Choose your meat carefully, watch your fire, and apply sauce according to your beliefs.
That, in sum, is the advice area barbecue professionals offer to any red-blooded patriots who want to mark July Fourth weekend by cooking pork ribs. Right before the holiday I called a handful of the cooks and asked them for tips they could pass along to their fellow Americans.
nTC Barbecue, it turns out, is a lot like politics. Everybody agrees on the lofty goals -- a better tomorrow, a juicier rib -- but there is wide disagreement over how to get the job done.
Take, for example, the issue of which size rib, the smaller baby back or the larger spare rib, is the better one to use. On this question, like so many others, there were strong opinions, but little agreement.
Two restaurateurs, Joe Reese of Bare Bones on Baltimore National Pike in Ellicott City and Anna Belle Rauck of the Corner Stable on York Road in Cockeysville, were big believers in the smaller ribs.
"The big bone ribs have too much fat," said Reese.
"The baby backs are so tender," said Rauck.
But the larger ribs also had their loyal followers. People like Rick Catalano, co-owner with his wife Elayne of the Cafe Tattoo on Belair Road in northeast Baltimore, and James Dotson, proprietor of Dotson's on Furnace Branch Road in Glen Burnie.
Catalano said he preferred the spare rib, especially the St. Louis cut with a little fat on it. You want some fat, he said, because fat carries flavor.
And Dotson said the big ribs offered more to chew on. "The baby backs," Dotson said, "don't have as much meat on them as the bigger ribs."
There was also disagreement among barbecuers over cooking methods.
Reese of Bare Bares, Rauck of the Corner Stable, Catalano of Cafe Tattoo and Timothy Pickens of Pick of the Pit, a West Baltimore catering operation, said one way to shorten cooking times of ribs was to partially cook ribs in the oven and finish cooking them on the grill.
But Dotson said the only way to cook ribs was low and slow over an open fire. "I don't see you being in a hurry, if you are cooking barbecued ribs," Dotson said.
Parboiling, partially cooking the ribs in boiling water, was roundly criticized.
"The only reason you put meat in water," said Catalano, "is to make soup."
My questions regarding the saucing issue -- when to apply it -- produced as many answers as respondents. Rauck said the Corner Stable applied the sauce "constantly" during the cooking process.
Catalano of Cafe Tattoo had a two-step approach. When the ribs were cooking, he basted the ribs with a vinegar-based sauce. "You gotta keep 'em wet," he said. Then during the final five minutes of cooking, he applied a second, finish sauce, sometimes flavored with whiskey.
Reese of Bare Bones and Pickens of Pick of the Pit advocated dunking partially cooked ribs in sauce. In this method the pork ribs are partially cooked, then immersed in sauce, then finished on the grill. This immersion method imparts flavor and keeps the ribs from drying out, Reese said.
On the other extreme of the sauce issue was Dotson. He cooked ribs naked, over an oak wood fire. He applied his homemade sauce to meat at the last minute or, as he said, "Right as I am selling it to the customer."
Since getting a consensus on barbecue techniques was virtually impossible, I shifted tactics. I tried to get the cooks to pass along bits of barbecue wisdom.
I had better luck.
You will know when the ribs are done, said Rauck, "when you can pull the meat off the bones."
A key finishing touch when cooking ribs, said Reese, "is to have the fire hot enough to caramelize a tomato-based sauce. You want it to almost burn."
When feeding a big group, you can offer a variety of sauces, said Pickens, but as "the hour gets later, the hot sauce goes faster."
When barbecuing several racks of ribs you should overlap them, Dotson said. Since the small end of the rack will cook faster than than the large end, lift the small end of one rack so it sits on top of a big end of another rack. That way all the meat will be done at the same time.
And, said Catalano, take your time. Rather than flame and fury, rib cooking should be a slow, soothing process. "You are cooking over heat, not flames," he said.