It has been years since I learned to make competition-worthy barbecued baby back ribs. And I still consider myself lucky to have learned from some of the best in the business.My first year at the barbecue competition Memphis in May, the head cook from a team called Bubba's Bunch befriended me and taught me to make ribs the same way barbecue great John Willingham did. Willingham was the creator of the amazing all-purpose barbecue rub known as W'ham Seasoning. And it is amazing stuff.Following my rib tutorial, I made those ribs more times than I can count, and have taught them many times in my barbecue classes. I named the recipe after the team who taught me, and they are perfect for a first-timer. Or if you are like me, it may become your go-to recipe for ribs.All you need are a love of great barbecue and three ingredients -- meaty baby back ribs, lemons and my W'ham-inspired rib rub. You can make these on a gas or charcoal grill or a smoker.If you have never made ribs before, you need to know a few things. Buy a meaty rack with no "bone-shine." This means that you should inspect your ribs to see how close the butcher got to the bone when they were cutting the ribs. If you can see a bit of the top of the bone on the rack when it is raw, there isn't enough meat on the ribs. When the ribs are cooked and the meat recedes from the bone, you will have a very bony rack. Make sure you buy racks of ribs that weigh 2 to 3 pounds each.Most recipes will tell you to remove the membrane from the ribs (and I used to do it, too). But the more I cooked ribs, the more I liked leaving the membrane on the back. One reason is that it holds the ribs together -- especially important if there is any bone-shine -- and it also is a good indicator of when the ribs are done. When the membrane pulls away from the back of the rack and looks like translucent parchment paper, you know the ribs are done. If you want, you can remove the membrane before you cut and serve the ribs.
When you prep your ribs for the grill, squeeze a lemon over both sides of the ribs to "refresh" them. That little bit of acid creates a brightness, a "clean canvas" for your seasoning and helps the rub adhere to the meat.Next, season liberally by holding your hand about a foot above the racks and sprinkling the dry rub over the ribs evenly, like you are "raining" rib rub over the racks. Do it no more than 15 minutes before cooking. I like to use a rib grilling rack because it positions the ribs so that the hot air and smoke from the closed grill rotate equally around all of the racks of ribs and you can cook twice as many than if they lay flat on the grates.As for the actual cooking, true barbecue demands indirect heat. This is what allows the meat to cook slowly, melting the fat and connective tissue. Barbecue also calls for smoke, so be sure to soak wood chips in advance. You can look for two visual clues when making ribs at home: the meat should pull away from the ends of the bones, which should be dry and dark; and the ribs should bend easily without breaking if you gently fold them over.That covers what you should do. Here's what not to do.First, don't parboil your ribs. It isn't necessary, and it will rob your ribs of flavor. Ribs should only take 2 to 3 hours to cook and they should be cooked from start to finish on your outdoor grill. Second, if you are a barbecue sauce lover, only put the sauce on the ribs during the final 10 to 15 minutes of cooking. Otherwise the sugar in the sauce will burn while the ribs are still undercooked.If you follow these tips, you will be amazed at how easy it is to make ribs in your own backyard. All it takes is a little patience and a little love of the game.- Elizabeth Karmel EDITOR'S NOTE: Elizabeth Karmel is a grilling and Southern foods expert and executive chef at Hill Country Barbecue Market restaurants in New York and Washington, as well as Hill Country Chicken in New York. She is the author of three cookbooks, including "Soaked, Slathered and Seasoned."
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