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Ribs - Step-By-Step Primer

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    Ribs - Step-By-Step Primer

    Of all the smoked and barbecue meats, nothing beats the deliciousness of ribs. No more is that emphasized than in the naming of this site, Amazing Ribs !!! We eat with all of our senses; obviously we smell and look at our food long before we eat it, of course we taste and have the tactile feel within our mouths, but for ribs I say that the sense of touch, of eating this food with an almost primal delight, is what sets it apart.

    So many of you on this site have learned to cook ribs well, what I'm about to present may not be of any great benefit to you. But I thought I'd throw down and document my way so that others who struggle to achieve an amazing rib will benefit. I cooked both a couple racks of St. Louis cut pork ribs and a three bone plate of beef short ribs over the weekend that I'll use as my illustration.

    First let's talk pork. I prefer the spare ribs, or the dressed up version called the St. Louis cut, as my rib of choice. They come from lower in the belly region of the pig and have a little better fat content versus the baby backs that are higher on the rib cage in the loin region. I don't generally buy the cheapest ribs that are sold in the grocery or big box stores, they tend to have too much fat as they're commodity sourced. We have a variety of pig that costs a little more and can be found in our local HEB that are a little leaner and generally sweeter in flavor. Try to source good ribs if you can, Duroc or any of the heritage breeds really do make a difference in flavor.

    I start by always dry brining with a teaspoon of Kosher salt per pound usually overnight and up to 24 hours. It gives the salt time to first draw out moisture then combine with that moisture to penetrate back into the meat. Here are my racks ready to be seasoned, I begin by using a binder to hold the seasoning in place, in this case Lea & Perrins worcestershire sauce. A lot of pitmaster swear by yellow mustard, you can even use some vegetable oil. Just be sure to give your ribs some topical moisture to help capture your seasonings.

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    I've adopted the layering approach to flavoring my meat. I always start with a seasoned layer of POG; 3 parts coarse ground pepper, 2 parts granulated garlic powder and 1 part granulated onion powder, as my base layer....

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    ....I follow that with a commercial season mix. In this case I wanted to try some Killer Hogs rub on one rack (in the foreground)...

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    ...and some of our buddy Hank's KC Royale seasoning.....

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    (Editorial comment: Both had very similar flavor profiles, neither one seemed to jump out at me. The Killer Hogs was a touch sweeter and had more paprika so was noticeable redder, Hank's seemed a little more savory, I noticed a bit more I believe a cumin taste. Both finished nicely, I'd recommend either !!)

    Let's change gears for a moment and talk about our beef short ribs. Cut, once again from the lower part of the rib cage of the cow, beef short ribs are famous for their brontosaurus size. They have a lot of fat, collagen and connective tissue that has to be rendered out by heat and time. Being a Texan I treat these old school, after a salt brine along with the pork ribs, I again start with my base of POG, but then amp it up with some additional coarse ground pepper. It makes for an incredible peppery bark. Once again, use whatever flavor profile you want, it's really a blank canvas....

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    So on to the smoker all of the ribs go. I like to smoke ribs a little hotter than traditional, 275*. They generally get done faster and come out equally as good as say 225*. I'm also of the school that believes that cold meat takes on more smoke, so I don't leave the seasoned meat sit very long but get to cookin' ......

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    Here are the ribs after about an hour of cooking. Bark is starting to set and harden, ribs are taking on great color. Now some folks have a strong feeling one way or the other on spritzing the meat during the first few hours. First let's establish the fact that in order to form a good bark, there has to be moisture present for the polymerization process to occur in the top layer layer of meat combined with its seasoning. That moisture generally comes from the meat itself, or can come from a general humid atmosphere within the cooker by the use of a water pan, or can come through sprtizing.

    Pork ribs I believe need moisture more than most proteins since they have a tendency to dry out faster, so I'm of the spritzing school. I use a combination of apple juice and apple cider vinegar and spritz about every hour for the first three hours ....

