Everyone knows the barbecue mantra "low and slow": Cook tough cuts of meat over low indirect heat for hours and hours until they fall off the bone and melt in the mouth.
I thought that was about all there was to it. Then I tried several recent recipes from acknowledged masters of the grill and got dry, chewy spareribs. I took a closer look under the grill lid, and what I saw leads me to offer some advice for barbecuing ribs:
Don't try this at home.
To be precise, don't cook ribs for more than a couple of people on a standard-size domestic grill. It's a simple matter of real estate. Home grills work reasonably well for slow-cooking compact cuts like the shoulder, but they can be too cramped for flat cuts that take up a lot of surface area. There's not enough room for large amounts of meat to keep a comfortable distance from the high direct heat of the gas flames or coals.
It takes about five pounds of ribs to feed four people generously. That turns out to be a couple hundred square inches of ribs.
My starter-model gas grill is about 275 square inches, with heating elements running along the long sides. Ribs for four cover most of the grill surface, and some of them lie directly over the heating element.
I also have a midsize 22-inch charcoal kettle. Ribs for four cover more than half its area, so that some of the meat ends up within a few inches of the coals. It's much easier to barbecue well in a smoker, a kind of cooker that's specifically designed to provide low indirect heat, or on a large grill that can keep all the meat a good eight inches or more from the heat.
But because I barbecue only occasionally and don't plan to upgrade my basic grills anytime soon, I've settled on a hybrid approach to ribs. I cook them low and slow in the oven and then give them a brief finishing hit of high heat or smoke on the grill.
There's nothing new about cooking ribs in the oven, but here too, recipes are often short on details that make a difference.
We cook ribs and other typical barbecue cuts at a low temperature to conserve as much of the meat's moisture as possible, and we cook them for hours to dissolve their tough connective tissue into succulent gelatin.
The lower the meat's temperature, the less moisture it loses, but the longer its connective tissue takes to dissolve too. You can get very juicy ribs by cooking them at 135 degrees, but making them tender takes two or three days. At 160 degrees, you get tender ribs in 10 to 12 hours. At 170 to 180 degrees, the meat is noticeably dryer, but the cooking time is a more manageable 6 to 8 hours.
I start cooking ribs in the oven at around 200 degrees if they're wrapped in foil, and unwrapped ribs at 225 degrees to compensate for the cooling effect of evaporation from the exposed meat surface. These temperatures bring the inner meat temperature up to around 170 degrees in three to four hours. Then I turn the oven down to 170-180 degrees to hold that temperature for another two to three hours, or until the connective tissue has softened.
Because oven thermostats are unreliable, I use an infrared point-and-shoot thermometer to take the temperature of the oven walls, and then adjust the temperature accordingly.
I like to wrap the meat and its seasonings in foil to reduce aroma loss and prevent the meat edges from drying out. And the captured juices make a delicious sauce.
I season the meat simply. True, it can be fun to concoct rubs and mopping liquids and sauces with dozens of ingredients, but the end result is usually an indistinct, generically fruity, and spicy flavor.
To supply a smokiness that the oven can't, I include some smoked pimenton or chipotle pepper, and cloves, cinnamon and vanilla, whose aromatics are the same ones that help make hardwood smoke appealingly fragrant.
Of course, barbecuing for company is about much more than the meat. The kitchen can't match the outdoors for celebrating the pleasures of summer, and dry ribs can still be tasty. But to get the best from your grill, study it and see how much meat it can actually heat gently and evenly. Barbecue only that much, and let the oven prepare the rest for a finishing touch of fire and smoke.
Then when you sit down and it's the meat that matters, see which ribs disappear first.
1 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons ancho chili powder or paprika
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
5 pounds spareribs, cut into 4 slabs, rinsed and patted dry
2 teaspoons mild or hot pimenton (smoked Spanish paprika)
1 tablespoon cider vinegar or red or white vinegar
1 to 2 teaspoons vanilla extract.
Cook's note: For slow-cooked meat, the oven provides a safer distance from the heat source than most home grills.
Heat oven to 200 degrees. In a mixing bowl, combine the brown sugar, ancho chili powder or paprika, salt, garlic powder, cloves, and cinnamon.
Place each slab of ribs on a piece of foil large enough to fold into a packet. Sprinkle spice rub over the ribs, rubbing in thoroughly on all sides. With the ribs meat-side down, tightly fold the foil to form sealed packets.
Put a rack on a baking sheet, place packets on the rack and put in oven. Bake for 4 hours, then reduce heat to 175 degrees and bake for 2 more hours, or until a fork easily penetrates the meat.
Open each packet and pour the accumulated juices into a saucepan, then refold the packets. Bring juices to a simmer over medium heat and reduce by about half, until they cling to a spoon. Remove from the heat and stir in the pimenton, vinegar, and vanilla extract.
Remove ribs from foil, coat with the sauce, and serve. The ribs can also be finished for 2 to 3 minutes on an open hot grill or smoky closed one, or under the broiler, then coated with sauce.
Time: About 20 minutes, plus 6 hours' baking
Yield: 4 servings