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A BBQ Pitmaster's Secrets to the Most Tender Ribs

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This Labor Day, we're partnering with Smithfield, provider of fresh pork ribs, and pitmaster Tuffy Stone. As a classically trained French chef and owner of Q Barbeque in Virginia, Stone works magic with dry rub and glaze to bring out the texture and flavor you want. While perfect for a long holiday weekend, a glorious rack of ribs is a crowd-pleaser any day of the year.

Tuffy Stone knows a thing or two about barbecue. The world-champion-competitive-pitmaster also runs Cool Smoke BBQ School, where he teaches the tricks of the trade to smoke-and-fire novices and devotees alike. So we asked him to drop some knowledge about one of the most delicious (if sometimes intimidating to prepare) barbecue cuts: a glorious, mahogany-colored rack of ribs. He shared tips on what to look for—and avoid—at the butcher or grocery store, how to achieve falling-apart tenderness without over-smoking the meat, and which cool and crunchy sides to serve alongside the perfectly cooked main attraction.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

Food52: When do you most love to make and serve ribs?

Tuffy Stone: I always say that barbecue is a gregarious, friendly cuisine that is meant to be eaten at large gatherings. Labor Day is a great occasion, as are family reunions, or any time when families and friends are getting together. With ribs, you're looking at several hours of cooking time, so they're by nature fit for weekends and special occasions. We're all so busy in this day in age, so it's nice to find a reason for people to slow down for a bit and celebrate together.

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Suzanne Goin's Grilled Pork Burgers

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758 Save Go To Recipe
Makes 6 burgers

For the burger:

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons cumin seeds
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for grilling
  • 1/2 cup diced shallots
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1 tablespoon thyme leaves
  • 2 chiles de arbol, thinly sliced on the bias
  • 2 pounds ground pork
  • 1/4 pound fresh Mexican chorizo, casing removed
  • 3 ounces applewood-smoked bacon, finely diced
  • 2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 6 slices Manchego cheese
  • 6 brioche buns or other good burger buns
  • Aioli (recipe follows)
  • Romesco (recipe follows)
  • 2 ounces arugula
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the aioli and the romesco:

  • 1 extra-large egg yolk
  • 1/2 cup grapeseed oil
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 small clove garlic
  • 1/4 lemon, for juicing
  • Pinch cayenne pepper
  • Kosher salt
  • 5 ancho chiles
  • 2 tablespoons raw almonds
  • 2 tablespoons blanched hazelnuts
  • 1 1/4 cups extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 slice country bread, about 1-inch thick
  • 1/3 cup San Marzano canned tomatoes
  • 1 clove garlic, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 1/2 lemon, for juicing
  • Kosher salt
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Food52: What are the most important things to look for when buying ribs?

TS: The more marbling ribs have, the juicier they end up after their long cooking time. I don’t necessarily look for a big layer of fat on the rack. I’m looking for inner-muscular fat—the striations webbed throughout the meat that give it that nice marbled look.

Whenever possible, I like to buy single racks of ribs instead of double or triple racks, which tend to be sandwiched together. That way I can get a good look at every one. I also avoid buying “shiners,” which are racks where the meat has been trimmed too close to the bone. You want ribs that look nice and meaty all over. 

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Food52: Do you have any tips for maximizing flavor in dry rubs and sauces?

TS: My opinion is that rubs and sauces should always be the backdrop flavor to the ribs themselves. I want the ribs to be the star, and everything else to be a supporting player. Whatever we season them with, whether it’s just salt and pepper or a more complex rub, I recommend applying the rub about an hour before putting the meat on the grill. That gives the seasoning enough time to really penetrate into the meat. But it isn’t so long that the salt in the rub starts curing the meat, which would lead to tougher ribs. I used to season my ribs the night before, thinking they would be more flavorful. But then I noticed the next morning that lots of moisture had pulled off. I was working so hard to have a moist rib, and the salt was working against me! So now I season the ribs and let them sit at room temperature while I get the grill going. And then, about an hour later, they go right on the grill.

