If you’re like me, you were pleasantly surprised when you remembered we’re heading into a 3-day Labor Day Weekend. So what are you going to do with that extra 24 hours you just gained? How about enjoying the last warm days of summer outside with your grill and some family and friends eating these yummy baby-back ribs. Total time to prepare is 24 hours, but actual work time is far less. And the pay off is worth it. My niece was not eating pork at one point, and actually started eating it again just to devour these ribs. Just saying, they are that good.
Let me clarify our definition of “perfect” baby back ribs. We think they are perfectly cooked when they are tender but still firm, not falling off the bone. But not chewy when you bite into them. This method produced exactly that. If you are used to eating your ribs with the meat falling off the bone, try them this way – you’ll be glad you did.
Our method is years in the tweaking and started out from two recipes found on Epicurious from the famous barbecue expert, Steve Raichlen. One is his basic barbecue rub which we only mildly tweaked and the other is his Sweet and Smoky Baby Back Ribs with Bourbon Barbecue Sauce. His recipe is on a charcoal grill. Our directions are for a gas grill.
- 4 full racks of baby back ribs – will feed up to 12 people
- about 1 cup of bourbon – a little less or more is fine
- 1/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
- 1/4 cup sweet paprika (or smoked would be nice as well)
- 3 tblsp black pepper
- 3 tblsp coarse salt (such as kosher)
- 1 tblsp hickory-smoked salt or more coarse salt
- 2 tsps garlic powder
- 2 tsps onion powder
- 2 tsps cayenne powder (less if you are not into a bit of spicy)
- smoker chips
- barbecue sauce of your choosing – we like to stick with the bourbon theme and use Jack Daniel’s brand
Preparing the Racks
First, I buy my ribs at a butcher counter where they will remove the membrane on the back of the ribs – saves time at home. If you buy your ribs pre-packaged, perhaps at Costco, be sure to find and remove the membrane on the back of the rack. It’s not hard to do and it is necessary for tenderness and ease of cutting.
Marinate in Bourbon
When I am ready to marinate them in the bourbon, I cut each rib rack in half – it’s easier for handling later on. To marinate in the bourbon, you could place a couple split racks in a plastic bag and pour the bourbon over and then lay flat on a sheet pan or roasting pan. I wrapped a couple at a time in heavy duty foil, then re-used the foil for the pre-baking. A little juice seeped out when I turned them over but it didn’t matter. We let them sit in the bourbon in the refrigerator for a few hours or overnight, turning them once or twice to distribute the juices.
Prepare the Rub
Meanwhile, you can make the rub. Just combine all of the rub ingredients in a bowl, mixing it up well with your hands or fork, making sure you combine completely and remove any clumps of brown sugar. This mixture can stay on your kitchen counter covered until you need it. The rub recipe was enough for 4 full racks of baby back ribs, which fed 9 people with lots of leftovers so could probably feed 12 people easily.
Rub the Ribs
When the ribs are done marinating in the bourbon, pour off the extra liquid and then rub them all over with the rub mixture. Put them back in the tin foil and let them “marinate” for a few hours. Steve Raichlen recommends one hour – I’ve let them sit in the refrigerator for as long as overnight but usually for just a few hours until I am ready to pre-cook the ribs in the oven.
Pre-cook the Ribs
Before they go out to the gas barbecue, we pre-cook the ribs in the oven, wrapped in the foil for 1 hour at 300 degrees convection. If you don’t have a convection oven, 1 hour at 325 degrees should do the trick.
When they are done pre-cooking, take them out and hand the reins over to the person in the family with the barbecue gene. In our house, that is @dormantchef. Here’s how he finished the cooking on the barbecue:
The Barbecue Part
About an hour before he’s ready to bbq, he soaks the chips he’s using to create smoke in some water or bourbon. The best ones we’ve tried are the Jack Daniels wood smoker chips but you can try other brands and types to your liking. When he’s ready to start cooking, he places the chips in the smoker tray of the gas grill.
Total time on the barbecue is about 2.5 – 3 hours. Most of the cooking is indirect but he starts with the bbq on high and sears the ribs briefly all over. Then he turns off one side of the grill, and turns the other side to medium to medium low, placing a pan of water on the bread rack to create some moisture. The ribs remain on the no-heat side, and he rotates the ribs every 20 minutes for about 2 to 2 1/2 hours until tender. Then he turns the heat back up to high for about 20 minutes to brown the ribs again. Then back down to medium to start brushing with sauce for about the last 1/2 hour. The exact timing and heat settings will depend on your grill. The ribs are done when they are very tender but offer some resistance when you bite them; the meat should easily pull off the bone. The sauce should caramelize without burning; the ribs should be moist but not runny.
What sauce to use – you can certainly make your own, starting out by trying Steve Raichlen’s recipe. We have chosen over the years to try any number of different sauces, but end up using Jack Daniel’s barbecue sauce, combining the regular and spicy.
Our ribs turned out tender, juicy, flavorful and worth every bit of effort we put into the process. The rub is spicy but not overpowering or over-salty so you can taste the layer of rub when you bite into the rib and then get another hit of flavor from the barbecue sauce you used as well. And the ribs were so easy to eat and serve. Because the meat was not falling off the bone, we were able to cut them up into single pieces, making the time to mouth for the diners very quick, which was appreciated by all.
Enjoy your extra 24 hours this weekend and let me know what your favorite Labor Day food tradition is at your house.