- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The world of barbecue is ecumenical enough to include Jamaican jerk, Javanese sate and Japanese teriyaki, not to mention Texas brisket, North Carolina pulled pork and even Seattle alder-smoked salmon. There’s one dish that just about everyone agrees is quintessential barbecue, and it’s the one dish just about everyone on my PBS television show “Barbecue University” wants help making: ribs.

You know what I’m talking about: a meaty rack of ribs, speckled with spice, scented with wood smoke, basted with barbecue sauce and lustrous as an Old Master canvas. The sort of ribs that are tender but not too tender.

A rib should have some chew to it. They should be moist but never soggy. Judging by the sheer diversity in ribs — from Memphis dry rub pork ribs to Korean kalbi kui (grilled short ribs); from Texas dinosaur bones (beef ribs) to Australian spice-rubbed lamb ribs — they are universal in their popularity. Yet how to prepare perfect ribs is a matter of near endless debate.

For some, the process involves direct grilling over a bed of coals. (This is the preferred method at the famed rib restaurant Rendezvous in Memphis.) For others it involves smoking over low heat for the better part of an afternoon in a pit fired with hickory or other hardwood. Europeans like to spit-roast ribs on the rotisserie, a ritual also followed in Brazil.

Then there are the various preliminary techniques and heresies:

Do you peel a rib? Yes.

Should you parboil or bake it? Definitely not, unless you want to serve mush, not meat.

Do you use a dry rub? Sometimes.

A marinade? Sometimes.

Barbecue sauce? Only at the end.

What about smoke? Is it really necessary? (Yes, if you’re trying to achieve the complex flavor of traditional American barbecue, although in many parts of the world, wood smoke is not part of the barbecue tradition.)

This invariably leads to another of the age-old debates: charcoal, wood or gas? Well, I’ve just spent a year writing a book on ribs (“Raichlen on Ribs,” Workman), so I know it’s impossible to cover all the fine points of rib-making in a couple of paragraphs. I can offer seven secrets for making great ribs this Memorial Day. I can even include a recipe that’s as close to fail-proof as possible.

• Choose the right rib. Ribs comes from hogs, steers, lamb, veal and even bison, and from each animal there are multiple cuts, ranging from spareribs to short ribs to rib tips. If I must pick only one, I’d take pork baby back ribs, which weigh in at around 2 to 2 1/2 pounds per rack. The meat is exceptionally tender and well marbled (fat equals flavor), and the even rectangular shape of the rack makes for even cooking and equitable serving.

• Peel the ribs before cooking. On the back of a rack of ribs there is a papery membrane. (Your local rib joint may not be taking the time to do this.) The membrane impedes absorption of the spices and smoke flavors, and it’s tougher than the rest of the meat. To remove it, place the ribs, bone side up, on a work surface and insert a slender implement, such as a butter knife or the tip of a meat thermometer, between the membrane and one of the ribs. Pry it up from the bone. Then using a dishcloth or paper towel to get a secure grip, gently pull off the membrane.

• Season the ribs. The seasoning can be as simple as salt and pepper or your favorite barbecue rub, or as complex as an Indian tandoori marinade. When using dry seasonings, you can cook the ribs immediately (although you’ll get a richer flavor if you let them cure in the refrigerator for a few hours). When using a marinade, let the ribs marinate for 3 to 4 hours in the refrigerator.

• Light the grill. Sorry, all you gas grill fans out there. Truly great ribs need to be smoked, and this is infinitely easier to do over charcoal than on a gas grill. I like to cook baby back ribs using a technique called smoke roasting. In a grill set up for indirect grilling (coals raked into 2 mounds at opposite sides, aluminum foil drip pan in the center), preheat the grill to medium (325 to 350 degrees). This is hotter that the temperature used by the low and slow boys in Kansas City and Texas, but for me, the higher temperature produces a crisper, moister rib. To smoke the ribs, soak 1 cups hickory, cherry or other hardwood chips in water to cover for 1 hour, then drain. Toss half of these chips on each mound of coals.

