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Barbecued Spare Ribs
by Charlie Burke

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Everyone, it seems, has a recipe for barbecue. In the South and Midwest, strong
feelings support local “cue” with different areas supporting or condemning the
use or tomato and other ingredients in the sauce, and everyone has his own
special spice mix for the rub.

In North Carolina, the barbecue in the East is totally different from that of the
western half of the state, which usually involves tomatoes in its sauce. We won’t
even discuss Texas which is obsessed with the niceties of slow cooked beef

Although some argue for beef ribs, most authentic barbecue in the South
involves pork – ribs or other cuts containing sufficient fat and connective tissue
to remain moist and tender after slow cooking. Local pit masters, each with his
secret rub, “mopping sauce” and barbecue sauce are celebrities with loyal
followers, and their tables hold an array of unusual hot sauces which complete
the experience.

In New England we use the term loosely, talking of “barbecuing” steaks or
seafood over high heat. This is actually grilling; barbecuing involves cooking
over low heat for several hours which is necessary to tenderize the meat and to
permit the smoky flavor to develop.  

This recipe is actually easy – a mixture of spices is quickly assembled and
rubbed into the meat which is then cooked slowly for several hours. It can’t be
rushed, but it is the ideal meal for when you have a group over for the
afternoon. Adding small amounts of charcoal every forty-five minutes or so and
taking an occasional look under the cover to ensure that the meat is not cooking
too fast are all that is needed (along with, perhaps, a few locally brewed beers).
Potatoes can be baked with the ribs for the last couple of hours, and
completes the meal. Ice cold sliced watermelon is the ideal desert.

We use baby back ribs, but spare ribs are perhaps more traditional because their
higher fat content keeps them moist during the longer cooking used in
commercial pits. Mopping sauces, simple mixes of beer and vinegar or other
concoctions are used to keep the ribs moist during such prolonged cooking, but
with baby back ribs, cooking time is 4 – 5 hours, and I find these sauces

Thick barbecue sauces with high sugar content are never applied during
cooking because they will burn, ruining the flavor. Some brush a small amount
onto the ribs shortly before removing them from the cooker, but it is best to
serve them on the table with the meal. If cooking a large number of racks, I stack
them: first, concave sides up and then reverse them, so that they actually baste
themselves. I rearrange them whenever I add charcoal so that each is exposed
equally to the higher heat present at the top and bottom off the stack.

During the first 1-2 hours, the meat warms slowly, and you may wonder if the
fire is hot enough. If the air coming through the vent on the cover is hot, avoid
the temptation to increase the heat; most browning occurs in the last 1 ½ hour of
cooking. This recipe is best suited to a kettle grill using hardwood charcoal, but
a gas grill will make perfectly good ribs using the indirect cooking method.
Adding wood chips in this case will add authentic smoke to the ribs. Once you
have cooked ribs this way, you will get a feel for the temperature and time
required and can then vary ingredients and sauces to make the recipe your own.

For the rub (vary proportions according to taste):

3 Tablespoons chili powder
5 Tablespoons paprika
3 Tablespoons dark brow sugar
2 Tablespoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons each black pepper corns, coriander seeds and fennel seeds, coarsely
Cayenne pepper to taste (we use 1 teaspoon)

Baby back ribs:

Each 13 rib rack will feed 2 -4. (We usually buy extra – folks are usually hungry
after enjoying the aroma of the cooking ribs, and they are easy to reheat in the


Start the charcoal fire on one side of the kettle grill - it should be 12 inches in
diameter. The bottom vents and cover vents should be open approximately 1/2
inch.. If using a gas grill, light the back element and turn to medium - low.

When the grill is heated, place the ribs on the opposite side from the heat. Cover
the kettle with the vents opposite the fire; close the gas grill’s cover. Cook for
approximately 4 hours, checking the charcoal and replenishing, if needed, every
45 minutes. Moistened wood chips wrapped in foil adds smoky flavor. Stack the
ribs, rearranging every 45 minutes so that each is exposed to the heat at the
bottom and top of the stacks, and turning the racks bastes and browns them
evenly. The ribs are done when they are easily pierced, the ribs move easily
when pulled apart and the temperature is at 175 degrees.

Serve, sliced into segments of four ribs, with barbecue sauce and bottled hot
sauce. Baked potato or corn bread and coleslaw complete the meal with, of
course, your local beer of choice. A favorite of our family, these ribs may very
well become a tradition in yours.

About the author: An organic farmer and avid cook, writer Charlie Burke is the vice
president of the New Hampshire Farmer’s Market Association ( and
helps run the Sanbornton Farmers' Market. Along with his wife, Joanne, he grows
certified organic herbs, greens and berries at Weather Hill Farm in Sanbornton, NH.
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