How to Grill Ribs: Tips from the Doctor of Barbecue

For some, grilling ribs is akin to a fine art. See how grilling expert Rick Browne turns out perfectly tender meat

A Bone to Pick
Pork ribs, says Browne, are easier to grill and much more popular than beef ribs. His choice for pork ribs are spareribs, but baby back ribs are popular and easy to cook too. If you can find heritage pork, such as Berkshire pork, give it a try -- it has great flavor and juiciness (unlike the pigs used for most supermarket pork, heritage breeds are not bred to be super-lean, explains Browne).

What About the Membrane?
When you get a rack of ribs, you’ll notice that there’s a membrane on the back of the slab. Browne says there’s a “big controversy about whether you tear that off.” (Some people find the membrane unappealing, even though it’s not on the meat-side of the rib.) He says not to waste your time: “The membrane keeps the moisture in the ribs,” he says. “If you have it removed, the moisture will drip right down.”

Leave Time for Prep
Before cooking, rub the ribs all over with prepared yellow mustard (such as French’s), then apply a spice rub (you can find these at the grocery store, but Browne says it’s easy to make your own, which allows you to customize it to your own tastes). The mustard helps the rub adhere to the ribs, and it tenderizes the meat, explains Browne. If you’re not a fan of mustard, not to worry -- Browne say you won’t be able to taste it. Let this mustard-rub mixture sit on the ribs (in the refrigerator) from an hour to 24 hours to allow the flavor to infuse into the meat.

Grill Time
When you’re ready to barbecue the ribs, place the rack meat-side-down over direct heat for 10 to 15 minutes, then continue to cook over low, indirect heat -- in a smoker, if you have one -- for anywhere from another hour to as many as eight hours, depending on the size of the ribs and what your specific recipe calls for. (Barbecue aficionados tend to agree that “low and slow” is the way to go with ribs, but they have little consensus about just how low and how slow).

Save the Sauce
Whatever you do, don’t put on any barbecue sauce until the last 10 to 15 minutes of cooking (some schools of barbecue thought suggest not putting barbecue sauce on at all). Any earlier, and “you’ll have black ribs and they won’t be done inside.”

Are They Done Yet?
The USDA recommends cooking pork ribs to an internal temperature of 145°, but since a thermometer is a bit tough to use with small ribs, Browne offers these visual cues: The ribs are done when the meat begins to pull away from the bone by about a half inch to an inch; or, if you pick up a slab of ribs with tongs, the slab should bend somewhat, but the meat should not begin to fall apart.

Browne derides restaurants that advertise meat that “falls off the bone,” and says that when acts as a judge in competitions such as Memphis in May, he looks for a rib that is tender but has some bite: “It should give you a bit of a tussle.” To serve, slice the rack into individual portions, cutting between the bones. Offer more barbecue sauce on the side, if you’d like.

Tomorrow, get Browne's tips for grilling corn both in the husk and bare.

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