The Perfect Rib

The Appearance. When rubbed, smoked over wood, Amazing Ribs have a deep ruddy glow with a glistening sheen. The bones stick out only slightly, and the exposed marrow has usually turned black. If you pull two bones apart, the meat splits into long fibrous chards, dripping with moisture. Just below the sauce and the dark brown crust, called the bark, is a bright pink layer, about 1/8″ deep, called the smoke ring, a stamp of authenticity that comes from smoke, humidity, combustion gases, myoglobin in the meat, and magic. The rest of the meat is a khaki tan, glistening with moisture from meat juices, melted collagen, and fats.

The Scent. The first thing to grab you by your nose is the seductive, aphrodisiac scent of hardwood turned to smoke. It is ethereal, sweet and fragrant – better than the best pipe tobacco. Woven in is usually a hint of caramelized sugar, like roasted marshmallows. And tieing it all together is usually a sharp vinegar thread. There should be an elegant undertone of wood smoke, perhaps with a hint of bacon, but not so much that it dominates, and definitely no bitterness or ashtray flavors. All this hovers above the bass notes: The seductive scent of roasted pork.

Pork flavor. Pork has a wonderful flavor, particularly some of the better breeds of pork. Whatever we do to the meat in the prep and the cooking should not kill the delicate essence of pork. That’s the biggest problem with restaurant ribs. So many of them are boiled or held in warming ovens for so long that their natural meatiness is destroyed. They taste, and look, gray.

The Seasonings. The seasonings, usually a spice rub, brine, or marinade must embed in the meats surface and enhance it, but not overwhelm it. Salt and pepper are usually big players, as are paprika, brown sugar, garlic and other essences.

The Sauce. The sauce must complement and compliment the meat and smoke flavors. It is usually rich and slightly sweet to counterbalance the saltiness of the rub, but not cloying, with a zippy pepperiness and an acidic bite to counterbalance the sweetness. A hint of savory from herbs is a nice touch. It must remain subtle so as to not overwhelm the other components, and there should not be so much that it is gummy and goopy. In some places, especially along the Carolina coast, sauce is tart and vinegary, with heat and no sweet.

The Texture. Below the sauce, the surface of the meat should have a crusty bark, a little crunchy and a little chewy. It should be tender yet still retain resistance and resilience when you bite into it, like a steak. It should pull off the bone cleanly and with little effort, leaving behind bare bone, but it should not fall off the bone. If it falls off the bone, chances are it has been boiled or steamed.

The Moisture. The meat should be moist and juicy but not wet or mushy. The juices should come out during chewing, not cooking, and coat the tongue with flavor. Your salivary glands should not have to work too hard to spread the taste and lubricate the meat for swallowing.

The Balance. The sum of all the parts must be harmonious. A glorious complex symphony of textures, aromas, and flavors, with none so strong as to dominate and mask the others. The sum of the parts should be greater than each piled on top of the other.