One of my all-time favorite field trips for “Cooking Live” was to Memphis to cover the huge annual barbecue cook-off there. It is an astonishing event that attracts more than 200 teams from all around the country, from funky little crews of like-minded friends to heavily financed corporate outfits. Everyone competes not just for the best ribs but also for the best booth. Some of the so-called booths are two stories high and extremely elaborate.
Although most of the teams party hard for three days straight—the beer flows—everyone also stays very focused on the cooking. If I’d never understood it before, I do now. Barbecuing, done right, is clearly an art that takes years to perfect. I have never eaten such great meat anywhere.
When it was all over, we had Chris Lily of Big Bob Gibson’s Barbecue from Decatur, Alabama—one of that year’s champs—come onto the show to show us how they make their ribs. Even cooking in an oven instead of on a grill, and without the benefit of the smoking process, Chris’s ribs were absolutely delicious. His secret? Slow and low. In Memphis I’d heard this time and again. Everyone has his or her secret rub and marinade and sauce, but there is one thing on which everyone agrees: slow and low.
I decided to develop my own version of oven-baked ribs. Here it is. (A word to the wise: If you boil your ribs before you grill or roast them, don’t even think about going to Memphis. That is a terrible barbecue no-no)
6 pounds baby back ribs
1/4 cup sweet or hot paprika
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1/2 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
1/4 cup chili powder
5 to 6 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon dry mustard
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper or more to taste
1 recipe Rick’s Barbecue Sauce (recipe follows) or your favorite store-bought barbecue sauce
Use your fingers to pull off and remove the thin papery skin from the back of each rib. Combine the paprika, salt, brown sugar, chili powder, garlic, cumin, mustard, and cayenne in a small bowl and mix well. Rub the mixture all over the ribs. Cover and refrigerate for 4 hours or overnight.
Preheat the oven to 250ºF. Place the ribs meat side up in one layer on several sheet pans and bake, turning from time to time until very tender, 3 1/2 to 4 hours. About 30 minutes before the ribs are done, remove them from the oven and brush liberally on all sides with the barbecue sauce. Bake until very tender. Serve additional sauce on the side.
Rick’s Barbecue Sauce: Heat 2 tablespoons vegetable oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add 2 to 3 onions, to taste, finely chopped and cook, stirring, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add 3 cloves garlic, minced, 1 jalapeño, stemmed, seeded, and minced, and 1/2 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes. Stir until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add 1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce, 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard, 1/4 cup packed brown sugar, and 1/4 cup granulated sugar. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook until slightly thickened, about 10 minutes. Stir often to prevent scorching. Pour in 3 cups ketchup and 2 cups cold water and cook, uncovered, stirring often, until thick, pulpy, and dark red, about 40 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.