Pork spareribs are what I always use for barbecue. Baby Back (AKA Loin Back) and beef ribs are an alternative, but in terms of flavor, and the ability to withstand heat over long periods you can't beat spareribs. I buy mine at my local retailer and have done fine. If you have a good butcher, that can be helpful because you can tell them how you plan to prepare them and they will help choose a good cut (and they will trim them up to your liking too). I avoid ribs (or any meat) that have been injected or pre-marinated as they tend to be salty and I like to choose what flavors I want to add, so a "blank canvas" works best for me. You can also find spareribs that are trimmed, usually Louisiana style, but the downside is you pay more per pound. If time is a factor, you may find pre-marinated or pre-trimmed ribs to be the way to go, just make sure if they are injected or marinated that you go light on additional seasonings.
How Much Do I Need?
Generally, you want to aim for 2-3 pounds per person, and 4-5 pounds per rack when picking ribs. It would seem like a good idea to buy the biggest cut available, but a rack of spareribs in the 7-9 pound range or higher means a more mature pig produced it, and that also means less flavor and tenderness. Generally vacuum packed ribs come in a package that weighs about 12 pounds and contains 2 racks, which is ideal.
Note: If you want to marinate all night, the following prep should be done no later than the night before you plan to cook.
Remove the ribs from the package. If they were bought retail and not from the butcher's counter, they will hopefully be vacuum sealed. Rinse them with cold water and blot dry with a paper towel.
You will notice that at this point the ribs do not look a whole lot like what you get at Chili's or Black Angus; that's because they need to be trimmed. Some people will throw them on the grill as-is, but for aesthetics and evenness of cooking it's good to do some trimming (this is when having a butcher is handy).
Here is a website that does a good job of describing how to properly trim spareribs Louisiana style for the barbecue and there is a good instructional video as well:
Now that the ribs are trimmed, it is time to add flavor by applying a dry rub, so named because it is made up of dry seasonings and spices.
Combine the following ingredients to make your rub:
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup paprika
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon chili powder
3/4 tablespoon garlic powder
3/4 tablespoon onion powder
1 teaspoon cayenne (optional if you don't like heat, or have little ones)
This rub is very typical and you should adjust according to your taste. I tend to add more garlic and onion powder.
Mix together with a fork making sure to break up any lumps. I use my fingers.
Before you apply the rub to the meat, we need to add a layer of mustard, any variety will do. The mustard creates a layer of moisture that will carry the rub while it cooks. If you are not a mustard fan, or just don't like the sound of it on your ribs, don't worry. The mustard flavor burns off during the cooking process and you don't taste it in the final product. Apply a thin layer with a cooking brush, not too thick.
Now apply the rub using a spoon, sprinkling it liberally over the meat, both sides. I use an old spice shaker to apply my rub which makes it easier and makes for a nice even layer. Don't try to rub the spices in, just let them cover the outside of the ribs. By the time they are done marinating, the juice from the pork, mustard, and rub will have formed a paste which I sometimes spread evenly with a brush before cooking.
Wrap the ribs in cellophane and let them marinate for at least 2 hours in the fridge. I let mine sit overnight and prefer "Glad Press n' Seal" as it creates a great airtight seal that won't leak.
I smoke my ribs at ~225 for about 5 hours. Every hour I rotate each rack 180 degrees for even cooking and use a spray bottle to spritz them with apple juice. I have also used apple cider and apple cider vinegar.
I use a charcoal grill/smoker fired with mesquite chunk charcoal and add soaked wood chips directly on the charcoal for more smoke.
The best kinds of wood to use for smoking pork are mesquite, hickory, or oak (in that order). You can also use fruity woods like apple or apricot, but they are hard to find (at least in my neck of the woods). Wood chips are carried by most local grocers.
The key to good barbecue is absolutely the smoke. You will not get the same depth of flavor by baking, crock potting, or par boiling/grilling spareribs. Par boiling, while convenient and great for making stock, removes flavor and moisture from your meat or poultry: DON'T DO IT.
The indirect heat method for grill users:
For those who do not have a smoker that keeps the fire away from direct proximity to food, you will need to use this method. To cook meat slow on any grill you keep your heat source on one side of the grill and put your food on the other. You can also put a foil pan of water over the lit side adjacent to your food to add moisture. I also use a drip pan directly under meat to make clean up easier.
So the basic set up is: on the bottom of your grill you have your charcoal piled to one side and a drip pan adjacent to it. On top, you have a water pan directly over the lit coals and your food adjacent to that directly over the drip pan.
Get your heat to around 225-250 and keep it there. Every hour turn the ribs 180 degrees, but leave them bone side down, do not flip. If you have more than one rack, you can also rotate them so that one rack isn't always closest to the open flame. This rotating and turning compensates for any temperature variations in your grill. Make sure to spray your ribs down with apple juice and add smoke chips while you are in there.
The key to barbecue is NEVER LIFT THE LID until you have to. It is tempting to "peek" but opening the lid lets out heat and extends your cook time and can also allow flavorful smoke to escape.
For users of gas grills, you can do long slow cooks using indirect heat and even add smoke by using the following methods:
When To Sauce
At this point, no sauce has been applied to the ribs, this is because barbecue sauce is high in sugar (tomato based) and will burn. We all have a buddy who smothers raw chicken with BBQ sauce, grills it to a crisp, then tells you the "black stuff" is "carmelization" or "flavor". That is burnt chicken, don't eat it, even if it's just to be polite!
The last hour of cooking is when I apply a layer of sauce. Mrs. Bullfrog makes sauce at home using ketchup mixed with brown sugar, molasses and herbs/spices to taste. For convenience store bought sauce works, but even then I would "doc" it with some spices at home before use.
Brush on a layer of sauce an hour before you plan to pull the ribs off, then 1/2 hour before done. I generally leave it at that as I like the rib meat to stick to the bone and have some "pull". If you or your audience likes the meat to slide off the bone, place the ribs in aluminum foil 30 minutes before done, sauce again, and return to the grill. The ribs in the foil will steam and become very moist, falling off the bone.
When Is It Done?
There are a couple easy ways to check ribs for doneness:
Once you have cooked the ribs for at least 4-5 hours, saucing/foiling the last hour, you can remove and get ready to serve. At the temperature you have been cooking these ribs, they were done cooking in the first couple of hours, the extra time tenderizes and adds more flavor.
Let the meat rest for 5 minutes or so once it is away from flame. The reason for this is, while the meat cooks, the juice from the meat moves close to the surface to "protect" the meat from the heat. If you cut the meat right away, you lose alot of moisture. This goes for any meat or poultry you have cooked, it's a good rule to remember.
Once your ribs have rested, separate them with a knife and enjoy! Make some friends! I like to serve mine with extra sauce on the side for dipping.