Each cook has a favorite barbeque recipe, whether for chicken, ribs or pulled beef or pork. The secret to the successful finish to barbeque, however, lies not in the preparation or the sauce but in the cooking. Boiling ribs before cooking has become a commonly accepted practice by many cooks, but it was not always so and need not be today.
The Role of Water
Par-boiling, or dropping ribs in barely boiling water for three to four minutes before cooking, accomplishes two objectives. It removes some of the surface fat from ribs that have a high fat content and it loosens the inner skin that should be removed before grilling. Unfortunately, par-boiling also affects the flavor and texture of the meat. Simmering ribs for an hour or more may shorten their cooking time on the grill, but it also can make pork soup out of the water, rendering the ribs tasteless except for the sauce that is slathered across them. Braising, a gentler approach, sets a pan of water underneath a rack of ribs as they cook to catch fat and keep them moist.
Irma Rombauer suggests par-boiling ribs before cooking in the classic “Joy of Cooking,” but the authors of the iconic “Doubleday Cookbook” suggest marinades for most barbeques. Weber-Stephens, a manufacturer of charcoal and gas barbeque grills, and operators of a chain of restaurants bearing their name, come down firmly on the side of braising and slow-cooking. Whether the ribs for the holiday grill-out should touch water depends on knowledge of the basics, time and personal preference.
Marinades and Rubs
Meat often sits in the grocer’s case with water added. Heat releases water and the fat that is held in place by connective tissue as it breaks down. Marinades, with their acidic bases, help begin to break down connective tissue on the surface of the meat. On thin spare ribs, a soak in an acidic marinade or period spent sealed in a salt-and -sugar-based dry rub tenderizes most of the meat on a rib left in the refrigerator overnight. With marinades or rubs applied for 12 or more hours, par-boiling, simmering or boiling becomes unnecessary. If the cook insists, however, it should be done before adding any marinade or rub.
Ribs that have rested in rub or marinade overnight have had the structure of their tissue opened up, and they should be seared briefly over a high heat to close it up before settling down to a long, slow roast over low coals or a gas grill that measures from 250 to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Weber suggests allowing ribs to slow-roast for an hour before beginning to baste them with barbeque or other sauce. Some sources recommend taking up to six hours to cook ribs at temperatures as low as 225 degrees Fahrenheit. However long the ribs cook, hold the barbeque sauce until the last 20 minutes or so to avoid burns caused by the carmelization of its sugars.