Photo: Kin Man Hui, San Antonio Express-News / Staff Photographer
Whatever your opinions on the culinary contributions of the Chili’s Grill & Bar restaurant franchise, it has undoubtedly created one of the most pervasive earworms of all time. In fact, by just reading “Chili’s” you’re brain is likely singing, “I want my baby back, baby back, baby back” right now.
Baby back ribs and spare ribs are the cuts generally considered whenever you tell somebody you’re having ribs for dinner. Yes, there are beef ribs, lamb ribs and ribs from other protein sources, but pork is king in the barbecue rib world.
But baby backs and spare ribs, while similar, have serious differences: Baby backs are taken from the top part of the pig, where the rib makes contact with the spine near the loin region, and spares are taken further down in the belly. Baby backs tend to have chunkier meat, but contain less fat, while spares are traditionally marbled with layers of fat ribbons that go through the slabs.
Both cost about the same, averaging about $3 per pound, but the baby backs require significantly less work from bag to finished barbecue and are much easier to handle, as they are about half the size of spares.
“Baby backs require far less prep work,” said Clarence Joseph, a champion barbecue cook based out of San Antonio. “I prefer spares but would say that baby backs are easy for the home cook, because all you have to do is take them out of the bag, season them up, and you are good to go.”
When selecting ribs, Joseph recommends looking for the fattiest ribs over the meatiest ribs because fat equals flavor.
“The more fat means the less likelihood that any piece of meat will dry out on you,” Joseph said.
The only serious prep work that really needs to be done with a rack of baby backs is addressing the thick white membrane, often called silverskin, on the bone side of the slab. The membrane is a thick layer of tissue designed to protect the internal organs.
When it’s not removed, though the ribs may come out perfectly tender, every bite will have a tough and chewy finish, like biting into a piece of plastic. It does not render down like fats do.
There are two ways to address it. Ideally, you want to gently run a butter knife under it and slowly peel it up enough to grab it with a paper towel and tear it all off in one big swipe, as you would painter’s tape. But if that isn’t working, the membrane can be scored throughout with a knife, which will allow the smoke and heat to cook evenly through the ribs.
After that and a heavy application of a good dry rub, it’s totally up to you how you want to cook them. You can get fantastic results in the oven, grill or a smoker, which is the favorite way to cook ribs at the Food Shack. The only adjustment needed from one device to the other is the cooking time.
If you’ve heard of the “3-2-1 method” for smoking ribs, forget it now; it’s one of the biggest myths in barbecue. The idea is that the ribs are smoked for three hours, wrapped in foil or butcher paper for another two hours, then sauced and allowed to finish for the final hour. That will usually lead to disaster and way overdone meat — there’s no need to wrap baby backs to get them tender.
“That’s a long time to cook ribs, and whoever invented that must be cooking really low and slow,” Joseph said. “Most people that would do 3-2-1 would quickly discover that adjustments need to be made. If you need more than four hours for a rack of ribs, you are probably doing something wrong.”
On a charcoal or gas grill or in the oven, baby backs usually only take about two hours to cook — half their cooking time in a smoker.
Another common mistake is pulling the ribs off too early. If you’re diligently using a meat thermometer, as you should, pork is technically finished and safe to consume at 145 degrees. But ribs won’t deliver that sought-after fall-off-the-bone tenderness until they get into that 195- to 205-degree window, and some cooks are so precise, they swear that 203 degrees is the optimal temperature.
The lack of sauce is another routine blunder. I know this is Texas, and we like to say that good barbecue doesn’t need sauce, but I’ll agree to disagree on ribs. Ribs are great with a classic Memphis-style dry rub; they are better wet with more of a Kansas City-style sauce treatment.
Instead of saucing ribs for one hour during the cooking process, it’s best to apply it during the final minutes, or wait until the slabs have been pulled off the grill or smoker.
“You are only looking to caramelize that sauce on the ribs, which is something that can be done in 10 to 15 minutes,” Joseph said.
Slicing the finished product can also be tricky for folks who aren’t skilled with the knife. Baby back bones are often curved oddly, and what you thought was going to be a clean slice can quickly turn into a meaty mess. A good workaround is to leave two or three bones intact in between cuts. If the ribs have been cooked to proper tenderness, it’s no problem to pull them apart on the plate.