Whole hog may be the big show and brisket is definitely the toughest to cook (in more ways than one). Drumsticks and pizza and seafood are fun. But the entrée that every backyard warrior who pretends to the title of barbecue smoker should be able to make is a rack (probably many racks) of delectable pork ribs.
You might have heard of barbecue competitors who slowly smoke their baby-back ribs for six to eight hours, and your local smoke bistro may brag of going to such length, but the good news is you can achieve blissful ribs at home in a fraction of the time.
The key is mastering your equipment. If you’re not an accomplished smoker, you probably cook on a grill, not a true barbecue (something designed for slow’n’low smoking). Therefore—whether you’re cooking with gas, charcoal or electricity—you must slow the process down by reducing the temperature and distancing the ribs from the heat source.
First you need smoke. Soak wood chips (I prefer hickory, but this is a source of regional bickering—choose your favorite) in water for about 15 minutes. Procure a cast-iron smoker box or simply make a tent out of aluminum foil and place the chips inside. Start a fire (or light a burner) on one end of your grill and place the chips over it.
In prepping the meat, forget sauces. They go on after the ribs are done. Otherwise, their sugars will char the outside. Instead start with a dry rub, a tangy powder of herbs and spices. (A basic mixture is one part paprika to one part brown sugar, with other accents. Read America’s Best BBQ Homestyle by Ardie A. Davis and Paul Kirk for creative ideas.) Cut the rib racks down to size if need be and liberally cover with rub.
Once the chips start to smoke, place the meat on the grill as far from the heat source as possible and keep the fire as low as you can. The trick is to let the smoke—not the flames—do the cooking. If you can keep the temperature down to 275°F, you should be able to cook ribs through in about three hours. It’s hard to judge rib doneness since you can’t stick a thermometer into the rack as you would with a roast. Instead you have to eyeball and do a little cutting into the ribs between the bones to check for tenderness. If the ribs fall off the bones, you’ve achieved nirvana.