The Perfect Summer: Call Me Mr. Ribs

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Outside magazine, June 1994

The Perfect Summer: Call Me Mr. Ribs

The last word on barbecue
By Brad Wetzler

If God is in the details, it’s a holy man who finger-massages his spareribs before laying them over the coals. I know. I’m from Kansas City, and I’ve been at the business of barbecue since the age of 11, when I singed off my eyebrows starting the coals for my first slab of baby backs. Here are a few tips from my quiver, guaranteed to bring you slow-cooked success in the
backyard this summer.

Eat pork
You may not buy into the spin-doctoring of the pork industry–the bit about it being “the other white meat”–but pork spareribs are best for barbecuing, because they’re high in fat. It’s the fat that conveys the rich flavor in meat, and it absorbs tasty airborne smoke particles, too.

Buy in bulk
Since ribs are mostly bone, it can feel like you’re buying for an army when you’ve only got enough to feed the chef. I go by this simple rule: Count on one pound of spareribs per person, then lay on one extra pound for good measure.

Don’t slather
Amateurs looking for a boost of confidence love to bathe meat in sauce. Don’t fall into this trap–the sauce will burn and become the chemical equivalent of pencil lead. Instead, give your ribs a “dry rub” with seasonings that will penetrate the meat but won’t burn away. Lyndon Baines Johnson–a man whose taste in barbecue I’ve always trusted–loved this recipe:

To season six pounds of ribs, combine
6 tablespoons salt
6 tablespoons sugar (white or brown)
2-1/2 tablespoons black pepper
1 tablespoon paprika
1 tablespoon dry lemon powder

Read the coals
Gauging your heat source is a most delicate step. Put the ribs on when the coals are too hot, you’ll burn them. Too cool, your guests go home stuffed with chips and canned chili. Try this test: Hold your hand six inches from the coals–about the same distance the ribs will be–and count. If you get to “three Mississippi” before your hand starts to hurt, the fire’s perfect.

Lock in the flavor
Searing, or grilling with sudden, intense heat, cooks the surface of the meat and seals in the juices. Failing to do this is a common rookie mistake. Set the ribs directly over the hottest coals and, with the lid of the grill off, let them sizzle for about ten minutes. Turn them frequently so they don’t burn.

Do it slow
Once seared, ribs should be kept away from direct heat. For best results arrange the hot coals into a ring, and then place a 12-inch cake pan filled with water in the center. Grilling the ribs over the water will allow you to cook them for a longer period of time–one and a half to two hours–and will leave you with more tender, smokier meat. Keep the grill covered, but make sure
to turn the ribs every 20 minutes.

Dunk, then serve
A lot of hot air is generated over the subject of sauce–whether and how to make your own or which brand to choose at the store. Experiment in the kitchen, if you’re so inclined, but I recommend buying bottles of sauce from your favorite barbecue joint. Then personalize it: A dash of teriyaki can add a little wang; likewise, picante sauce will spice things up. Fill a deep pan with
the end result and dunk the ribs before serving. Although my man LBJ preferred his ribs dry.