Shopping for Baby Back Ribs
October 25, 2006 10:54 AM   Subscribe

What to look for in a rib? Baby-back, that is. Help me crush the competition...

I've been (not against my will) roped into a "rib-off" with my neighbors on either side. Ever since I (as a comparative amateur against two very good cooks, one of whom owns a restaurant) won the Super Bowl Chili Cookoff, they're out to topple me.

I'm using this recipe from Gourmet, but I realize as a rib novice, I don't know anything about shopping for baby-backs. What should I look for? Are there "grades" the way ground beef is sold by leanness? While my neighbors both have smokers (and fancy hardwood charcoals), I'll be forced to rely on my trusty Weber gas grille, so I need to make sure I counter any prep issues that may create.

Bonus points for your favorite butcher/meat supplier in the Boston area -
posted by jalexei to Food & Drink (12 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Here's a transcript of the rib episode of Good Eats where he talks a bit about the different types of ribs and what to look for.

You can do decent ribs on a gas grill. Just soak some wood chips for a couple of hours and put them in a metal pie pan sitting over the burners. You're probably not going to beat out an expert pit boss with a real smoker, but if this is just a casual cook-off you might stand a chance.

Don't worry too much about finding the best ribs you can. Not for this contest anyway. BJ's and CostCo both have decent (meaning "good enough") ribs and Whole Foods of course will have some nice vegan-hippie-pig free range ribs. Avoid Stop and Shop, their meat usually sucks.

Not sure about butcher shops. Go to Savenore's on Charles street and get yourself some camel ribs or spotted owl kabobs.

Be patient. Cook them low and slow. As slow as you can. When the meat has receded from the bone about 1/4 inch and you can pull a bone right off the meat, they're done. Give 'em very quick turn on high heat at the end to caramelize the outside.

A really good sauce will go a long way towards winning over casual rib eaters, since they'll be looking for overall flavor and not taking a microscope to your rub to make sure you only used fresh ground cumin.

In addition to the ribs, use other quality ingredients. Grind your own spices, use some quality cider vinegar, etc.

Good luck. Is this open to the public? MeFi meat-up, perhaps?
posted by bondcliff at 11:17 AM on October 25, 2006

Can't help with the cut, but I do have some advice from years as an observer of a very intense annual rib-off. When cooking on the grill (they're always better if slow cooked first), cut them into individual ribs and baste again with your sauce. This way you get 360 degree sauce action, very important. Only works for saucy ribs though.
posted by dripdripdrop at 11:18 AM on October 25, 2006

(and like all foods that people are passionate about, someone five posts down will tell me I'm high and I couldn't possibly make ribs that don't suck and their way is The Only Way, etc.)
posted by bondcliff at 11:19 AM on October 25, 2006

Try and catch Alton Brown - "A Rib for All Seasons" on the food network, if not, go to and search there. Or check
posted by Monkey0nCrack at 11:33 AM on October 25, 2006

looks like bondcliff beat me to it. One thing is for sure, get to know your butcher!
posted by Monkey0nCrack at 11:35 AM on October 25, 2006

one advice: if you are buying beef, make sure to get 'prime' or 'choice' grade, not 'select.' you probably won't find prime easily, but costco happens to have choice, usually.
posted by lester's sock puppet at 12:01 PM on October 25, 2006

Two things that will help make them REALLY tender is to flip them over prior to anything, and remove the thin membrane on the bottom...and to steam them in beer!

I cook ribs almost weekly....never had anything but high fives.

Try different ideas, sometimes i do a dry rub instead of a sauce....

look at Korean Style ribs....

Consider a Caribbean style sauce...
posted by keep it tight at 12:37 PM on October 25, 2006

I have a question about Alton Brown's recipe - when I've done it, the resulting sauce from cooking down the dripping is so salty that it really isn't usable. I've tried cutting the salt in half in the rub and still I end up with something that is really too salty. Maybe I'm cooking it down too much?
posted by plinth at 12:42 PM on October 25, 2006

Plinth...I have had the experience as well on a few occasions and the last time I made it, the sauce was heaven. I think my past foibles were due to not using Kosher salt (i.e. I was using too much normal salt) and the rub wasn't properly mixed.

It should also be noted that Alton's recipe is for braised/baked ribs which isn't the samething as BBQ (which is cooking the meat over the smoke produced from a burning hardwood). Some people are purists and other people (like me) think you can get yummy results either way...its just different.
posted by mmascolino at 12:58 PM on October 25, 2006

I've always used pork baby back ribs (note that many stores often call then pork loin back ribs.) I've experimented with beef ribs and spareribs, but these are the best.

Look for ribs that have a good bit of marbling, but not large chunks of fat. If they do have big pieces of fat, trim it off or you'll end up with greasy ribs.

You already have a recipe, but a few days ago a friend asked me for mine and, since it's all typed up, I'll just stick it here for anyone else who might be interested. The technique is failsafe and produces to-die-for results.

Liberally season the tops and bottoms of the ribs with salt, black pepper, and barbecue seasoning. McCormick makes a good bottled seasoning and I've also used Emeril's essence and Emeri's pork rub... they're all pretty similar, so I don't think the particular brand is terribly important. Just be careful not to use anything with a lot of sugar-- it'll make the meat burn.

Next, wrap the ribs in foil. Reynold's makes extra-wide foil that's great for this. It's going to be kind of hard to explain how to do this in text, but I'll try! Basically, lay the ribs (one rack per sheet) in the center of a big strip of foil. Then bring the two long edges up to meet and roll them down together, like you'd roll a brown paper lunch bag. Then gather the other two ends and fold them in. That's just how I was shown to do it... really, the point is just to make sure they're sealed as tightly as possible so the steam doesn't leak out.

Then, lay the ribs on cookie sheets and put them in a pre-heated 250 degree oven for about three hours. (The foil packages will almost definitely leak, no matter how well you seal them, so it might be a good idea to line the cookie sheets.) The cooking time will depend on how fatty the cut of meat is. You'll know they're done when the meat has pulled back from the ends of the bones about half an inch.

After the ribs are cooked, take them out, open the packages and cover them with a thin layer of barbecue sauce. I've tried making the sauce from scratch but, honestly, it tastes almost exactly like the bottled stuff-- definitely not one of the things that's worth the extra effort to make from scratch. Let the sauce sit on the hot ribs for about five minutes, then put them back in the oven, under a low broiler. Watch closely, since the sugar in the sauce will scorch! When the sauce just starts to bubble, put on another, thicker layer. Broil until this just starts to bubble. Then you're done!
posted by chickletworks at 2:39 PM on October 25, 2006

IMHO, the best commercial sauce is Sweet Baby Ray's.
posted by sourwookie at 4:48 PM on October 25, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone (and my mouth is watering) - Looks like pork ribs from Whole Foods, (with marbling tips from chickletworks) and I may base the recipe on the Gourmet one with a few secret additions inspired by the responses above and the Good Eats transcript. And I've had the Sweet Baby Ray's sauce - very good.
posted by jalexei at 6:55 PM on October 25, 2006

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