Food & Drink

3 days to great ribs for the July 4 holiday weekend

Sweet and smoky baby back ribs are topped with a bourbon barbecue sauce.
Sweet and smoky baby back ribs are topped with a bourbon barbecue sauce. Detroit Free Press

From spare ribs to baby backs, pork ribs are sure to be on the minds and menus of many this Fourth of July holiday.

Ribs take to all sorts of flavor combinations from savory to spicy to sweet in the form of mops, rubs and sauces. You can marinate ribs with homemade or store-bought marinades. You can give them a good rub-down with a mild or spicy barbecue rub. You can baste them with a mop sauce to keep them moist during grilling and sauce them at the end. For smoky-flavored ribs, add a few wood chips to the fire to impart flavor.

Now that we have you craving ribs, pick your recipes and follow this guide for turning out perfect ribs every time. We’ve got you covered with recipes for ribs, rubs, sauces and a mop.

Now, go Fourth and grill.


Read the recipes carefully, make a grocery list and get everything you need: ribs, ingredients for rubs, sauces and mops.

If using a gas grill, make sure your propane tank is full. For a charcoal grill, make sure you have enough charcoal briquettes and, if using, wood chips. Also, it’s a good idea to have several disposable foil pans to place under the ribs. If you don’t have long-handled tongs, get some.

Buying: Figure at least 4 bones per person or up to a half slab for hearty eaters.


Baby back ribs (my preference) are cut from the loin end (they don’t come from a baby pig) and although not as meaty as St. Louis or spare ribs, the meat is super tender. Look for ribs that are lean, with good fat marbling and no bones popping through the meat on the meaty side.

St. Louis-style (second favorite) are spare ribs trimmed of the back flap (sometimes called “the skirt”), the top brisket-like portion with cartilage (rib tips) from the breast bone removed and usually tapered end portion so you have a nice even rectangular slab of ribs. Choose slabs uniform in size and no bones popping through the meat on the meaty side.

Spare ribs: From the lower portion of the side rib section that contains the brisket and breast section with brisket-like portion. It usually has one wider end that tapers to a smaller end. Grill these slabs whole or trim for St. Louis-style, grilling the brisket rib tip portion separately.


Prep the ribs, make the rubs, sauces and/or mops.

Rubs: Mix together all the spices and seasonings for the rubs and place in a jar or container or sealable bag.

Ribs: Take them out of the package — you can do this today if you like. Trim spare ribs if you’d like. To remove the thin membrane on the underside of the ribs, starting at one end, slip the tip of a paring knife under the membrane to loosen it. Grab the loosened end with a paper towel and pull off the membrane. It should come off in one piece. If it doesn’t, that’s OK; pull it off in pieces.

Soaking (optional): Cut the rib slabs in half and place them in a baking dish or plastic bag. I pour Vernors or bourbon over them and let them soak overnight in the refrigerator. Pour off the liquid and season before cooking.

Seasoning: Using a rub adds a layer of flavor. Rub the ribs on both sides, generously if you like, and let them sit for a while in the refrigerator. (If you like, brush the slabs all over to add a thin layer of yellow mustard, which helps the rub stick.) You can rub them, cover and refrigerate them overnight.

Marinate: You can marinate them overnight in the refrigerator in your favorite marinade.

Sauces and mops: Make your sauces and mops. The longer you let them simmer, the more the flavors intensify. Store these in separate jars, squeeze bottles or a spray bottle if using a more liquefied mop for keeping ribs moist during grilling.


Equipment needed: Have on hand a long-handled brush or basting mop, an oven thermometer if your grill doesn’t have a thermometer and a set of long-handled tongs.

Ribs: Take ribs out of the refrigerator one hour before grilling.

Timing and temperature: Low and slow at 250 to 300 degrees is best. Allow a minimum of three hours for full slabs of baby backs and up to five hours for St. Louis cut and spare ribs. The thicker and meatier the ribs and the larger the slab, the longer it takes. If you cut the slabs in half, it will shorten the grilling time.

Grill: Prepare the grill for indirect heat, banking hot coals to one side. The ribs will cook over the indirect (no heat beneath them) source. Put a foil pan on the side opposite the heat source and fill half way with water. For a gas grill, preheat all the burners to medium-high and then shut the center ones off, leaving two on. For a two-burner grill, preheat both and shut one off.

Grilling: If using a rib rack, place it on the grill racks. If using wood chips, add them to the charcoal briquettes. For gas grill, place the wood chips in a foil packet and poke several holes in it. Set it anywhere on the grill.

Place the ribs on the grill and, if using wood chips, watch smoke. When it starts to diminish, add more. Keep an eye on the heat making sure it doesn’t go too low for a charcoal grill — add more briquettes as needed.

Ribs are done when the meat shrinks from the bone and becomes tender. The ribs should have a nice browned crust with some crispy-crunchy spots — called bark.

Now you’re ready to go. The recipes we provide will take less time than stated above because we cut the slabs in half to cut down on the overall grilling time.

Chili-Spiced Barbecue Rub

2 tablespoons brown sugar

3/4 teaspoon coarse salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

2 to 3 tablespoons favorite chili powder

1 tablespoon garlic powder

2 teaspoons onion powder

1 teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon smoked paprika, optional

Mix together all the ingredients. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed. If it’s too sweet, add more chili powder or garlic powder. The rub should have a good balance of chili flavor along with the other spices and hints of sweetness.

Store this rub in an airtight container. It will keep for several months.

Makes about 1/2 cup.

Barbecue Mop

1 bottle or can (12 ounces) beer

1 cup Spicy Hot V8 Juice or favorite tomato-based vegetable juice

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

2 tablespoons prepared horseradish

1 teaspoon finely ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon sea salt

1 teaspoon granulated garlic

1 teaspoon Tabasco sauce

Pour the beer into a medium nonreactive bowl; whisk to remove the carbonation. Add all the remaining ingredients, and mix well.

Pour mixture into a plastic squeeze bottle or a jar until ready to use. The mop will keep in the refrigerator up to 1 day, tightly covered. Shake before using.

Makes 2 1/2 cups.

BBQ Queens’ Love Potion For The Swine

1 bottle (24 ounces) ketchup

1 bottle (12 ounces) chili sauce

1/2 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar

1/2 cup cider vinegar

1/2 cup honey

1/2 cup molasses

1/4 cup dry mustard

2 tablespoons red pepper flakes

1 tablespoon celery seeds

1 tablespoon garlic salt

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 tablespoon liquid smoke flavoring

1 teaspoon onion salt

1/4 cup water

In a large saucepan, combine all the ingredients and simmer over medium-low heat for 45 to 60 minutes.

After you pour the ketchup and chili sauce into the saucepan, turn the almost-empty bottles upside down and add the rest to the mixture.

Use the sauce immediately or store it, covered, in the refrigerator for several months.

Makes 6 cups.