Purists insist there’s only one way to cook ribs: Rub them with a salt-and-spice blend and let them smoke and smolder over live coals for a little less time than it takes to sit through “Gone With the Wind.”
Purists must have charcoal to burn.
In an ideal world, all ribs would be slow-smoked into another dimension. But there’s a reason so many smart cooks take shortcuts. Ribs are very adaptable. As long as you finish with smoke, you can cheat on the fire.
The quick secret to ribs with that singular contrast between sweet and smoky, crusty and tender is to tackle them in two stages: precooking with plenty of seasonings, followed by only the briefest touchdown on the grill for heat and char. Lots of cookbooks will tell you to just parboil or bake them as the first step, but that doesn’t go far enough. All that does is shorten the cooking time without adding any flavor -- you might as well fire up the microwave. And slathering on one of those commercial barbecue sauces afterward won’t help. It just leaves the meat cloying and one-dimensional.
Pork plays well with an amazing array of spices, from curry blends to chiles. The trick is getting them onto, and into, the ribs in the first stage.
You can start by either cooking the ribs in liquid -- steaming, braising or poaching -- or by marinating and baking them. Any of those techniques will leave the meat cooked through safely but not to leather. But the liquid or the marinade has to be aggressively spiced. Plain old parboiling leaches flavor. Drop aromatics into the mix and you get nuance and fragrance.
For classic ribs glazed and served with a good American ketchup-based sauce, I started by steaming them over a little water with a lot of sliced sweet onion, fresh thyme and bay leaves. You also could start with beer and the same pungent complements.
For ribs with a Mexican accent, I simmered the racks in a riff on an enchilada sauce, made with three kinds of chiles (guajillo, ancho and chipotle), that also could be served as the table sauce. (Because the sauce is cooked, you don’t have to worry about cross-contamination as you would with a marinade.)
The liquid for Chiu Chow ribs is almost as intense: soy sauce spiked with ginger, garlic, star anise and pepper. I borrowed the idea from a recipe for goose I discovered in Hong Kong, where I got hooked on Chiu Chow cooking, a regional style best described as Cantonese with serious flavor. Usually a whole bird is poached in the soy base, then served cold in slices with a sweet sauce of vinegar and garlic for dipping. But it works just as well with ribs to be grilled and eaten warm.
A tandoori-style marinade has somewhat the same effect. Ribs are not usually associated with curry, but I once had them in a maverick Indian restaurant and have been haunted by the way the sweet-hot spices crusted to the meat. I adapted a recipe for tandoori chicken using yogurt with cayenne, ginger, turmeric and three kinds of jazzy seeds: mustard, cumin and coriander. The mixture almost tenderizes the meat as it marinates overnight and then as it bakes for an hour or so.
All but the traditional ribs need one more step, right out of the purists’ playbook. The meat should be treated first with what’s called a dry rub, either plain salt or a combination of salt and spices, and left for at least 20 minutes. It’s a way of preseasoning, or laying down another layer of flavor.
No matter what the method, cooking ribs is pretty much best done by feel. When the meat starts to pull back from the bones, it’s ready to grill. (If you’re the nervous type, a reading of 155 to 165 degrees on an instant thermometer puts you in the safety zone.) It can take as little as 30 minutes or as long as 90.
The type of ribs you choose also will affect the cooking time and results. Baby backs are the meatiest and the priciest. Because they are smaller, they will cook quicker. Spare ribs -- the kind butchered for grilling and labeled barbecue ribs or St. Louis-style ribs -- are mostly bone but still have great flavor and taste.
Ribs of either variety come pretty close to ready to cook when you buy them, but you can still improve on them. The membrane on the underside should definitely be removed. Not only is it a flavor barrier, keeping seasonings from the meat, but it also makes eating ribs, and looking at them, less pleasant, to put it daintily.
To get rid of it, lay the rack of ribs meat side down on a cutting board and slide a small sharp knife under the membrane over the rib at the thickest end. Slip your finger under and carefully slide the film loose, working your way from rib to rib.
Any excess fat also should be carefully pared off to minimize the grease.
Once the meat has been precooked, you can hold it overnight if you let it cool slightly, then wrap it tightly in plastic bags, film or foil and store it in the refrigerator. The next day, you can just toss it on the grill and no one will know you haven’t been slaving over hot coals for hours. And hours.