• If cooking a lot of ribs, use a rib rack. This device looks a bit like an English toast holder and it enables you to cook 4 racks of ribs in an upright position in the space in which only two racks would lay flat. Many companies make rib racks. I do, too.

• Apply the sauce at the end. If you plan to use barbecue sauce, apply it during the last 5 minutes of cooking, just before serving or on the side. If you put it on at the beginning, the sugar in the sauce will burn before the rib meat is fully cooked. One of my favorite techniques is to brush the sauce on just before serving and move the ribs directly over the fire to sizzle the sauce into the meat.

• Know how to tell when ribs are cooked. Check the ends of the bones. When the meat has pulled back about 1/4 inch, the rib is generally cooked. Another test is to try to pull two bones apart. The meat should be tender enough to tear, but not so tender it falls off the bone.

One of my favorite rib recipes follows: a barbecue variation on the shiny, dark red, candy sweet, soy and salty spare ribs you get at Chinese restaurants. The twist here is that the ribs are smoked. To make these ribs you must have two special ingredients, but both are available in the Asian sections of many supermarkets, as well as in Asian markets.

Five-spice powder is a sweet licorice-like blend of fennel, star anise, cinnamon, cloves and pepper. Hoisin sauce is a sweet condiment made from soy beans, sugar and star anise. (Good brands of the latter include Koon Chun and Lee Kum Kee.) This recipe calls for more marinade than you actually need, so save the excess and serve it as barbecue sauce with Chinatown ribs or any number of dishes. After you taste it, you’ll be happy you have a little extra.

Chinatown ribs

This recipe has been adapted from “Raichlen on Ribs.” This recipe involves smoke-roasting, which is indirect grilling with wood smoke.

1 cup hoisin sauce

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder

1/2 cup soy sauce

1/3 cup Chinese rice wine, white wine or dry sherry

3 tablespoons Asian (dark) sesame oil

5 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed with the side of a cleaver or a broad knife

5 slices ginger (each 1/4-inch thick), peeled and crushed with the side of a cleaver or a broad knife

3 scallions, white part bruised with the side of a cleaver, green part minced and reserved for optional garnish

2 racks of baby back ribs (4 to 5 pounds)

Oil for greasing grill grate

1 1/2 cups wood chips or chunks (preferably cherry), soaked for 1 hour in water to cover, then drained.

To make the marinade-sauce, place hoisin sauce, sugar and five-spice powder in a nonreactive mixing bowl and whisk to mix. Add soy sauce; rice wine, white wine or sherry; and sesame oil, and whisk until sugar dissolves. Stir in garlic, ginger and bruised scallion.

Peel ribs as described above. Place in a nonreactive baking dish just large enough to hold them. Pour 2/3 of the marinade over ribs, turning to coat both sides, spreading marinade all over ribs with a rubber spatula. Reserve remaining marinade for serving.

Cover ribs and marinate in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours, or as long as overnight. (The longer they are marinated, the richer the flavor.) Ribs can also be marinated in large resealable plastic bags.

Set up grill for indirect grilling and preheat to medium. Brush and oil grill grate. Drain ribs well and arrange on grate, bone side down, over drip pan away from heat.

Toss half the wood chips on each mound of coals. Cover grill and cook ribs until dark brown and very crisp on the outside, yet tender enough to pull apart with your fingers, 11/4 to 1 1/2 hours. Replenish coals as needed. When ribs are cooked, the meat will have shrunk back from the ends of the bones by about 1/4 inch.

Meanwhile, transfer reserved marinade to a saucepan and gently simmer for 3 minutes over medium heat. Let cool to room temperature, then strain it into a serving bowl. Transfer ribs to a large platter or cutting board and cut the racks in half widthwise, or into individual ribs. Brush or drizzle ribs with some of the reserved marinade/sauce and sprinkle with reserved scallion greens. Serve immediately.

Makes 4 servings.

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