Nothing says Memorial Day weekend like a good old fashioned barbecue competition. In my neighborhood, our entire block gets together, dusts off our grills and spends all day Sunday concocting competition-worthy ribs. The payoff? The winner gets bragging rights and the honor to host the festivities the following year.
As you can imagine, techniques and sauces vary from one extreme to the other. We had grillers and smokers. We had sauces that ranged from sweet to spicy to savory and in one case a sauce that actually included Monster Energy drink (the eventual rib cook-off winner!).
Every BBQ enthusiast has an opinion on how best to cook ribs. In my household it comes down to four basic components: the rub, the sauce, the smoker and time. We don’t go crazy with custom sauces but find that we get more than satisfactory results by keeping it simple and in some cases, going with store bought. If you adhere to the following basic rules you too will be able to churn out competition-worthy ribs without breaking a sweat.
Rule #1 –It’s All About the Meat
Think of the meat as your canvass with which you create your masterpiece. Would Michelangelo paint a gas station ceiling? I don’t think so. Meat is everything. Our choice cut is St. Louis cut ribs (also known as barbecue cut or Kansas City cut). This cut is essentially a slab of spare ribs without the rib tips. Spare ribs tend to have more meat between the bones than with baby backs and there is more marbling which helps enhance the flavor. Typically you’ll find the bones with spare ribs are straighter and flatter than baby backs. Another bonus, spares are typically cheaper than baby backs. Meat that won’t break the bank? Sold.
Rule # 2 – Rub it In
After you’ve prepped your meat (rinsed and removed the membranes), it’s time for the rub. Here’s a quick pro tip: coat your ribs first with store bought mustard (nothing but the finest French’s for us!). Adding mustard keeps the rub on the ribs, helps prepare the meat to accept the flavors (thanks to the vinegar in the mustard), and makes a nice crust. Don’t worry, the mustard flavor will burn off in the cooking process. Now that you’re ready for the rub, decide which flavor profile you want to impart. We like a little kick to our ribs to balance out the sweetness of the BBQ sauce so we favor Emeril’s Steak Rub (bam!).
Rule #3 – Timing is Everything
To properly cook ribs, plan on taking your time and plan on cooking low and slow. This process cannot be rushed. With a St. Louis cut, allow 5-6 hours at around 225 degrees F. Because we can’t get enough of that gorgeous pink smoke ring, we use our bullet smoker with a digital thermometer (dial thermometers are unreliable). Click here for a handy primer on how to properly set up your smoker.
Rule #4 – Get Saucy
It’s true that smoking ribs leaves some leisure time for a beer or two. In this case, “get saucy” means the actual sauce. The reality is not all of us have the time or interest to make our own hand-crafted BBQ sauce. We use store bought and find it delivers excellent results. Our recent favorite is Jack Daniel’s® Honey Smokehouse. It adds a nice sweet depth and complements the flavors imparted by the hickory chips we use in our smoker. Adding the sauce is really the last step in the process. If you’ve used a smoker up to this point, fire up your grill to get some nice carmelization and seal in the flavor.
The bottom line with ribs is to adhere to these basics and experiment within the confines. What other tips do you have for the ultimate BBQ ribs? Leave them in the comments below.