I think that no cut of pork is as mistreated as ribs. In kitchens across the country, in homes and restaurants alike, folks are boiling, stewing, steaming, and baking pork ribs into mushy oblivion.
A shame, as there is nothing quite like a properly smoke-roasted pork rib glazed with zingy barbecue sauce.
There was a time when this was considered a poorman’s dish. Perhaps it still is, but smoked pork ribs are a delicacy in my home. We buy our pork by the side, and currently one side of pork lasts us about one year. This means that we get at most one full slab of side ribs and one full slab of back ribs for every 365 days. As it happens I like loin roasts and chops with big pearly bones attached, so most of the back ribs are sacrificed to this end. In other words we only get one full slab of side ribs a year, so we have learned to savour them with ardour.
Back Ribs v. Side Ribs. To learn where exactly these two cuts come from on the pig, see these posts on pork cutting: Loin Primal and Belly Primal. Back ribs and side ribs are both good. They are easily distinguished by appearance (back ribs are shorter and more curved), but I don’t find any significant difference in eating quality (after all, they used to be joined to together). “Baby back ribs” is just a marketing term for back ribs.
For side ribs, “centre-removed” is preferred. The centre portion is full of cartilaginous bones converging on the sternum. Side ribs with the centre removed are sometimes called St. Louis style ribs.
Remove the membrane from the back of the ribs. You can see how to do this here. Perhaps as this membrane cooks out it lends some gelatinous moisture to the meat, but even after extensive cooking, it’s still a bit tough and filmy. So it’s got to go.
Cooking Pork Ribs
Ages ago I posted my preferred process for real-deal barbecue pulled pork. My process for ribs is almost identical, except that ribs, being a thin slab, cook much quicker.
- The day before you intend to smoke the ribs, set them on a wire rack on a sheet pan. Season well with kosher salt and black pepper. Leave uncovered in the fridge overnight to develop a pellicle.
- Smoke the ribs in a 225°F smoker until tender. While you can use the crutch-method described in the pulled pork post, ribs are small enough that it’s unnecessary unless you are very rushed for time. But if you’re very rushed for time, you probably shouldn’t be smoking your own meat, should you?
- Glaze with barbecue sauce.
I emphatically recommend eating ribs with at least one of the following side dishes: coleslaw, macaroni and cheese, brown beans, and potato salad. The first three can be seen on the plates in the photo below.