When eating a perfect baby back rib, you might assume that preparing it is as easy as throwing a steak on a hot charcoal grill. Don’t be fooled. Turning heat, smoke, and seasoning into a perfect rack of ribs takes practice, patience, and the right combination of ingredients.
Fortunately for backyard cooks, world barbecue champ Melissa Cookston takes away some of the mystery with a new cookbook, “Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room,” released in April by Andrews-McMeel Publishing. Even better, Cookston shared the book’s recipes for her award-winning ribs after an interview with Memphis Stew at Memphis Barbecue Company, her popular restaurant in Horn Lake, Mississippi.
But be forewarned: Along with the recipes, you will need plenty of time. Cookston’s baby backs involve a multi-step process that includes making a Basic BBQ Rub, an Ultimate BBQ Rub, a Mother BBQ Sauce, and a Sweet Glaze sauce, all from scratch.
“The barbecue recipes are all in the book,” Cookston said with a laugh during the interview. “I guess that means I’ll never win another competition.”
Or not. Cookston and her team, Yazoo’s Delta Q, won first place Saturday in the whole hog division of the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.
Competition Pork Baby Back Ribs
(Serves 2 to 4, depending on whether they’re linemen or cheerleaders.)
I’m known in the media and among competitors as a whole-hog cook, and I’ve been very fortunate with whole hogs in contests. However, I’ve won a lot more contests with my baby back ribs. This recipe won first place in eight contests in a row—a pretty mean feat! These ribs have a full flavor profile: a little sweet, some acid, a little salt, and just enough heat on the back of your palate to make you want another bite. Save the bones and meat trimmings for making stock.
2 slabs baby back ribs, about 3 pounds each
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons Ultimate BBQ Rub (see below)
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons yellow mustard
2 tablespoons honey
4 tablespoons turbinado sugar
4 tablespoons purple grape juice
About ½ cup Sweet Glaze (see below)
Chipotle chile powder, for sprinkling
Rinse the ribs and remove the membrane from the back. Trim any excess fat from the tops of the slabs. Trim 1 bone from the large end of the ribs and 2 bones from the small end. This will give you a much more consistent slab for cooking.
Starting on the backs, sprinkle the ribs with approximately 1½ teaspoons of rub each, then add 1½ teaspoons mustard each and massage into the meat. Flip the ribs over and repeat. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 8 hours. For a contest, I marinate ribs like this for 12 to 16 hours.
Prepare a smoker to cook at 225°F with around 4 chunks of apple wood and 4 chunks of cherry wood so that the wood will smolder throughout the cooking. Remove the ribs from the refrigerator, unwrap, and repeat the rub and mustard procedure, massaging them in. Don’t get it too thick or paste like, as this will give you a dark appearance when cooked.
Place the ribs in the smoker meat side up and cook for 2 hours. Remove the ribs from the smoker and increase the temperature to 250°F. Apply rub and mustard to both sides of the ribs as before. On each of the top sides, slather approximately 1 tablespoon of honey over the surface, then sprinkle heavily with about 2 tablespoons of turbinado sugar each. Lay the ribs meat side down on a piece of heavy-duty aluminum foil and fold up the edges. Pour 2 tablespoons of purple grape juice into the bottom of the foil for each rib then finish wrapping the ribs, but don’t crimp the edges—you want steam to be able to escape.
Return the ribs to the cooker for 2 hours, then test for tenderness. (I cook ribs at this stage until they look overdone and too tender. Don’t worry; they’ll tighten up. If they still have too much texture, leave them in for 20 to 30 more minutes.) Remove the ribs from the cooker, open the foil, and drain off the liquid. Brush sauce on the bone side of the ribs. Then, using the foil as a tool, “roll” the ribs over so the meat side is up and glaze the tops. Using long tongs, carefully remove the ribs from the foil and place them back in the smoker for 15 minutes. This will let the glaze cook onto the ribs and let the ribs tighten back up. Remove from the cooker and allow to rest for 5 minutes. Apply a very thin coat of glaze to “glisten” the ribs, then very lightly sprinkle with chipotle powder before serving.
Ultimate BBQ Rub
(Makes about 6 ½ cups)
1 cup turbinado sugar
5 cups Basic BBQ Rub (see below)
¼ cup light chili powder
¼ cup granulated garlic
1 teaspoon cayenne
Place the turbinado sugar in a clean coffee grinder and pulse until lightly powdered. Transfer to a large mixing bowl. (You may have to work in batches.) Add the rub, chili powder, granulated garlic, and cayenne and stir until well incorporated. Store in an airtight container for up to 2 months.
(Makes 3 cups)
Barbecue competitions are not just about flavor—they’re also about appearance. Honey will not only add some sweetness but also give your products a beautiful sheen.
2 cups BBQ Mother Sauce (see below)
1 cup honey
2 tablespoons Basic BBQ Rub (see below)
In a small saucepan over low heat, stir the mother sauce with the honey until incorporated. Add the rub and stir until the sugars in the rub have dissolved and there is no grainy texture. Remove from the heat, cool, and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.
To use, brush on the meat in the last 10 minutes of smoking or 2 minutes of grilling (so the glaze doesn’t burn).
Basic BBQ Rub
(Makes about 1 ¾ cups)
This is my all-purpose grilling seasoning, as I like the saltier overtones for the grill. It’s great on steaks, pork chops, and grilled chicken.
½ cup freshly cracked black pepper
1 tablespoon dried onion flakes
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 tablespoon dill seeds
1 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
1 cup kosher salt
2 tablespoons granulated garlic
1 teaspoon light chili powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
Place the cracked black pepper, onion flakes, coriander seeds, dill seeds, and hot red pepper flakes in a coffee grinder and pulse until reduced in size but not pulverized. Transfer to a small mixing bowl, add the salt, granulated garlic, chili powder, and cumin, and stir until well incorporated. Store in an airtight container for up to 1 month.
BBQ Mother Sauce
(Makes about 6 cups)
This recipe has always been our “mother” competition sauce—the base we use to make the sauces we serve for competition judges. It is very forgiving of tweaking, so use it as a palette with which to add your favorite flavors. One of my favorite variations is to add a cup of peach or mango puree to 2 cups of the sauce for a fresh taste. When cooking competition chicken, I leave out the diced onion and substitute 1 tablespoon of onion powder, as I like a smoother finish on chicken.
¼ cup canola oil
¾ cup finely diced sweet or yellow onion
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1½ cups ketchup
½ cup honey
2 tablespoons tomato paste
¼ cup white vinegar
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons packed dark brown sugar
¼ cup Worcestershire sauce
2 teaspoons dry mustard
1 teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ cup water, or as needed
½ cup Basic BBQ Rub (see above) or Ultimate BBQ Rub (see above), or to taste
In a medium saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes. Turn the heat to low if the onion is cooking too fast—you don’t want it caramelized or browned. As the onion is getting close, add the garlic and cook until lightly golden, about 2 minutes longer. Add the ketchup, honey, tomato paste, vinegar, brown sugar, Worcestershire, dry mustard, cayenne, and black pepper and stir well. Slowly add water until the sauce reaches the consistency you like. A slightly thick consistency is best. Add about 3 tablespoons of the rub, stir well, and taste. The sauce should have a good, well-rounded flavor. Add more rub in 1-tablespoon increments until your desired flavor is achieved. Cool and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 10 days.
From Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room: Southern Recipes from the Winningest Woman in Barbecue by Melissa Cookston / Andrews McMeel Publishing, LCC 2014