In their way, ribs are one of the guiltiest of guilty pleasures. Local rib joints often serve them swimming in grease and sugar-laden sauces, undeniably tasty but not something to indulge in very often. You can enjoy tastier and healthier spare ribs at home, with a modest investment in time and effort. Using a dry spice rub instead of a commercial sauce cuts out a lot of sugar and additives, while slow-cooking in an electric smoker renders out much of the fat.
Boning Up on Ribs
A hog's entire rib cage is pretty large, so it's usually cut into separate sections for retail sale. The portion closest to the backbone, logically enough, is called back ribs or baby back ribs. The longer portion that curves around the animal's chest is the side ribs or spare ribs, and the gristly pieces at the end are referred to as the rib tips. Back ribs are smaller but have more meat, while spare ribs are larger and thicker. Spare ribs take longer to cook, because of their size.
The Rub Down
On the back of your rack of spare ribs is a tough membrane, called the fell, which must be removed before you season the ribs. Loosen it by prying one corner away from a bone, then grip it firmly and pull off the whole strip. Next, rub down the ribs with your favorite store-bought or homemade spice mixture. Commercial versions tend to contain more salt, so browse for a recipe you like. Most include some combination of onion and garlic powder, salt, fresh-ground black pepper, mustard seeds, dried ground chiles and hot, sweet or smoked paprika. If you like your ribs to have a hint of tanginess, try adding a Mediterranean spice called sumac. It's got a fresh, fruity acidity that goes well with ribs.
Most home enthusiasts cook their ribs over a gas or charcoal grill, but neither is perfect. It's difficult to get the right smoky flavor with gas, and maintaining a suitably low temperature can be tricky with charcoal. An electric smoker can be a better alternative. It provides precise temperatures, good control over the amount of smoke, and uses a water pan to keep the air moist and prevent your ribs from drying out. Good-quality models often offer a timer or a probe-cooking mode, which stops cooking when the ribs reach a predetermined temperature.
Temperature and Timing
The best technique for spare ribs is to cook them low and slow, which provides maximum time for the ribs' fat to render out and tough connective tissues to dissolve. The best cooking temperature is 225 degrees Fahrenheit, which allows those good things to happen without toughening or drying the meat. Big spare ribs can take five or six hours to cook at that temperature, so be patient. The ribs are done when they're tender, but not falling apart. If you grasp a bone and rotate it it should move freely, but not come out in your hand. If you insert an instant-read thermometer horizontally into a meaty area, it should read approximately 200 F to 205 F when done.