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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 “boneshine.” 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 two to three 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 and the recipe below, 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.
Bubba's Bunch Barbecued Baby Back Ribs
Wood chips, for smoking
For the rub:
2 tablespoons smoked paprika
2 tablespoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons packed brown sugar
2 tablespoons black pepper
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
For the ribs:
4 racks baby back ribs, at least 2 pounds each
2 lemons, halved
1 cup prepared barbecue sauce (optional)
Soak the wood chips in a bowl of water according to package directions.
Meanwhile, to make the rub, combine all ingredients in a medium bowl and mix well. If you prefer your dry rubs to have a finer texture, the ingredients can be combined in a spice grinder and ground until fine. Set aside. Any extra rub can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 6 months.
Prepare the grill for indirect heat at medium-low. You are aiming to maintain a temperature of 300°-325°. If using a charcoal grill, place the soaked wood chips directly on the hot charcoals. If using a gas grill, place the wood chips in a smoking box and set into the grill according to product directions.
Squeeze and rub 1 lemon half over each rack of ribs. Sprinkle the ribs liberally with the spice rub, then let them sit at room temperature for 15 minutes.
Place the ribs, bone-side down, in the center of the cooking grate, or in a rib holder or rack. Grill, covered, for 2 to 3 hours, or until the meat is tender and has pulled back from the ends of the rib bones. Begin checking the ribs after 1½ hours in case your grill is running hot.
Leave the ribs unattended and without opening the grill cover for the first 30 minutes. If the ribs start to burn at the edges, stack them on top of one another in the very center of the grill and lower the heat slightly. Ten minutes before serving, brush the ribs with barbecue sauce, if using.
Remove the ribs from the grill and place them on a clean platter. Let them rest for 10 minutes before cutting into individual portions.
Yield: 8 servings