Ready For RIBS

Racking up winning fare for Father's Day

June 14, 2000|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Just what is it about our love affair with barbecue ribs?

The smoky slabs of pork or beef - and even lamb, buffalo and venison - can turn the most mundane dinner into a finger-licking fun fest. If you've never prepared these delicious, messy morsels, Father's Day is a great time to try the stick-to-your-ribs meat.

"I suppose there is a mystique about them," says Andy Nelson Jr., the 46-year-old rib master at Andy Nelson's Southern Pit Barbecue in Cockeysville.

Eating ribs, Nelson says, stimulates "different senses - sight, touch and taste. If you have a good rib, you're happy."

In the South, and points west where ribs rule in St. Louis and Kansas City, Mo., cooking the bony loins is a religious experience capped only by a quest for the perfect sauce. How else do you explain the daily pilgrimages of faithful to rib shacks no bigger than your garage, which dot stretches of highway in Texas, North Carolina and rural Florida?

In Baltimore, you really don't have to travel far for a good rack. Besides Nelson's place near Valley View Farms, there's the Corner Stable in Cockeysville, the Charred Rib in Timonium and many other local menus that offer variations of the spicy rib.

You also can savor ribs at home. True joy lies in cooking them yourself - once you perfect the temperature. The key to good ribs is to cook them "low and slow," say Hugh Carpenter and Teri Sandison, husband-and-wife authors of "The Great Ribs Book" (Ten Speed Press, 1999) and "Hot Barbecue" (Ten Speed Press, 1996).

Translation: Keep the heat around 250 degrees so the meat on the ribs roasts slowly until it's ready to fall off the bone, a nearly two-hour process.

Then slather on a zesty sauce and pass plenty of extra napkins.

While lower temperatures are ideal, Steven Raichlen, in his new book, "Barbecue! Bible Sauces, Rubs and Marinades, Bastes, Butters & Glazes" (Workman, 2000), says to save time you can go as high as 325 degrees when barbecuing ribs. "You'll need to work at the higher end of the range on a charcoal grill, as it's harder to keep the coals lit at the lower temperatures," he says.

Before cooking, you'll have to decide what kind of ribs to use. Choices include spareribs, country-style ribs and even beef short ribs. Carpenter and Sandison prefer baby back pork ribs, which they call "the Rolls-Royce of ribs" because of their tenderness.

Raichlen also praises baby backs for their succulence, but he acknowledges spareribs can be substituted in most recipes.

In fact, Bruce Aidells and Denis Kelly in "The Complete Meat Cookbook" (Houghton Mifflin, 1998) say you can't beat spareribs for meatiness. The authors offer these guidelines when selecting pork ribs:

Spareribs: The best slabs weigh more than 3 pounds and often have a 2-inch-plus layer of meat at the larger end of the slab. There is some fat, but the ribs should not be too fatty. Plan on 2 to 3 servings per slab.

Baby back ribs: These ribs, which the authors stress are not from baby pigs, have far less meat than spareribs but are leaner, making them quite tender. They are probably the most expensive part of the animal. Look for lean ribs with plenty of meat on them. A slab will feed 1 to 2 people.

Country-style ribs: These meaty ribs are actually pork chops from the blade end of the loin that have been butterflied or split. They have the advantage of being inexpensive.

The books also provide helpful cooking tips such as:

Tenderize a rack of ribs by placing it in a brown paper bag after it has been smoked, grilled or roasted. Then place the closed bag with the ribs in a preheated oven at 140 degrees for up to 1 hour. This method steams the ribs while the bag absorbs the fat. From "Great Ribs."

Add wood chips to the grill. If using a charcoal grill, toss 2 cups of wood chips (preferably applewood, which have been soaked in 2 cups of apple cider for an hour, then drained) on the coals. If using a gas grill, place the chips in a smoker box. Don't grill the ribs until you see smoke. From "Barbecue!"

Use a flavor-packed spice rub before cooking and then slather the ribs with your favorite barbecue sauce just before serving. From "The Complete Meat Cookbook."

Of course, real rib cooks never boil their racks before cooking, the ribmeisters say. That's a faux pas that eliminates the taste and renders the rack wimpy.

But Aidells and Kelly say you can poach the ribs in simmering water - with the temperature below 170 degrees - if you want to precook them without drying the meat out. They also offer an alternative method: baking the ribs first in a slow oven and then grilling them.

The rib chefs also recommend the indirect method of grilling for ribs - that is, cooking the ribs in a closed kettle or other type of covered grill next to, not over, the fire to achieve melt-in-your-mouth ribs.

In Raichlen's book, he also points out that home cooks don't need a pit or smoker to achieve the results of pros. "Grilling is designed to be done in a commonplace kettle or gas grill," he says.

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