Sweet, tangy, tasty ribs. Is there a better way to connect with your caveman ancestors than to tear juicy flesh off a rib bone? Well, I suppose you could stalk a wild boar through the forest for a week beforehand, then draw a crude picture of it on your kitchen wall. We’re content with just eating tasty ribs.
Casting table manners aside and going to town on a rack of ribs is always a good time. Before you get there, however, you need to prepare and grill your ribs using equal parts finesse and raw, timeless instinct. For help understanding how to cook ribs, we reached out to Chef Kent Graham, a classically trained Southern chef and BBQ lover. Kent was born and raised in Memphis, and now hangs his chef’s hat in Atlanta.
Selecting the Meat
Fortunately, you no longer have to go out and hunt your meat — unless you want to. If you’d rather purchase your meat, you’ll need to decide whether you want pork, beef, or lamb ribs, then find a reputable butcher to hook you up. All ribs are tasty, but Chef Kent has a clear preference: “Pork ribs are king. Good ol’ spare ribs, or St. Louis cut, all day long.”
If you’re serious about your ribs, which you should be, look beyond the supermarket. “You’ve got to get the right ribs from the right butcher,” says Kent. “You want to know your barbecue. You want to have your meat guy. You want a guy who knows what he’s got and is going to sell you quality.” Use your instincts to find a good butcher. If your instincts are wrong, try another butcher. Cavemen didn’t have Yelp, but they certainly would have used it if they did.
Tossing your ribs on the grill or in a smoker is the ideal way to cook them. You could try the oven, but Chef Kent says that’s sacrilege: “I’ve encountered oven ribs, and I just don’t agree with ‘em. Maybe I’ve had bad ones or maybe it was a bad person doin’ ‘em, but all I know is it’s a sad excuse for barbecue.”
OK, the oven’s out, so what kind of grill should you use? “I’ve cooked on a Weber, a Big Green Egg, I’ve cooked on everything,” says Kent. “I usually use a big tow-behind smoker — even when I’m cooking ribs, just because I’m comfortable with it.” A gas grill may not provide the same flavor explosion as a smoker, but it will still get the job done.
Your rack of ribs will likely have a membrane on the underside. You can take this off or leave it on. “I am a fan of just leaving it on,” says Kent. “A lot of people say take it off, but I grew up with the membrane being on the rib, and I enjoy it. I don’t see a reason to take it off; it’s kind of fun to pull off the back of the bone. But if you want to take it off, grab an oyster knife and just use that to peel it back.”
And now for the dry rub — easily the most important aspect of cooking ribs. “I’ve got to rub my ribs down at least a day in advance,” says Kent. “Then I’m going to apply a secondary dry rub before I put them on the grill.” Chef Kent was kind enough to provide us with his own special dry rub for same truly excellent ribs.
Chef Kent’s Rib Dry Rub
- 1 lb brown sugar
- ¼ cup ground cumin
- ¼ cup paprika
- ¼ cup garlic powder
- ¼ cup onion powder
- ¼ cup chili powder
- ¼ cup kosher salt
- 2 tbl cayenne pepper
- ¼ cup ground black pepper
- ¼ cup ground white pepper
- ¼ cup ground yellow mustard
Combine all ingredients in a large bowl. Rub vegetable oil on the ribs, then apply the dry rub one day before grilling. Cover and store the ribs in the refrigerator. Apply the dry rub again when you’re ready to get cooking.
A lot of guides have very specific tips on how to cook your ribs. We say just cook the damn ribs. If you’re using a charcoal grill, heat up some hardwood charcoal next to a disposable aluminum pan full of water. You can use the intake and exhaust dampers to adjust the temperature as needed. If you have a gas grill, you’ll want to keep the temperature somewhere between 200 and 250 degrees — 225 is ideal.
Once your charcoal is nice and hot, or your gas grill is at about 225, it’s time to slap the ribs on the grill. You want the bone side of the ribs facing down, and you want to keep the cover on for the duration. It’ll probably take about three to four hours for your ribs to cook all the way through. “After a while I’ll pick up the ribs with my tongs, and about three quarters of the way down, the ribs will start to flex,” says Kent. “When the meat starts to pull apart at the ends, that’s how I know it’s done.”
You could follow a long list of directions, or you could use your instincts to cook the meat. That’s how Kent rolls. “I’m kind of an old-school purist,” he says. “I feel my way through my meat. A thermometer’s always great to use, but there’s nothing better than touch and feel — getting that intimate connection with the heat and the grill itself.”
Good ol’ barbecue sauce is to ribs what ketchup is to French fries. However, you don’t want to overwhelm your ribs with sauce, or else you’ll lose the delectable flavor. “I’m a Memphis boy; I like the sweet, spicy barbecue sauce,” says Kent. “I’m not going to shy away from putting a little bit of sauce on my ribs, but I’m going to wait until after the ribs have come to the table; I’m not going to cook them with sauce.”
The power to cook ribs is a mysterious force that permeates the universe. If you look hard enough, you’ll find that the power has been inside you all along. All you have to do is tap into the right wavelength and let the deliciousness flow through you. Following a recipe helps, too.
Chef Kent Graham has cooked delicious food all over the country, from Napa Valley to New York City. He’s available to make food for private events in the Atlanta area. His new restaurant, Field Dog Kitchen, is slated to open fall of 2015.