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    At or about the three hour mark I begin a touch test to see if my bark has set and formed that much desired crust. I typically just smear the seasoning, if it's still wet I let the ribs go, if it's dry and is beginning to harden I'm at the point where the meat has taken on about as much smokey flavor as it's going to take on. At that point it's time to get them tender.

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    Now again, another debate always ensues as to how best to tenderize. In the case of the beef ribs, I'm more interested in getting as much heat as I can to them to aggressively break down that fat, collagen and connective tissue, so I don't wrap.

    In the case of pork ribs, you have the option of allowing heat and smoke to run its course (for a more smokey finish), or you can wrap in either foil or pink butcher paper (to allow braising or steaming in their own juices). Foil give the most aggressive tenderizing because it captures all the moisture and does the best job of braising. A lot of pitmasters augment that by combining additional moisture, brown sugar and butter to kick that process up and provide more flavor. The biggest problem with this method, and the reason I got away from it, is that it tends to reverse all the work you've done by softening the bark and over braising the meat. The result is a much softer and in my opinion, over cooked effect.

    Personally I have adapted wrapping in pink butcher paper. It provides the same braising affect, although not as aggressively as to break down that bark you spent so much effort to develop. The meat also remains firmer and cooks to the tenderness I desire most.

    So once an additional hour passes, I unwrap the ribs and begin to look for bone pull back and a temp in the meat between the bones of around 204-205*. Once that's achieved, I apply a glaze to finish. Again glazing is optional. Some folks like the meat to be the star and don't glaze. I have always liked a sweet glaze as it plays well with the pork. I'm using Blues Hog original here. As an option I also use a raspberry/chipotle glaze for a heat/sweet finish. Either way, I return the ribs to the heat for about 15 minutes to let the glaze "tack" up and caramelize...

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    So other than getting my temps in the meat between the bones up over 200*, how else do I know my pork ribs are finished?

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    Often times you can perform the bend test whereby you hold the slab on one end and let it hang or bend in the middle. If the meat starts to crack, so the theory goes, you're rack is done. I don't always see that as reliable and many times it indicates over cooked. I think visually the rack should have some even pull back of the bones (see above) with the bones still firmly attached to the meat. You should be able to pick up and hold the rack without it falling apart.

    If, however, you prefer your ribs more "fall off the bone" tender, then by all means leave them on to cook longer in the foil or paper wrap. Some folks prefer that, and to that I say to each his own.

    Well after about an hours rest in my oven at a low heat level, my ribs are ready for carving. Note that they remain juicy, are super tender and have a good smoke ring.....

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    Also note that I achieved a clean cut, in other words the ribs didn't tear apart, another sign of overcooking. A couple more things to note, when picking up a rib the meat should still be firmly attached to the bone and your bite through should be clean without the meat and bone coming apart and falling all over you....

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    Yet when you've easily picked your delicious meat off that bone it should be clean and the meat tender and juicy. Note also that the bone should appear to have spots on it. If, conversely, the bone falls away from the meat and has an almost white, chalky appearance again your ribs are overcooked....

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    So a grand total of 4 hours and 45 minutes from start to finish with a 1 hour hold, I'm eating bite through, juicy and delicious ribs. And not to forget about our beefy little friends, they went a total of right at 5 hours completely unwrapped....

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    To detect a finished product in beef ribs, like brisket it's about probe tender (my Thermopen sticking into the meat like it's warm butter) and a finish temp of about 205*ish. As with the pork ribs I wrapped them and stuck them in my warm oven for about an hour and a half to rest. Note how when I cut into them you can clearly see that the fat has rendered, the collagen has turned to a jel and the connective tissue has all but dissolved making for a tender, fatty and unquious delight....

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    Well throw on a few pineapple slices to get all sweet and smokey....

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    And there's nothing left to do but eat......

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    Hopefully if you follow these steps you will achieve that magical amazing rib, be it pork or beef. Of course, as I stated throughout, there are a number of variations to my methods; be it the use of a finishing glaze (or not), wrapping or not, fall off the bone or bite through. Regardless be consistent in your methods and treat your friends, family and guests to one of my favorite all time foods, RIBS !!!!

