This post comes to us courtesy of chef and writer Anne Brown.
It seems like every town in the great U.S. of A. has a restaurant or two with a sign out front boasting, “Voted: #1 Ribs.” That’s not to say they are all wrong. I had a fantastic burger at a local restaurant that claimed it was #1 via a vinyl sign hanging in its front window. But that’s a burger. I can say with great confidence that I have never had life changing ribs anywhere that promised me I should on their sign.
The best ribs I ever had were at a restaurant in Detroit, which has certainly earned plenty of accolades, but doesn’t have to advertise them to lure people in. There’s not a single “#1 Ribs in Town” sign posted anywhere. And they don’t need to convince anyone to get them in the door. On a cold Michigan evening, on the one occasion I was able to go, the place was swarming with people spilling out the door in a line into the street, happy about waiting their turn. And when we finally got our table, we found out why no one minded the wait: life-changing ribs.
The ribs became another delicious and perfect food that I knew I would crave again, and they were hours away. So my friends and I came up with a plan on our long trip home: we were going to have a rib-off. We would each make a rack of ribs our way, after careful research, to see who could get closest to recreating the perfect ribs we just had.
That was last summer, and it was the beginning of what has now become an annual event: Rib Wars.
Last year, two couples participated and cooked three racks of ribs between four of us. It was less competitive than we planned and more like a group effort to replicate an amazing meal. We made three racks of ribs. Josh and Carrie purchased a rib rub from a farmers’ market, Josh made a rack with his signature rub recipe, and my husband Brian made a rub created from about two dozen whole spices, hand crushed or freshly ground in a spice grinder. All three were fantastic, but Josh’s was the clear winner.
This year, we all had the competitive spirit and wanted to replicate the awesome dinner that was the result of last year’s Rib Wars. But this year we had the knowledge from the previous competition, and we all wanted to win. So each of us ventured off on our own to research and come up with unique recipes that we thought could take the title of “Best Ribs: 2012.”
All measurements in the recipes below are for one full rack of ribs. As the control in our competition, we all used one full rack each of pork baby back ribs, with the membrane removed. Removing the silvery membrane from the bone side is an important step because if left on, it becomes tough and rubbery when cooked and simply doesn’t taste very good. Removal also allows marinades and rubs to penetrate the meat more, improving flavor overall. The membrane is a bit of a pain to remove, so I call ahead and ask my butcher to do it for me, and then I thank him profusely when I pick up my order.
The clear winner in the first rib wars last year, Josh stuck with his classic signature recipe this year in hopes for a repeat win.
For Freeman’s Best Rib Rub:
1 Tbs. paprika
1 1/2 Tbs. ground mustard
2 Tbs. garlic salt
1 1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 Tbs. salt
2 1/2 Tbs. brown sugar
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
Coat ribs with rub evenly on all sides. Place meat-side up in a shallow baking dish, add enough water to coat the bottom of the dish, and wrap tightly with foil. Cook for 3 hours at 300 degrees F. Remove from oven. Glaze with your favorite classic barbecue sauce and put back in the oven under the boiler, set to low, for about 3 minutes.
What we loved: The classic barbecue flavor we all expect in the “perfect ribs,” and the caramelized, sticky sweet barbecue sauce smothered on top of the delicious crust the rub forms as the ribs roast in the oven.
What we would do differently: Josh was almost the winner for the second year in a row,but lost due to an issue that can happen to the best of us. He put too much salt in the rub. In order to win next year, and as a recommendation to readers who plan to use the rub recipe listed above, either cut the salt from the rub, or switch from garlic salt to garlic powder. The garlic salt and the salt together pushed the sodium level over the edge.
The verdict: Next year, Josh. Next year.
In an attempt to recreate the flavor of the apple barbecue sauce at her favorite rib joint, Carrie learned that some rib experts marinate their ribs in apple cider vinegar. Carrie marinated the ribs in the vinegar for 2 hours then applied a dry rub and finished the ribs with her favorite Carolina-style sauce.
Carrie’s Sweet and Tangy Apple Cider Ribs
1/3 cup paprika
3 Tbs. ground mustard
2 Tbs. onion powder
2 Tbs. garlic powder
1 Tbs. ground basil
3/4 Tbs. cayenne pepper
1/4 Tbs. red pepper flakes
1/4 Tbs. fresh ground black pepper
1/2 Tbs. brown sugar
1/2 Tbs. garlic salt
Soak ribs in apple cider vinegar for two hours.
Remove from vinegar, pat dry, and coat ribs with rub evenly on all sides. Place meat-side up in a shallow baking dish, add enough water to coat the bottom of the dish, and wrap tightly with foil. Cook for 3 hours at 300 degrees F. Remove from oven. Glaze with your favorite tangy Carolina barbecue sauce and put back in the oven under the boiler, set to low, for about 3 minutes.
What we loved: The tangy Carolina barbecue sauce was a perfect complement to the apple cider vinegar flavor in the ribs. The ribs were also moist and tender, but maintained just the right amount of toothsome quality that many look for in ribs.
