Some of the greatest dining experiences I ever had happened nearly 40 years ago in Chicago at a restaurant called Carson’s, where I used to regularly eat myself into a stupor by chowing down on as many ribs as I could hold. It was wonderful. I was young then and could make my way through a rack of baby backs fairly easily, as long as I kept at it. The trick was to pace oneself and not become beguiled by the side dishes. You can get macaroni and cheese just about anywhere, but Carson’s ribs were—and are—among the best around, the sort of entrée that deserves the undivided attention of a serious eater. I was one of a group of eight or so young staffers from around the country who’d been summoned to Chicago for a year-long special project at the consulting firm I worked for. We flew home on weekends, but to tide us over during the week the firm gave us generous meal per diems, which we made sure to put to good use. On more evenings than you might imagine, we found ourselves at Carson’s sitting around an eight-top, wearing plastic bibs, with our shirtsleeves rolled well up. If I remember right, every one of us ordered a full rack of ribs every visit. When the ribs arrived, we’d hunch over and methodically go to work. After that, everything became kind of a blur–except that I do recall my own habit, when I was finally done after an hour or so of meticulous eating, of pushing back from the table and lurching into the bathroom to let out a couple of belches and wash down my face, hands, neck, and forearms with plenty of soap and hot water. Let me tell you, those were some dinners.
Barbecued ribs are one of those menu items, I long ago realized, that one shouldn’t even consider ordering at anywhere other than a bonafide barbecue joint–preferably one that’s been open for more than 20 years and that, in the eyes of a health inspector, might be deemed an iffy proposition. And even then, the results aren’t always great. After so many years of disappointments, I’ve gradually realized that the problem isn’t so much with those barbecue joints as it is with me. On the rib question, it turns out, I’m a fusspot. My list of rib do’s and don’ts is nearly endless. Only baby backs, in my book, for instance. And kindly serve the sauce on the side, if you don’t mind. If the meat is falling off the bone, it’s been overcooked. Please, no slathering on of basting sauce during cooking process. You parboiled the ribs ahead of time? Someone should call the police.
I could go on, but you get the idea. All this has led me to the sorry conclusion that if I want to have ribs the way I really like them, I probably need to cook them myself. After years of experimentation and tweaking, I’ve finally come up with recipe that lives up to the standards of, well, me. These ribs may not be Carson’s-level worthy, but they’re awfully good.
Barbecued Baby Back Ribs
Use a paper towel to remove the membranes on the concave sides of a couple of racks of baby back ribs or, Alton-Brown-style, dig underneath the membrane with the handle of a teaspoon. Rinse ribs and pat dry.
Mix together a rub of salt, pepper, paprika, and brown sugar, and gently apply to both sides of the racks. Don’t go crazy. The point of the project is for the taste of the meat, not the rub, to dominate the palate. This is no time for a grand culinary gesture. Let ribs sit for an hour or so.
Start a fire in your grill, and divide the coals into two piles, one at each end of the fire box. Use briquettes, not lump charcoal. They burn more evenly and stack better. Place an aluminum pan (or piece of aluminum foil folded into a pan-like shape) between the two piles of coals. Pour a bit of cider vinegar into the pan.
Loop the probe end of an electronic meat thermometer through the center of the grill’s cooking grate, and plug other end of probe into the thermometer, outside of grill. Target temperature is between 250 and 275 degrees.
Cut the racks in half so they’ll fit on the grill. Place them in rib racks on center of grate, over the aluminum pan. Close grill’s cover.
Monitor the fire’s temperature more or less obsessively. If it drops much below 250 degrees, add a few briquettes to heat things up. If it gets close to 300 degrees, spread coals out to cool things down. All the while, do not go anywhere near a basting brush. Keep at this for three hours or so, until the meat reaches an internal temperature (determined using a different meat thermometer) of 160 degrees.
Remove ribs place on carving board and let rest for ten minutes before serving.
Serve with Alabama barbecue sauce.
As I say, maybe not Carson’s-level delicious, but pretty darn good, just the same.