Regional barbecue enthusiasts will argue every point of America's only original culinary art form—from meat choice to recipes to wood fuels to acceptable side dishes—but when they gather for great cook-off contests, pork ribs always seem to join the party. That's because everyone can agree that they are not only a pretty fair test of the art, but they benefit mightily from the long bath in smoke that defines true barbecue.
Baby back ribs are my favorite, and it's a crime to cook the succulent little devils any other way than low and slow with smoke and spice. Time and smoke tenderize the meat as well as flavor it through and through. That means indirect cooking—not over the flame, which is grilling. Ideally, the meat should sit in a grill surrounded by smoke at the target level (about 180 degrees) you want the meat to reach. That's impractical, however, for noncompetition cooking, as most backyard grills won't cook that low and it requires plenty of patience (it could take 12 hours).
Happily, standard grills can turn out good ribs within more realistic temperature and time parameters (say three to six hours). The trick is to keep the heat down and the smoke coming. Good old charcoal works pretty well in this capacity as it smolders for long periods at medium heat. Jamie Purviance's excellent cookbook Weber's Charcoal Grilling (www.weber.com, $19.95) provides detailed instructions on cooking baby back ribs and controlling heat in a charcoal grill. Lobel's butchers (www.lobels.com) sells the tender Kurobuto ribs and now has a book, Prime Time Grilling (Wiley, $27.95) that explains the cut and how to prepare it.
I prefer burning wood chips on a gas grill, as they are much smokier and offer great temperature control without the wait time of charcoal. You need a wood-chip box (some grills come with them) that sits over the flame. Then keep the ribs at the other end of the grill so the smoke wafts by. Locker-style grills like the one from Vermont Castings (www.vermontcastings.com) are great for this since the flame is well removed from the meat.
Recipes are a matter of taste, but dry spices are the best marinades. Let your guests apply any candied wet sauces after you're done because they will caramelize, burn and harden on the ribs if applied beforehand. Remember, no sauce will save a badly cooked rib. As any cigar enthusiast knows, it's all about the smoke.