Tickled by ribs

Get the most taste out of your backyard-grilling experience

Rob Byers and Tara Tuckwiller write a food column for The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia.

With summertime backyard grilling season beckoning, young and old will soon be feasting on overcooked steaks, charred weenies and still-bleeding burgers.

Grilling is a touchy business. It goes against everything you’ve learned inside the house, in front of the stove. There are flare-ups to deal with, and charcoal that just won’t get hot enough. There are hot spots. And how about those cool spots? Should you use direct or indirect heat?

Successful grilling largely comes down to two things: 1. a clean grill; 2. knowledge of one’s grillable—for instance, pork ribs.

Ribs are a star of the grill. Their cooking methods and sauces are highly debated from Kansas City to Memphis to, possibly, your patio or deck.

Here are some things to consider when you’re considering tackling a rack of ribs:

Cut. Rib aficionados will argue over the benefits of the St. Louis cut vs. the Kansas City cut, but for most folks the question of cut will come down to spareribs or baby back ribs.

Spareribs are larger, fattier and less meaty. They come from the lower portion of the rib, closer to the breastbone of the hog. Baby backs (also called loin back ribs depending on the weight of the rack) are smaller and meatier. They come from closer to the backbone.

• Rub or marinade. If you’re going to shell out for a rack of ribs, you want it to have the most flavor it can possibly have. So, you will want to start the flavor process with a rub (a combination of dry spices rubbed onto the ribs) or a marinade. Some cooks also like to brine their ribs in salt water.

• Cooking method. Some cooks boil their ribs before finishing them on the grill. Some oven-bake their ribs before grilling. Some grill over direct heat, then move to indirect, while others are all indirect. Still others use the “low and slow” method of true barbecue. Here are some pros and cons: The anti-boil camp says you leave flavor behind in the boiling water; the pro-oven camp says pre-baking, tightly covered with foil in the oven, steams the ribs and keeps them juicier; the direct-to-indirect camp likes the quick crust that forms on the ribs; and the all-indirect and low-and-slow guys, who must have a lot of time on their hands, are in search of the ultimate in tender ribs, and are willing to spend hours in the process.

• Smoke. Ribs are wonderful when cooked in a smoker. For those who like to add a little smoke to their charcoal or gas grill, hickory chips work best with ribs. A smoker box or foil pan of soaked hickory chips is good for a gas grill, while wood chunks work nicely when dropped directly onto the coals of a charcoal grill.

• Sauces. When most rib lovers think of the accompanying barbecue sauce, sweet-heat comes to mind. Just remember that sugar burns, so be careful with a sugary sauce—your ribs could wind up as blackened as those unfortunate weenies.

Spicy Rubbed Ribs with Sweet-Hot Bourbon Sauce

2 2-pound racks loin back ribs (may be labeled baby backs)
3 tbsp. paprika
1 tbsp. chili powder
1 tbsp. onion powder
1 tbsp. dark brown sugar
2 tsp. kosher salt
2 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. black pepper
1 tbsp. canola oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup ketchup
1 cup chili sauce
1/4 cup cider vinegar
2 tbsp. bourbon
2 tbsp. dark brown sugar
1 tbsp. soy sauce
1 tsp. dry mustard
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. black pepper

In one motion, pull membrane from back side of ribs and discard. Combine next 8 ingredients and rub over ribs until thoroughly coated. Refrigerate ribs for at least 6 hours.

Meanwhile, heat oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat and sauté onion until softened, 5-7 minutes. Reduce heat to medium and add garlic. Sauté for another minute before adding remaining ingredients and mixing well. Simmer with vented lid for about 15 minutes (puree sauce in small batches in a blender if desired). Divide finished sauce, reserving 1 cup to be passed at the table.

Soak a few handfuls of hickory chips or chunks if using wood smoke. (Place in smoker box or foil pan or add directly to the coals when hot.) Prepare a well-cleaned charcoal or gas grill for indirect cooking: Heat to medium, then move coals to one side or turn off one of the gas burners.

Grill ribs over direct heat (the hot side of the grate) for 10-15 minutes per side, covered, until well browned and grill-marked (watch for flare-ups, which can quickly blacken the ribs). Move ribs to indirect heat and coat top side with a layer of sauce. Grill covered, flipping ribs and adding a layer of sauce every 5-7 minutes for about 40 minutes or until ribs are cooked through and tender.

Cut into rib sections and serve with reserved sauce.

Serves 4-6.