People are mystified about how to cook ribs properly. I'm going to walk you through every step using a basic charcoal grill. Obviously if you have different or more high-tech equipment, you'll need to modify these procedures. If you're setting up your backyard charcoal grill for indirect cooking, you'll want to use a disposable aluminum pan to capture the grease as the fat renders while cooking. Some people add water to this pan to add moisture to the cooking environment.
Let me caution you right up front to mop the ribs with sauce no more than 10 minutes before you take them off the grill. Saucing the meat too early is a mistake many people make when smoking or grilling. Virtually all barbecue sauce contains sugar, and your meat will have a burned crust around the outside if you use sauce too soon in the process.
Ribs are readily available in most grocery stores. When selecting ribs, try not to buy ones that weigh less than 2 pounds. A true baby back rib weighs about 11/4 to 1 1/2 pounds; they are very fragile and dry out quickly. This recipe calls for a meatier rib. A loin back rib is preferable; they're easier to cook, less fragile, and have more meat.
Once you start smoking ribs, you can't leave the smoker unattended for any more than about 20 minutes. You'll need to continually check that the temperature in the grill remains between 200 and 210 degrees at all times. If it gets too hot, open the lid and allow some of the heat to escape. Coals that appear to be glowing red will cause a hot spot. Don't cook the ribs directly over the hot spot; move the ribs to a different, cooler part of the grill. If the temperature dips below 200 degrees, move the ribs to a hot spot for a while. If the temperature gets too low, add some more coals.
You'll need about 4 cups of apple wood chips to be authentic; you can use hickory, pecan, sweet maple, or cherry, but the ribs won't taste as sweet. You'll also need a chimney starter or another small covered grill or bucket to keep extra hot coals.
4 racks of ribs (about 2 pounds each)
Magic Dust (recipe below)
4 cups apple juice in a spray bottle
Apple City Barbecue Sauce (recipe below)
Sprinkle the ribs liberally with Magic Dust, coating both sides. Put them in a shallow pan or on a cookie sheet and cover them with clear plastic wrap or a lid. Refrigerate them until you're ready to use them. I recommend letting them marinate for at least an hour. At the restaurant, we dust the ribs up to a day in advance.
Soak the apple wood chips in water for half an hour. Drain.
Remove the grate and arrange the medium-hot coals in a grill or smoker. If you are using a grill, it must have a lid. Set an aluminum pan next to the coals as a drip pan. Spread out the wet wood chips on the coals. Replace the rack, close the grill, and check the temperature. It should be between 200 and 210 degrees. If the temperature is too high, open the lid to allow some heat to escape.
Notice that the meat on a rack of ribs is on the top. The bottom, where you remove the membrane, is called the "bone side." Once the temperature is steady, place the ribs on the rack, bone side down. You want to cook them bone side down as much as possible. Turning them dries out the meat. If necessary, you can cut the racks of ribs in half to comfortably fit your grill.
Cover and smoke the ribs for about 1 1/2 hours or until the ribs are done and tender.
You'll want to check the ribs every 20 minutes or so. Examine them to see if the surface of the meat looks dry or moist. Ribs "sweat" about three times during the smoking process. The pores of the meat open, and this allows moisture to escape. This is when the seasoning from the dry rub and the smoke itself are reabsorbed into the meat. When they're sweating, mop or mist them with some apple juice and sprinkle them with a little more Magic Dust. Opening the lid will lower the temperature; add more coals and wood chips as needed to maintain the temperature.
About 10 minutes before you remove the ribs from the pit, mop them with the sauce. When you take them off the pit, mop again with sauce and sprinkle some more Magic Dust on them. Serve immediately.
SERVES 4, OR YOU CAN CUT THE RACKS IN HALF TO SERVE 8
"Life is too short for a half-rack." -MIKE MILLS
The Gospel on Sauce
When I bought 17th Street Bar & Grill in 1985, Mama Faye was 82 years old and in excellent health. For several years, she made gallons of our family's barbecue sauce each week, but once the place got going, the amount I needed for the restaurant and for competition quickly got to be overwhelming. I had to cook hundreds of batches myself.
To Mama Faye's dismay, I did alter our recipe ever so slightly. I only added some apple juice and a few different spices, but she never let me forget it. "This isn't the original sauce," she'd tell anyone who'd listen. "Mike veered off the recipe."
She was awfully proud, however, when the sauce won the Grand Sauce Award at the Jack Daniel's World Championship International Barbecue Cook-Off in 1992.
This award-winning sauce enhances just about any barbecue. Some barbecue sauce is very thick and just sits on top of the meat. This sauce is smooth and on the thin side, and it seeps down into the meat.
1 cup ketchup (I use Hunt's)
2/3 cup seasoned rice vinegar
1/2 cup apple juice or cider
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup soy sauce or Worcestershire sauce
2 teaspoons prepared yellow mustard
3/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1/3 cup bacon bits, ground in a spice grinder
1/3 cup peeled and grated apple
1/3 cup grated onion
2 teaspoons grated green bell pepper
Combine the ketchup, rice vinegar, apple juice or cider, cider vinegar, brown sugar, soy sauce or Worcestershire sauce, mustard, garlic powder, white pepper, cayenne, and bacon bits in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Stir in the apple, onion, and bell pepper. Reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, 10 to 15 minutes or until it thickens slightly. Stir it often. Allow to cool, then pour into sterilized glass bottles. A glass jar that used to contain mayonnaise or juice works real well. Refrigerate for up to 2 weeks.
VARIATION: To make this sauce a little hotter, add more cayenne pepper to taste, approximately another 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon. Be careful; a little cayenne goes a long way.
There's a big shaker of Magic Dust next to the salt and pepper in my own kitchen and at all my restaurants. I wish I could figure out a way to attach the bottle to the restaurant tables because, at my restaurants, it's the most frequently stolen item!
To make it a little more hot and spicy, increase the mustard powder and black pepper to 1/4 cup each.
1/2 cup paprika
1/4 cup kosher salt, finely ground
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons mustard powder
1/4 cup chili powder
1/4 cup ground cumin
2 tablespoons ground black pepper
1/4 cup granulated garlic
2 tablespoons cayenne
Mix all ingredients and store in a tightly covered container. You'll want to keep some in a shaker next to the grill or stove. Keeps indefinitely but won't last long.