Introduction: Awesome BBQ Ribs

About: Astronomer, artist, electronics hobbyist, writer and foodie.

I am a huge fan of barbecue ribs but haven't found a place locally that makes them the way I like them. So using a bit of kitchen chemistry and my background working as a cook in my 20s, I decided I'd make my own.

Good ribs need three separate recipes: a rub, a mop and a sauce. I like to think of it like three part harmony in music.  

Step 1: The Rub

The rub gives the ribs their initial flavor. The first time you try this recipe, stick pretty close to the original. Then you can try improvising and let me know what you do differently so I can try it, too.

The Rub:
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. onion powder
½ tsp. fresh ground black pepper
½ tsp. sweet basil
1 tsp. paprika
½ tsp. cumin
½ tsp. chipotle chili powder
½ tsp. cayenne pepper
Large pinch nutmeg

Place two racks (4 to 6 pounds) of baby back pork ribs on a large baking sheet covered with plastic wrap. Sprinkle the entire mixture, coating both sides of the ribs.

Wrap tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour before grilling.

Step 2: The Mop

A mop in a barbecue recipe is a mixture to help keep the ribs from drying out during grilling and to add additional flavor. Because this recipe combines oils and water based flavorings, blending them helps keep them mixed long enough to get through the grilling process. I use a stick blender and it emulsifies the mixture nicely.

The Mop:
1 tbsp. olive oil
2 tbsp. canola oil
2 tbsp. water
¼ tsp. fresh ground black pepper
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 tbsp. brown sugar

Blend all ingredients. Keep this by the barbecue and brush on ribs throughout the cooking to keep the meat from drying as it cooks.

Step 3: The Sauce

This is where the ribs will get their final flavor. Many people like vinegar or mustard based sauces but I grew up in the West where barbecue sauce had ketchup and molasses for a base. 

Barbecue sauces should have a blend of sweetness, tanginess, savoriness and spiciness. This has to be a careful balance because we don't want one flavor to overwhelm everything else. This recipe is the end result of nearly 20 years of experimentation.

The Sauce:
¾ cup tomato ketchup (or catsup or whatever you call it)
½ cup molasses
1 tsp. curry powder
1/8 tsp. fresh ground black pepper
¼ tsp. sweet basil
1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 clove garlic, finely minced
½ medium onion, finely chopped

Mix all the ingredients in a non-metal container. I usually just mix it in the measuring cup after I put in the ketchup and molasses. There should be enough for basting the ribs twice with some left over for dipping sauce.

Check the kitchen science section below for some background on barbecue sauces and some cooking tips.

Step 4: Bringing It All Together

Now it's time to bring it all together.

Make sure your grilling surface is as clean as possible. Before starting, give it a light coating of canola oil. The Kitchen Science section below explains why.

I don't grill with gas. If you do, that's fine and you can skip down a bit. But if I wanted to cook with gas, I'd do this on the stove indoors.

My barbecue is equipped with a thermometer that lets me know when it's the right temperature. If your grill gets too hot, close the vents slightly to limit the amount of oxygen that can get to the charcoal. If it gets too cool, open the vents wide. This is one of two ways you can regulate the temperature inside your barbecue.

Start with the ribs concave side down. The coals should be as close to the grill as possible. In my grill, I raise the charcoal platform to the top stop. With some barbecues, you'll lower the grill.

Close the barbecue and allow the ribs to cook undisturbed for 10 minutes. After that time, flip the ribs, close the grill and allow to cook undisturbed for another 10 minutes. Yes, there's more Kitchen Science involved here.

Now lower the coals (or raise the grill) to allow the ribs to slow cook. Baste both sides of the ribs with the mop. Make sure all surfaces are covered. 

Turn the ribs every 15 minutes, basting both sides each time. Continue until the internal temperature is 165 to 170 degrees. When measuring the temperature, make sure the thermometer isn't touching bone. It's tricky but it can be done.

Once this temperature has been reached, baste both sides of the ribs with sauce. Close the grill and allow to cook for 5 minutes. Baste and flip the ribs one last time and allow to cook for 5 more minutes.

Remove the ribs from the grill and allow to cool for 5 minutes before cutting. Yes, there's some kitchen science involved here, too.

Step 5: Kitchen Science

Preparing the grill: canola oil has a higher smoke point than most other cooking oils. It will keep the ribs from sticking to the grill and make cleanup easier.

The first 20 minutes: this process sears the outer surface of the ribs to help seal in moisture.

Resting the ribs: allowing any meat to sit for five minutes before cutting it will allow the fibers in the meat to reabsorb moisture. If you cut the meat before that resting time, those juices will wind up on your plate instead of in the meat. The next time you get dry pot roast or turkey, look on the carving platter and you might see what I mean (other things can dry out the meat, too).

Sauce #1: the acids in the vinegar and tomatoes in ketchup act as natural meat tenderizers.

Sauce #2: when preparing fresh garlic, cut the clove in half before chopping it. If there is a green shoot starting to emerge, pull it out. This will keep the garlic from being bitter.

Sauce #3: unless your food processor has a magic setting that mine doesn't, I don't recommend using one to chop onions. Every time I've tried this, I wind up with pulpy onion juice. If you have a method that works, please share it in the comments.

Overall #1: I can't overstate the importance of cleanliness, especially when dealing with raw meat. I mixed all my ingredients and put the spices away before I even opened the packaging for the ribs. This can help minimize the risk of cross contamination. While the ribs were cooking, I thoroughly cleaned the baking sheet so I could use it to move the ribs from the grill to the kitchen.

Overall #2: don't even think of trying this recipe if you don't have an accurate and reliable meat thermometer. Undercooked meat can cause you all kinds of problems. Besides, if you cook the ribs to the recommended temperature, they won't be overcooked and dry.

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