Classic Fourth of July BBQ: Baby Back Ribs

Something that might have occurred to readers of this blog: In addition to loving all sorts of fried foods, Will and I enjoy using the grill as much as possible.  In fact, we’ve gotten quite creative for our uses of the grill: we use the rotisserie for whole chickens, lay a cast-iron griddle on the grill to get the juiciest burgers, put a mesh basket on to grill small pieces of kebabs, take advantage of the side burner to fry fish (so as not to stink up the inside of our condo).  And, of course, we also cook food actually, directly, on the grill!

One of our favorite summer meals—and one that announces summer holiday weekend! like few others—is baby-back ribs.  This is no quick char-it-on-the-grill-last-minute kind of meal. It definitely takes some planning and advance notice, but we would never go through an entire summer without at least one long-weekend rib dinner for Memorial Day, Labor Day, or, of course, Fourth of July.

Here is a preparation guideline to help you plan your big day:

Step 1: Procure your meat; remove the lining, wash and pat dry, and apply the rub.

Especially if you get your meat from the store—and not from a butcher who might respond to special requests—you would likely need to tear off the thin (and often tough) membrane lining on the underside of the ribs.  Some parts will be papery, others will seem fatty like sausage skin, and still other parts will seem like very persistent tape stuck on your meat.  Whatever kind it is, you need to tear it off unless you want to feed everybody some very tough ribs.

Then wash and pat dry your ribs before applying the rub.  As you know, we follow Steven Raichlen on most barbecue-related matters, and this time is no different.  While we do not choose to apply the “wet mop” (a little too vinegary for our tastes), we do religiously rub on the dry spices he recommends.  (Here’s a link to the whole recipe:

Don’t fuss about not having all the spices since some of them can be substituted or even skipped without hugely diminishing the flavor of your ribs.  If you only have light brown sugar or smoked paprika, that’s not a problem.  Especially for the spices you need in smaller quantities—like celery salt, cayenne pepper, garlic powder, dry mustard, and ground cumin—you can use your judgment and your own tastes about what will and will not be a deal (meal)-breaker.  For me, I’d sooner skip celery salt and dry mustard before foregoing cayenne pepper, garlic power, or cumin.  After you rub on the spices, let the meat rest in the refrigerator (4-8 hours, or overnight) while you get everything else ready.

Step 2: Bake your dessert.

If you are not lucky enough to use a grill for the ribs, you will need to make sure that your oven is free for your main course.  Even if you don’t need the oven for the ribs, it’s a good idea to get your dessert baked and done with.  A pie should be cooled enough to have thickened all the juices anyway, so giving yourself a few hours to prepare, bake, and cool the pie is altogether a good idea.

Obviously, apple pie is a traditional favorite for this holiday.  Cherry pie is tasty too. For the meal pictured, we decided to go with a Raspberry Rhubarb Crostata with a whole wheat crust.  (Click here for the Bon Appetit recipe:  Will thought that the dough seemed a bit more wet than it ought to be, and we didn’t want to risk the crust splitting open and spilling the fruit all over the hot oven.  So we opted to place the crust in a large round casserole-type dish.  It becomes an easy way to make a free-form crust for a pie.  Try it that way!

Step 3: Start your grill, start your ribs.

Though traditionalists swear by a charcoal grill (it gets hotter, smokier, more flavorful), we have a gas grill and find the convenience outweighs the small bit of loss in flavor of that choice.  So we preheat the grill at high and then lower it to medium heat once we are ready to cook.  Throw on the ribs meat-side up, close the grill, and cook for about 1½ hours, checking periodically to make sure that there are no major flare-ups or that the meat is cooking too fast or slowly.

Step 4: Make your creamy cole slaw.

We like potato salad, but it’s definitely cole slaw we choose to accompany ribs.  In the south, vinegary cole slaw is preferred with ribs, but we make our slaw creamy.  Really, no recipe is required.  Shred green cabbage very fine with a sharp knife (I opt for this, but you can shred it in the food processor).  Finely julienne a carrot or two.  If you have red cabbage as well, you can shred a bit of that too—for additional color.  No other veggies.  No onion, no green pepper, etc.  Just cabbage and carrots.

In a separate bowl, combine mayonnaise, a bit of white vinegar, some sugar, salt, and pepper (optional) until you like the taste and the consistency (which should be fairly thick still).  Add mixture to the shredded veggies and combine well.  Taste for seasoning and adjust accordingly.  Put your slaw in the refrigerator for at least one hour for flavors to meld.  Before serving, check for seasoning again and adjust.  You should find that the flavors change as the slaw rests, and that the mixture will become a bit more liquidy as well.

Step 5: Heat up baked beans, barbecue sauce, and eat!

We are almost ready to eat, and there are only a few simple steps remaining.  Final sprinkling of the dry-rub spices to turn up the flavor for the last 10-15 minutes of cooking time.  We love the flavor of the dry-rubbed ribs, but some people think “barbecue” means barbecue sauce.  A good compromise is to heat up a portion of barbecue sauce and serve it on the side.

You can bake your own beans if you’d like, but Bush’s has a large variety of excellent beans not worth challenging when you are preparing the rest of the meal.  So we open up a large can of beans, and heat.  Now, we are ready to eat.

Happy Holiday weekend!


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