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Smoked Back Ribs with Roasted Tomato, Honey and Chipotle Glaze

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Serves 3

  • 3 tablespoons pureed chipotle chiles in adobo sauce
  • 3 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon chili powder
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon fresh cracked black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 3 racks of Smithfield Extra Tender Fresh Pork Back Ribs (membrane removed if desired)
  • 1 handful hickory or applewood chips for smoking, soaked in water and drained (optional)
  • apple juice in spray bottle
  • 1 14.5-oz can fire-roasted diced tomatoes
  • 1 cup diced onion
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/4 cup tomato paste
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 teaspoon chile powder
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar

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Food52: Which flavor profiles do you particularly like when working with ribs?

TS: One of the things I've learned about working with barbecue is that you can get creative, but people are very tied to certain flavor combinations. I came in with the mindset that white truffle salt and a demi-glace would be great fits. And they are—but don’t bring them to a barbecue contest! Most barbecue rubs for ribs have a mix of salt and sugar in them. From there, to get a flavor profile that you might find in Kansas City or Tennessee, you add some spices—like cayenne and black pepper, and foundational spices like onion and garlic powder. You could add a smidge of cumin and paprika for flavor, too. I like to make the rubs four or five days in advance so the flavors have time to bloom and mingle.

One of my favorite Asian-inspired marinades mixes equal parts soy sauce and mirin, and then adds a lot of chopped fresh garlic and whole peppercorns. You could also really let the rib and grill flavor shine by going simple and just seasoning them with salt and pepper. Later, you could mop it with a savory mix of Worcestershire sauce, butter, and a tangy vinegar. I also like to keep a spray bottle of apple juice by the grill and spritz the ribs several times while they’re cooking. It helps them keep some moisture and elevates the flavor.

Food52: There seems to be a divide in the barbecue world about whether or not to remove the membrane from a rack of ribs before cooking. What’s your take?

TS: People tend to get passionate about their barbecue! But I’ll stand tall behind my suggestion to remove the membrane. Some people think leaving it on makes for a moister rib, but I don’t buy into that. I think a well-marbled rib cooked the right way will be plenty tender. And when you leave on the membrane, you can’t properly season that side of the rib. More importantly, the texture of a cooked membrane is papery. It’s no fun to chew. Membranes are pretty easy to peel off, so don’t be afraid. Start with a cold rib, straight from the refrigerator or ice cooler. Use a butter knife to start the process, then grab the corner of the cold rack with a towel and pull. It will tear off and separate. If your grocery store has a butcher, you can also ask them to do it for you. 

Food52: What considerations should home cooks keep in mind when grilling ribs?

TS: With ribs, it's going to take no less than three hours and as long as five, depending on their size. The most important thing to do is to cook them over indirect heat, not right over the fire—and to make sure you leave yourself enough time to let them really cook.

I like to utilize the Texas crutch method: First, you grill the ribs for an hour or two, spritzing with apple juice a few times. Then, after they are looking gorgeous but still aren’t tender, you wrap them in aluminum foil. After a couple of hours at 275°F or 300°F heat, the ribs will already have the right amount of smoke and color. By wrapping them, you prevent further smoking and keep moisture in the meat. 

Food52: How do you know when the ribs are really done?

TS: There are two ways to check for doneness. The first is the bend test. Pick up the ribs firmly with a pair of tongs and try to bend them. If the ribs start to break as you bend them, they are done. You can also take a meat thermometer and stick it in between the bones. If it slides through easily, they are probably done. 

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Food52: What side dishes do you like to pair with grilled ribs?

TS: What’s most important to me is making sure I enjoy my gathering with friends and family, so I always think about what sides I can get done in advance. I’m a sucker for coleslaw and other tangy, crunchy foods that go great with ribs. I’ll make a cabbage and green apple slaw with caraway dressing where I can prep the vegetables and dressing the night before. Then all I have to do the day of is mix it. I like making potato salads with some tang, like a green goddess dressing or grainy mustard vinaigrette. I also love hot-cold combos, pairing the hot ribs with a cold arugula and white bean salad, a soy sauce-based cucumber salad, or corn and tomato salad with basil. If you are going to be working on the grill for half the day and it’s hot outside, it is ideal to have sides that taste great and cool you down. 

This Labor Day, we're partnering with Smithfield, provider of fresh pork ribs, and pitmaster Tuffy Stone. As a classically trained French chef and owner of Q Barbeque in Virginia, Stone works magic with dry rub and glaze to bring out the texture and flavor you want. While perfect for a long holiday weekend, a glorious rack of ribs is a crowd-pleaser any day of the year.

Tags: Smithfield, Ribs, Barbecue