How to prepare BBQ spare ribs

Making good ribs is pretty much an art form. An art form that I have not mastered. I only make them once or twice a year so I am certainly not an expert on the subject. The most important thing about the entire process is that they must be cooked slowly on low indirect heat. It seems that every time I go to make them I have to start my education process all over again. So I’ve decided to document the process here, mostly so that I am not starting from scratch next time I want ribs.

First, let’s start with an overview of the process. First you need to buy the meat. I use spare ribs. Like anything else on the planet you can find a mountain of articles discussing the pros and cons of spare ribs vs. baby back ribs. Then you need to cut the meat. Then marinade the meat. Put a rub on the meat. Smoke it, cut and serve. That is the whole process, it does take some time, but it is worth it in the end, if you do it correctly.

Buying the meat:
It’s meat, you go to the store and buy it. I could hang out an talk to Al (yes I am on a first name basis with my butcher) for hours. I love to buy meat, almost as much as eating it. 1lb per person is a good place to start with how much to buy. You can adjust that based on the number of heavy/light eaters you’ll be serving. I buy spare ribs and cut them St. Louis Style. Sometimes the butcher will already have the St. Louis style ribs cut up for you. You can buy these and it will save you prep time, however you won’t have the rib-lets to snack on either.

Cutting the meat:
There is a little work that goes into cutting up and preparing the spare ribs. I found an excellent video here on the subject. If you have any question as to how to cut the meat after watching that video you should throw all the meat you bought in the trash and go to Damon’s. I found the butter knife technique for removing the membrane to work quite well.

There are lot of different ways to marinade the meat. Some people cover the meat in mustard and let it sit in the rub all night. I really don’t think that is necessary. What I do is make a mixture of 1 to 1 Apple cider and apple vinegar. If you can’t get cider you can substitute apple juice. You can add in things like garlic and and seasoning, I generally don’t. The most important thing is the vinegar, it helps break down the tough meat so it will be more tender. You’ll want to set aside a cup of this mixture to put in a spray bottle to baste the ribs while they are cooking. I cover all the meat I am preparing in this mixture in a non reactive pan and keep it in the fridge over night.

The Rub:
About an hour or so before you are going to cook the ribs remove them from the refrigerator and pat them dry. (do not remove the ribs more than 2 hours before you are going to cook them) I found several websites that said you could put a very light coat of mustard on the ribs to hold the rub on and give it a more complex flavor. I have not tried this method yet, but I may the next time I make them. For the most part I just dry them and put the rub on. I found this recipe in some forum and I really like it. It is a memphis style rub. It supposedly came from one of Al Roker’s books but I have not confirmed that. The original recipe called for 1/4 teaspoon of cayenne pepper. My wife doesn’t like things real spicy so I substituted white pepper, which will tone it down a bit. Mix this stuff up and and rub plenty of it on. This recipe is enough for 3 full racks of spare ribs. If you have any left over it will keep in a cool dry place for a couple of months.

6 tablespoons packed light brown sugar
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon paprika
1 tablespoon garlic powder
2 teaspoons onion powder
2 teaspoons coarse salt, such as kosher salt
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon white pepper

The Smoker:
I actually have a bullet style smoker and it works really well. You can convert your regular grill into a smoker, which I have done with successful results. The key to doing that is keeping the heat down. You can run one or two burners (depending on the size of your grill) . Put a large shallow pan of water on the main grill where you would normally cook the food and put the ribs on the upper rack. The water is a heat buffer. Keep the temperature down around 225 degrees. Put your smoker box as close to the flames as you can. More details about using a gas grill here.
In the bullet smoker I use rib racks. I cut the ribs in half and use the rib racks to stand them up on their ends. You won’t have to turn your ribs over if you do it this way. My wife is like a shark that can smell a drop of blood in the ocean, and if there is the smallest amount of lighter fluid anywhere near the food she is on to it. You should use a charcoal chimney to get the coals going, You should avoid using match lite or lighter fluid at all costs. If you do use match lite you’ll also need a small bag of regular charcoal. You can’t throw matchlite on in the middle of cooking, because the fluid that is infused in the charcoal will burn off into the food. Once the charcoal is ready, I put my cast iron smoker box right on the coals. You’ll need to soak the wood in water for about 30 minutes before putting it on the coals. There are a lot of different woods you can use that have different flavors, right now I am using hickory chips. While the coals are burning down I generally get the rest of the smoker all ready to go. I put ribs on both levels. Once the smoker box is on the coals you can just lower the rest of the grill onto the coals. Put the lid on and let it go.

This is the easy part. It takes about 3 to 4 hours depending on the size of the ribs and the temperature of the grill. You will want to keep it less than 250 degrees at all times. With my grill I usually have to put a few more charcoals in about half way through the cooking process because the temperature will start to fall. One thing you do not want to do is lift the lid. For the first 3 hours you should only lift it once an hour to spray some of the vinegar/apple cider mixture onto the ribs. The internal temperature of the ribs should be 165 degrees F or above before serving (anything above 145 is safe though). You’ll know when they are done (closer to 4 hours). They will start to turn dark and the ribs will pull away from the bones. Use a meat thermometer in one of the thickest parts of meat to know when it’s done.

When the ribs are done. You can serve them dry, Memphis style, which is the way I like them. Or, you can add BBQ sauce. You can make your own BBQ sauce but I never have the energy to do that after two days of making ribs, so I just use original open pit which goes well with the rub. About 10 minutes before you take the ribs out of the smoker fire up your grill and get it hot. If you are using your grill to smoke the ribs then you can cover the ribs in foil and put them in a warm oven while you are getting your grill back to normal grilling mode. When the grill is hot, cover the ribs in sauce, and grill them up. You do not want to burn the sauce. You want them to darken but not blacken. It only takes a few minutes on each side. I usually do 2 coats of sauce on each side. When they are done take them off the grill and cut them into individual ribs and serve.