Regional cooking variations debates are intense– stay away– was one of the first pieces of advice I received as a food intern at a San Francisco newspaper. Trying to say the merits of this pizza versus this pizza or this form of carnitas taco compared to the next will always evolve into a debate of what is authentic and what is attempting to be authentic, which in turns leads to a vague Sartre versus Camus philosophical debate along the lines of, “What is life?”
So for my family’s beloved baby back ribs recipe, we don’t call them Kansas City barbeque or St. Louis barbeque. Or Memphis or Texas. Or Santa Maria or North Carolina. Then again, it does have to be some style, right? The sauce is not tomato based nor is it strictly a dry rub or heavily vinegar based. Nor is this brisket slathered in a sweet sauce. Well, it’s not Texas, North Carolina, or Memphis then. How about Kansas City or Atlanta? These baby back ribs didn’t resemble the heavily sauced meats I sampled in the city years ago at Gates and Fiorella’s Jack Stack. There is sauce, just not a lot of it. Then I did a barbeque doubleheader in St. Louis, sampling the famed pig snout at C&K, along with superb ribs at the newly opened at the time, now nationally known Pappy’s Smokehouse, just west of Downtown.
In theory, Pappy’s ribs are Memphis style, then slathered in one of three sauces depending on customer preferences of spice and sweetness. Then again, if this is Memphis style, it’s all about the dry rub. You wouldn’t even think about a sauce.
Our ribs toed the center line between sauce and dry rub, much like Pappy’s. The dry rub mainly consists of earthy spices such as paprika and cumin, then added a sugary dimension, and some vinegar to provide a moister sauce dimension. Together, the sauce-rub is tangy without being sweet. The vinegar adds just enough tartness to keep the spices popping on the palate, avoiding the acidic charge of North Carolina barbeque.
However, this isn’t really St. Louis style. St. Louis barbeque in theory has a tomato based sauce and focuses on the pork shoulder cut of meat. Kansas City focuses more on baby back ribs like our recipe, though in Kansas City there is no strict meat cut like brisket in Texas.
Wanting to be diplomatic, the recipe soon became the very vague combination of both regional styles, Missouri-style.
Serves Four- Five
1 Smithfield Baby Back Ribs
1 1/3 tbsp salt
2 1/3 tbsp granulated sugar
2 3/8 tsp ground cumin
1 1/3 tbsp freshly ground black pepper
2 3/8 tsp chili powder
1 2/3 tbsp paprika
3/4 cup white vinegar
First, preheat the oven to 180F for the initial cooking stage of the ribs. Combine 2/3 of the salt, 2/3 of the sugar, 2/3 of the pepper, and all the cumin, chili powder, and paprika together for the dry rub. Then, yes, rub the ribs. Bake the ribs for 3 hours. There is no need to turn them with this slow form of cooking. The rub infuses the ribs magnificently, creating a caramelized crust that later gets sticky from the vinegar.
After three hours, you can cover sand save the ribs for up to 2 days. You can let them hang out for an hour or two. Or, just go straight to the (preferably charcoal or wood fired) grill. Whatever your choice, beforehand create the sauce in a small saucepan of the vinegar and remaining dry ingredients. The sauce is ready when all the sugar is dissolved in the vinegar.
The key for the fire is for low heat throughout, avoiding hot spots that could dry out the meat. It should take about five minutes to grill per side, basting the ribs with the sauce a few times throughout the grilling process.
Dry rub? Sauce? Both? Who knows what style this is. The most important part of barbeque is the taste. These “Missouri-style” ribs certainly pass that test.