Cook-Off Countdown: Five Tips to Make Tender, Tasty Ribs

In anticipation of Saturday's Amateur Rib Cook-Off, we talked with the owner of Frankfort Meats & Deli about the secret to delicious barbecue ribs.

People love their ribs. Just ask Tom Fetherling.

"There's almost a barbecue mania going on right now," said Fetherling, owner of . "Just look at all the different shows on (TV) right now. ... It's pretty amazing stuff."

Fetherling has been in the butcher business for about 30 years, and he knows a thing or two when it comes to barbecuing ribs. Back in the mid-1980s, he provided the meat for and helped a friend who entered and won Mike Royko's Ribfest in Chicago one year. 

"I supplied about 100 pounds of ribs for him," he said. "I had to bring them in a pickup truck."

On Saturday afternoon, grillers will be set up on for the annual . Given Fetherling's experience, we decided to ask him for five tips on how a novice griller can cook up ribs that fall off the bone.

1. It's All in the Meat 

"The important thing is what kind of ribs you start with," Fetherling said. "That's like a biggie. There are 20 different names and concoctions the the stores have added to make any portion of meat into ribs."

There are two types of ribs that are best to cook with:

Spare ribs: These ribs are usually the least expensive, running less than $3 per pound. Spare ribs come with a flat, straight bone.

"They can be absolutely delicious," Fetherling said. "All ribs, the quality of them has to do with how large the bones are or basically usually the weight of the rib. So if you're looking for spare ribs, you want to buy something that's 3 pounds (or less). They call it 'three and down spare ribs'." 

Baby back ribs: These are the ribs most people are familiar with, and they have a curved bone. Baby back ribs cost about $5 per pound.

"There's a couple different versions of those, a thicker version and a thinner version," Fetherling said. "The only difference being the amount of meat on them. True rib connoisseurs don't like the thick ones.

"Y'know, beef is graded prime choice, that sort of thing?" he added. "Ribs aren't really graded that way. They're only graded by size. The smaller the back rib, ... the more expensive and more tender they are."

The best baby back ribs usually weigh about 2 pounds or less, he said.

But beware when buying baby back ribs. Stores are known to dress up other ribs and pass them off as slightly renamed versions, Fetherling said. 

"Some places take a spare rib and split them down the middle and change the name a little bit, calling them a boneless baby back rib," he said. 

2. A Good Rub Will Do You

When it comes to preparing ribs, Fetherling swears by rubs. He recommends Char Crust rubs, especially the All American Barbecue and Roto Roast varieties. But any rub you enjoy will work.

3. Oven First, Grill Second 

After applying the rub to the ribs, many cooks want to go straight to the grilling. But Fetherling suggests adding another step: cooking the ribs in the oven for about 2 1/2 hours at 250 degrees. 

"Put it in a cake pan or, if you're doing a lot of ribs, larger pans like a roaster pan ...," he said. "Don't put them on any racks or anything."

Fetherling then pours beer over the ribs--about a can for two to three slabs--adds a little bit of water and covers the pan tight with foil.  

"This can be done a day in advance," he said. "You're having a party Sunday, do this on Saturday. What you do once you're done is you uncover them, let them sit out and firm up, because they'll literally be so tender that they'll fall apart if you lift them. But they'll firm up in a half hour or so. At that point, you can put them on the grill, or you can put them in the fridge to store them and bring them out whenever you need them.

"Between the rub and that slow cooking, those ribs are fall-off-the-bone tender and have a ton of flavor just on their own without the barbecue sauce," Fetherling added.

4. Give Me Some Sugar, Baby

Everyone has their favorite tasting barbecue sauces. But Fetherling likes to pick sweet sauces for very practical reasons.

"Sweeter sauces work better for ribs," he said. "Brown sugar based ones instead of red sauce ones (are better) because the sugar caramelizes, and it sticks to the ribs. The sauce doesn't fall through."

5. Sizzle + Speed = Savory

Once you've pre-cooked the ribs, the key to finishing them on the grill comes down to two words: Hot and fast.

"What's great about doing it this way is that it's a huge advantage that when you put them on your grill all you want to do is get your grill really hot and cook it hot and fast," Fetherling said. "Within 15 minutes, you're done. ... It's so convenient for the people with the oven. You can do this in the amount of time it takes to grill a burger."

And what does Fetherling add once the ribs are finished?

"You don't need much besides this," he said. "A huge tub of potato salad and a bunch of napkins."

When: 1-3 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 6
Where: Breidert Green, Kansas and White streets
Cost: Attending the event is free, but tickets are Tickets are $1 each for rib tasting.
What to expect: All ribs are cooked onsite, and the Frankfort Jaycees and Lions Club will have concession stands. Live music will be performed during the cook-off, too. Judging starts at 1 p.m., and winners will be announced at 2:30 p.m. Prizes will be awarded for first through third place, as well as a "crowd pleaser" category. Get there early because the ribs go quickly.


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