What we would do differently: We all agreed that the ribs may have become a little too tangy from soaking in straight apple cider vinegar. We liked the flavor, but thought it could have been mellowed a bit. This could be achieved by reducing the soaking time from 2 hours to 30 minutes, or by mixing the vinegar with oil, spices and herbs to make it more like a traditional marinade.
The verdict: Delicious and full of piquant flavor, but not this year’s winner.
A lover of Asian cuisine and sriracha’s biggest fan, Brian decided to color outside the traditional barbecue lines and cook an Asian-style rib, marinated and then grilled low and slow on a charcoal grill with wood chips for smoke.
For Brian’s Asian Rib Marinade:
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
6 cloves garlic, crushed
1/3 cup molasses
1/3 cup soy sauce
2 Tbs. rice vinegar
1 Tbs. chili powder
1 Tbs. fresh grated ginger
1 Tbs. sriracha
pinch of salt
Soak two big handfuls of mesquite wood chips in water before grilling.
Use 3/4 of the marinade to marinate the ribs in a sheet pan for one hour and reserve the rest for basting while grilling. Use a classic charcoal grill set up for indirect medium heat by placing hot coals on either side of the grill and leaving the middle completely free of coals. Place the ribs on the grill over the coal free center and put a handful of the soaked wood chips on either side directly on the coals. Cover the grill and cook undisturbed for one hour. After an hour, baste both sides of the rack with the remaining marinade and then grill covered for an additional hour.
What we loved: Brian was the only competitor to do his ribs on the grill, and all the other racks were missing what Brian’s had: the classic smoky charcoal-grilled flavor and an unmatched, perfectly charred sweet and salty crust. We all agreed that our ribs will have to see at least a little grill time in next year’s competition, even if they start or finish in the oven.
What we would do differently: The marinade was beyond flavorful, but that flavor did not stay with the ribs as much as we had hoped. Next time, we would marinate the ribs for a lot longer than an hour. Also, we thought that creating a glaze to put on after they came off the grill would add another layer of flavor. We thought a mix of dark brown sugar, sriracha and soy cooked until thickened slightly on the stove and then brushed on the ribs immediately after they came off the grill would do the trick.
The verdict: Brian’s expertise on the grill proved that nothing compares to the classic charcoal grill taste, and the smoking technique with mesquite wood chips added the smokehouse flavor we all loved when we had the amazing ribs in Detroit.
I like good classic recipes done properly and I’m a big fan of the, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” theory. So at first I planned on keeping my recipe as basic as possible. But then I remembered episodes of my favorite cooking competition show, where people were sent home week after week for playing it safe. So I decided to add a couple of unique ingredients to see if I could set myself apart from my competitors.
For my Sweet and Smoky Kona Coffee Rub:
1 Tbs. freshly ground Kona coffee (ground as fine as possible)
1 Tbs. paprika
1 Tbs. dark brown sugar
1/2 Tbs. garlic powder
1/2 Tbs. onion powder
1/2 Tbs. freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbs. coarse kosher salt
1/2 Tbs. ground mustard
1 tsp. cocoa powder
Spread the rub on the ribs to evenly coat both sides. Cover in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least one hour or up to 24 hours.
Remove plastic wrap and place in a stovetop smoker with the chips of your choice; I used a blend of hickory and oak chips. Smoke on medium heat for one hour. Transfer ribs to a shallow baking dish; make sure to pour any liquid from the smoker into the baking dish with the ribs. Seal tightly with foil and bake at 300 degrees F for 2 hours.
Remove foil, brush ribs with your favorite sweet and smoky barbecue sauce and place back in the oven under the broiler, set on low for about 3 minutes. Timing will differ depending on your oven and its broiler settings. It is best to keep your eye on the ribs and take them out when the sauce starts to ‘stick’ to the ribs after caramelizing a bubbling a bit.
What we loved: We all agreed that the coffee and cocoa gave the ribs a unique smoky quality that kept us wanting to go back for more. The flavor added by smoking the ribs in the stovetop smoker was just enough to complement the rub and add that smoked flavor everyone loves in barbecue, without overwhelming the flavors of the rub and the sauce.
What we would do differently: We all agreed that a little more sauce or at least a thicker sauce would have made the ribs even better. The sauce I used was of the runny variety, and was very good, but not appropriate for the deep flavors that resulted from smoking the ribs and the coffee and cocoa in the rub.
The verdict: WINNER! I’ve already ordered my “Voted: #1 Ribs” banner to hang from my front porch.
About the author: Anne Brown, a Michigan native, is a chef and writer who lives with her patient husband and a scrappy terrier. After her obsession with getting her favorite recipes right began to haunt her dreams, she enrolled in culinary school. After culinary school, Anne realized she liked to talk about food as much as she liked cooking it. In 2010, Anne earned a journalism degree and launched Anne Brown Creative, a copywriting firm dedicated to all things culinary. While she appreciates the song and dance involved in a five-course meal, she craves a great meatloaf followed by a warm chocolate chip cookie more often.