There is an old saying that the sweetest meat is next to the bone. That's true for shanks, shoulders and legs, and especially true for ribs. And while you can feast on lamb ribs, veal ribs or beef ribs, there's nothing like pork ribs to satisfy the soul.
When you talk about ribs, you're talking about barbecue. Barbecue styles vary across the country, but no matter where you go, true barbecue means slow cooking at low temperatures and never directly over the heat source—authentic barbecue is not meat drenched with sickeningly sweet sauce and placed over the fire.
Real barbecue also requires plenty of smoke, from hardwood, hardwood charcoal or wood chips. "When I ask people what barbecue is, they say sauce or meat cooked with sauce, but it's really about smoke, then spice," says Steven Raichlen, author of Raichlen on Ribs, Ribs, Outrageous Ribs (Workman) and host of Barbecue University on PBS.
Most types of ribs require slow cooking so that the fibers in the meat can be broken down. Spareribs come from the side or belly of the pig after the bacon meat has been removed. These large, flat slabs, or racks, should weigh at least 3 pounds and have 11 to 14 bones. The rack should be meaty and reasonably well-trimmed of excess fat, with no "shiners" (exposed bones). A full rack should serve two to three people.
St. Louis-style spareribs have a more uniform shape because the breastbone is removed and the ends are typically squared off. These racks weigh 2 to 2 1/2 pounds and cost more than regular spareribs, though they can be cooked in the same fashion.
Baby back ribs are not true ribs, but they have become hugely popular. Baby backs are the leftover parts of a boned pork loin roast. They are leaner, more tender and more uniform than spareribs, though they tend to be thinner, depending on how close to the bone the butcher trims the loin. Once a throwaway cut, baby backs are now the most expensive ribs.
Baby back ribs can be cooked at higher temperatures and in less time than spareribs because they can take direct heat, indirect heat or a combination of the two. Raichlen first cooks them over indirect heat, then finishes them over direct heat.
Country-style ribs are also not really ribs, but chops cut from the end of the loin close to the shoulder and stuck together in a package. They are cooked like pork chops, not ribs.
The two most prominent styles of rib-cooking come from Memphis, Tenn., and Kansas City, Kan., though pinning down exactly what constitutes either method is as elusive as the proverbial greased pig. For example, the Memphis style is traditionally "dry," meaning cooked with a dry spice rub and served with sauce on the side. However, Memphis ribs slathered with sauce also exist.
Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous restaurant in Memphis is the premier purveyor of the Memphis style, though even Vergos' ribs have modifications. Seasoned only with salt and pepper, they are cooked over direct heat. But because the grill grate is far above the heat source, it's almost like indirect cooking. Just before serving, the ribs get brushed with a vinegar-based "mop" sauce—so called because the sauce is applied with a moplike brush—then sprinkled with a spice mix that contains oregano, garlic, cumin, chile powder and paprika.
But these days, Memphis ribs usually have a spice mix or rub applied to the meat up to eight hours before cooking, notes Raichlen. The ribs are cooked over indirect heat for an hour or so, then brushed with a mop sauce. Spareribs and St. Louis ribs are then cooked for an additional hour or more, baby back ribs for less time. About 15 minutes before the ribs are done, they are sprinkled with more of the rub.
For most devotees of Memphis ribs, sauce is an afterthought. At Rendezvous, the sauce is just a doctored commercial barbecue version because "the key to good barbecue is good meat and cooking on real smoke," says John Vergos, Charlie's son.
Kansas City fans, on the other hand, would argue that sauce should figure more prominently when it comes to barbecued ribs. In fact, many commercial barbecue sauces are based on the Kansas City model, in which a tomato or ketchup foundation is seasoned with onion, garlic, hot pepper, paprika, liquid smoke and vinegar and sweetened with brown sugar, molasses and corn syrup.
Kansas City ribs normally get a dry rub and are cooked over indirect heat. The sauce is usually applied about a half hour before the meat is fully cooked, giving it a nice caramelization. With low, indirect heat, the sauce doesn't burn as it would at higher temperatures.
At the esteemed, but now-shuttered, RUB—Righteous Urban Barbeque—in New York, the sauce was Kansas City-style, but served on the side. Before they were grilled, the St. Louis-cut ribs got a rub created by co-owner Paul Kirk, winner of multiple world barbecue championships. "We call it a competition-style rib," says his partner, Andrew Fischel, who adds that the secret to their great ribs is the removal of the thin membrane from around the bones. "It's very labor intensive, but it allows the smoke to penetrate all the way through the meat," Fischel explains.
The ribs at RUB were cooked for four to five hours, at 200° F. However, you don't have to go that low or wait that long to get good results on your grill. I cook my ribs at between 275° F and 325° F; about two-and-a-half hours for spareribs, about two hours for baby backs.
To get indirect heat in a kettle-type grill, make a charcoal fire on one side of the bottom grate. Place a small foil drip pan, half-filled with water, on the other side. Soak some wood chips in water for 15 minutes (wet chips provide more smoke), then drain and spread the chips over the coals just before cooking, or put them in an iron box meant for holding them. Place the meat on the top grate over the drip pan, and cover the grill with the lid. If you're using a gas grill, turn off the gas on one side, and place the meat on that side. The drip pan should still go under the meat, and the wood chips should be spread over the lava rocks that cover the gas flame.
Stick a candy thermometer into one of the lid's vents. For more heat, open the vents wider. For less, close them. Don't remove the lid for one hour. After the hour is up, add a dozen more pieces of fresh charcoal (and more chips, if desired) to the fire. Adjust the position of the ribs if necessary, then replace the lid.
Knowing when the ribs are done is "ridiculously easy," according to Raichlen: "Ribs have a natural pop-up thermometer. When the meat recedes, showing about one-quarter inch of bone, they're done."
Ribs are usually accompanied by a mayonnaise- or vinegar-based coleslaw. Try an Asian-style slaw with rice wine vinegar, sesame oil and ginger. Baked beans, seasoned with many of the same ingredients as barbecue sauce, are also de rigueur.
When asked to recommend a wine to go with ribs, Fischel replied without hesitation, "Champagne." I agree. Champagne and other sparkling wines are crisp and refreshing—perfect for barbecue—although I also like the fruitiness of rosé and blanc de noir sparklers. Other good choices are wines with ample fruit and a touch of spice, such as Zinfandel; Southern Rhône blends, such as Côtes du Rhône and Châteauneuf-du-Pape; and Rhône-style wines, such as Petite Sirah and Shiraz.
However, most barbecue fans will probably opt for beer. Of the nine I tried, the clear winner was the Belgian Saison Dupont. Clean and gently fruity, it had plenty of stuffing to stand up to the ribs. My second favorite was the more malty Samuel Smith Nut Brown Ale from England. My next choice would be Pilsner Urquell from the Czech Republic, which was bracing and had good hoppiness but lacked oomph. And while fourth-place Budweiser had no depth, it was crisp and very refreshing—just what I needed after licking barbecue sauce off my fingers.
Contributing editor Sam Gugino has been writing for Wine Spectator since 1994, becoming a regular columnist in 1996.
How to Get It
Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous, Memphis, Tenn., (888) 464-7359, www.hogsfly.com
Corky's Ribs & BBQ, Memphis, Tenn., (800) 926-7597, www.corkysbbq.com
Lobel's of New York, New York, (877) 783-4512, www.lobels.com
Niman Ranch, Oakland, Calif., (866) 808-0340, www.nimanranch.com