it's a matter of taste.
Depending on how your rack was trimmed by the butcher, there may be a glossy flap of meat dangling on one side. Jackpot! When no one is looking, toss that on the grill, then gobble it up for yourself. It's arguably the most delicious part of the whole shebang and you'll have earned it.
Step three: There's the rub
Some people will at this point parboil their ribs in beer, apple juice or cola. We cannot condone this, despite how tasty they claim the results to be, and if you do this, do not admit it aloud to anyone, lest you risk withering taunts, gestures and stares.
Marinades, however, are a perfectly respectable option. If you've got the time, a few cups of apple juice mixed with a hefty pinch of salt and a shot of bourbon make a great overnight soak for a slab, but do not lose any sleep over it if you don't.
Rub, however, is the key to achieving distinctive flavor. Here are a couple of building block recipes that can be tweaked to add or omit flavors you love or loathe.
1/4 cup Sweet paprika (or hot or smoked if that's more to your liking)
Combine all ingredients in a bowl with your fingers, working out any brown sugar lumps.
From here, you can add your own personal twists – tablespoons or teaspoons of dry mustard, coffee, celery seed, dried chiles, oregano, powdered onion, garlic salt – up to you. Coriander and cumin play beautifully with heady wood smoke like hickory or apple, but really – even if you keep it super-simple, these ribs are going to be delicious.
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
Rub this all over the racks, sprinkle on some more until they're thoroughly coated, and then wrap and stick the slabs in the fridge for a few hours (or overnight), or go out and start building your fire. If you'd like, you can slather a very thin layer of mustard, oil, honey, vinegar or barbecue sauce on the ribs first to get more rub to stick to the surface, but it's definitely not necessary.
Step four: Fire it up
If you're blessed enough to have a smoker, set that baby to 225°F and toss in your racks.
If you're working with a charcoal grill, light a charcoal chimney (here's how), and when the coals have ashed over, layer them evenly on one side on the grill and place a drip pan on the other. Replace the grates on the side over the drip pan and go get your ribs (which should be at room temperature, not refrigerator cold).
Position the ribs as far from the coals as you can, grab some wet chips and a few dry ones, carefully throw them atop the coals and close the lid of the grill. Smoke will start to billow out of the vents.
Enjoy that for a few minutes, then check the grill's temperature. You're aiming for 225°F; if it's lower, open your vents as wide as they'll go (and add more coals if need be) and if it's too hot, ease them closed. That may seem counterintuitive, but fire needs oxygen to feed it. Otherwise – stop messing with the grill.
Your only excuses for opening the lid should be either the addition of fresh coals or basting your ribs. To achieve the latter, mix a cup of beer with a cup of vinegar, stir it up and brush it all over the meat once an hour. Use that window of opportunity to throw on some more wood chips, or rotate (not flip) the rack half a turn once you're about an hour and a half in, but otherwise leave that meat alone.
Gas grillers are not out of the game. Just keep the heat to 225°F, put the meat in a foil pan to shield it from the direct flames, and place the chips in a foil pouch or metal smoker box.
Step five: Are we there yet?
Nope. Many rib-philes swear by the 3-2-1 method for spareribs and the 2-2-1 or even 2-1-1 for babybacks. The first number is how many hours the ribs should spend uncovered in the heat and smoke. The second is how many hours the rack should be wrapped in heavy foil - with a little juice or beer to help braise the meat - and placed back into the heat (some people transfer the ribs to an oven at this point). The last is the hour that the ribs should spend exposed in the heat of a smoker, grill or oven.
During the last 30 minutes of this especially, monitor the racks closely to make sure they're not drying out. Feel free to mop with the beer and vinegar mixture, barbecue sauce, glaze, or even butter.
Other cooks won't get anywhere near foil, but it's important to pay close attention, baste and rotate the slabs as needed to avoid dry or burned spots. These numbers are all rough guidelines, by the way, and your own eyes, touch, common sense and temperature readings are your best gauge.
Pork and beef ribs will be safe to eat when they reach an internal temperature of 145° (according to USDA guidelines), but they will likely be more tender if you let them reach 180-190°F. It may, however, be hard to get a temperature reading on meat that thin. Some pitmasters grab one of the slab's center bones with a pair of tongs, and if it twists easily, the meat is done. Others poke a toothpick through the center of the meat, and if it slides through easily, congratulations! You have almost achieved ribs.
Step six: Almost?!
You've waited this long - what's a few more minutes? Take the slabs off the grill and let them rest, covered, for 5-10 minutes before slicing and serving to your extraordinarily lucky guests.
These may not be the most incredible ribs you and your guests have ever tasted, but don't sweat it. All throughout the process are opportunities to put your own personal stamp on things - from the selection of meat, to trimming, to marinades (or not), rubs, basting, heat source, timing and more.
Just get a few slabs under your belt and soon enough, you'll be at someone else's table, gnawing away and thinking, "Well, if it had been me at that grill..."
So, if it were indeed you manhandling that slab, what would you do differently? Let us know in the comments below.