Nothing signals the approach of summer more than the smell of barbecue wafting through the backyard. My family's hands down favorite barbecue treat is ribs, but not just any ribs. Our ribs require multiple steps including a spice rub, overnight refrigeration and several hours of cooking over low heat. A bit of effort, yes, but worth it without question.
When you think of ribs do you think of pork baby backs slathered in sweet barbecue sauce, meaty St. Louis-style, or extra large beef ribs? Whether you boil, bake, broil or grill there is one basic objective: produce a tender and flavorful rib.
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Ribs, no matter the variety, are full of fat and connective tissue that if not treated properly, will yield a stringy, tough end product. In order to break down connective tissue and achieve a tender and flavorful result, ribs must be cooked "low and slow," or in low heat for a long time, similar to how you cook pork shoulder for pulled pork.
I have had success by grilling my ribs and by using a combination of braising and grilling. The outcomes are different, though equally excellent, and both methods start with a rub.
My favorite rub is a blend of recipes I received from friends, Jim and Bridget Couch, via our church cookbook, and a rub developed by the Food Network's Alton Brown. It starts with brown sugar and salt, along with a variety of spices and a little heat. The recipe contains a lengthy list of ingredients and can be easily adapted if you prefer more/less salt or different herbs. Plus, you can make a double batch that if properly stored will last you all summer.
Alton Brown suggests making a "rub shaker" out of a quart Mason jar, two lids and a jar ring. Carefully poke holes using a can opener in one lid to create the shaker part of your jar, place rub in jar, top with shaker lid, regular lid and jar ring. When you want to use the jar as a shaker simply remove the regular lid and reattach the shaker lid and ring -- apply rub and reassemble jar, tightly securing the ring. The homemade shaker will keep your rub fresh and dry until you need it again.
Why use a rub? Seasoning seems somewhat obvious, but there are other benefits. Salt initially draws out moisture, but if you let it rest long enough (overnight is best) some of the moisture then dissolves the salt and acts like a marinade pulling flavor from the rub back into the meat. Sugar will caramelize when grilled and form a crust to help seal in flavor.
Simply rinse and dry your ribs, and then sprinkle them with a good layer of rub, pressing the rub into the meat to ensure a good coating. Now the hard part -- don't give into the temptation to cook them right away. Refrigerating them overnight is worth the wait, although I have been known to skip this step when crunched for time and know I am sacrificing some flavor.
Whether you use a moist or dry cooking method, cook your ribs "low and slow" and you will not be disappointed with the results. It is your choice to add barbecue sauce or not, but I like it particularly when using moist cooking. My favorite sauce to accompany this rub comes from the kitchen of my good friend and former Cook of the Week, Donna Penyak, who notes it can be spicy, or not, depending on how much cayenne pepper you add, so adjust the heat based on your own preference.
While this rub does great with ribs, don't limit yourself to using it on ribs alone; it goes well with almost any meat. Look for ways to create your own rub using your favorite spices and level of sweetness, or try the seemingly limitless variety available in stores. You won't be disappointed.
• Penny Kazmier, a wife and mother of four from South Barrington, won the Daily Herald's 2011 Cook of the Week Challenge.