    (You may now return to your regularly scheduled program, Troutman Steve is outta here !!!)

    Nice write-up!


      Thanks for the great post.


        I notice that you rest your pork ribs for a full hour, whereas many folks don't go that long...I usually just deliberately wait to set the table and stuff after the meat comes off, so however long it takes me to get the table set, pour the drinks, etc, which is usually no more than 15 minutes. Have you found it makes a big difference? The only stuff I tend to rest an hour or more is larger stuff like pork butts and brisket.


        • Troutman
          Troutman commented
          Editing a comment
          Because I was resting the beef ribs (which do benefit from a ramping down) I rested the pork as well. It was also a dinner serving/timing issue. Normally, like you, I serve them pretty quickly.

        • adamcoe
          adamcoe commented
          Editing a comment
          Ahh gotcha. I'll definitely keep that in mind next time I do beef ribs. Great article!

        Beautiful write up. Lately I have been going the blasphemy route, but there is nothing like a full slab. I like the layering approach - I usually salt the night before and just use one rub. And I have never wrapped my ribs, but I tend to try the things that Professor Troutman Steve suggests. The only thing I probably won't do is let them rest - usually the people I am feeding (primarily me) won't wait


          Thanks for taking the time on this. Nice job.


            Yeah great job Troutman!


              You did a nice job with your write-up .


                Great write up, my friend. Thank you for taking the time to put this all together. This will be a great guide for anyone looking to step up their rib game.

                I love the idea of layering the rub. I have found that to be very beneficial as well. I feel like it gives you a better flavor on the tongue. Instead of all the flavors hitting you at once, you get a better flavor profile.

                I also the using butcher paper on ribs too. My main complaint with wrapping ribs was that the meat would get really mushy. With the butcher paper, this does not happen nearly as much.


                • BRic
                  BRic commented
                  Editing a comment
                  I agree with you on layering your rubs , you get a better flavor profile . we did one competition last spring we layered the ribs with a sweet rub on top of the meat side
                  and a rub with heat on the bone side. we placed 4th place in the rib category.

                • Spinaker
                  Spinaker commented
                  Editing a comment
                  Say no more! BRic

                Very well written with lots of information. I’ll be bookmarking this page to share with others.


                  Troutman When are you going to start doing write ups for Meathead?? Excellent article...


                  • Spinaker
                    Spinaker commented
                    Editing a comment
                    Not a bad idea!

                  Great easy to follow write up with pictures. Thanks for taking the time to do this. Unfortunately I'm addicted to bacon wrapped "Blasphemy" ribs at this time.


                    Good write up.


                      Excellent, thank you! With the recent bad weather in California butchers have practically been giving away ribs. I’ve found Blues Hog rub & sauce to be a little too Spicey for me. I like sweet especially with pork, so next attempt will be Killer Hogs BBQ rub with Blues Hog sauce.

                      Question...I think you’re from Texas right? If so have you tried ‘Rib Candy’? There’s a guy on YouTube that dumps it on just about everything. The company is from Texas and it’s a glaze that can be followed up by BBQ sauce or used alone. I haven’t tried it yet but am considering placing an order.

                      It’s Interesting...you have World champ Harry Soo that likes to run dry until the bark is set, and Malcom Reed (Killer Hogs) that likes to wrap when "The color looks right." I think Malcom’s is a bit safer because you don’t want dried up meat.


                      • Troutman
                        Troutman commented
                        Editing a comment
                        As I said over and over, there's two or three different ways that guys swear to do their ribs. What's important is what works for you. I'm really not into super sweet on ribs which is why I don't do the Parkay, brown sugar and honey thing in the foil wrap. I prefer to taste the meat with just a little sweet.

                      Thank you, Troutman! I appreciate the step by step how-to-do-it and your helpful photos. I've only cooked one batch of real ribs, and feel I've got plenty more to learn. (Lots of country ribs, but they aren't the same thing.) I will make good use of your tutorial next time I do ribs.

                      I enjoy your writing style -- conversational, well organized, clear, and concise. Nice work!



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